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I'm going to interview someone on the phone, I have been involved in a few in-person interviews before but this is my first phone interview so I have some concerns about the process. It's a technical interview for a software developer position.

What if the interviewee had some notes with him during the phone call? I mean he could have prepared few cheat sheets with the most common question and have their answers ready in front of him.

Should I actually aim at discovering if he/she is reading the answers or actually thinking about them? Is it actually considered cheating if he does it?

If I started doubting the interviewee should I ask him directly if he is reading answers? or is it better just to complete the interview anyway and leave my doubts to myself?

Will it bite me in the future if someone who passed the phone interview failed the face to face interview?

UPDATE

Just to clarify some point based on the comments and answers. The phone interview is a standard policy in the company to screen the applicants. Some questions are standardized across all interviews. For example, we have to ask few questions about data structures, algorithms, Operating systems in addition to language dependent questions.

I know this might not be the best hiring process, but this is the process at hand.

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Web search your questions, look at top 2-3 answers returned, then make a note if they repeat them verbatim. Other then that, drill down interviewing should spot someone. –  Simon O'Doherty Jan 20 at 13:19
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Sounds like you are going to ask the wrong questions, the little facts that can be prepared. Read up on interviews, e.g. joelonsoftware.com/articles/fog0000000073.html, joelonsoftware.com/articles/GuerrillaInterviewing3.html, programmers.stackexchange.com/questions/135170/…, smashingmagazine.com/2012/11/12/on-good-bad-requirements-lists, –  Jan Doggen Jan 20 at 13:22
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Would the downvoters plz explain why, so that I can improve the question? –  Songo Jan 20 at 16:19
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And would they forbidden to use cheats-sheets if they working at your company, and would need to know everything by heart? –  woliveirajr Jan 20 at 19:25
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I don't understand how having prepared notes would be a bad thing. If the question is 'What sort algorithm would you use in this this situation' and they have a cheatsheet of the pros and cons of various sort algorithms... so long as they get the answer that shows that they are going to be able to be able to actually do the job. –  user10911 Jan 20 at 20:11
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12 Answers 12

up vote 75 down vote accepted

I don't consider interviews as tests that can be passed or failed, but at opportunities to gauge whether the interviewee would fit the position I'm seeking filled.

If they went through the trouble of researching what I might ask and prepared the answers on a sheet of paper, I might actually consider that a good thing, because it could show their determination to learn what it takes to get the job, and, by extension, maybe also do it well.

What bad might come from this: probably only wasted time on either side. You pass the interviewee on to somebody with domain knowledge to find out whether their skills are adequate for the open position and they might figure out the interviewee is not.

But unless you know the domain of the interviewee, you can't do much more than follow a script of questions about it. So failing to see that their answers might be scripted (unless you heard them before, verbatim), shouldn't reflect badly on you.

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I completely agree here. Some people are great on the job but fail in the pressure of the interview. The cheat sheets and preparation help them avoid the landmine of a bad interview, not because they do not know the answer, but because they fail in the stress of the interview. –  ReallyTiredOfThisGame Jan 21 at 16:16
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The purpose of a phone interview is to weed out people who are clearly unsuited to a position, usually because their resume is very exaggerated or they are very poor communicators. As such that means the cost of someone passing a phone interview and move on to the next round is fairly low - it's the cost of doing the interviews. So don't worry about the possibility of 'cheating'.

In practice it's usually fairly easy to spot someone who is looking up answers to technical questions. Usually there will be a lot of stalling, followed by them suddenly giving a very polished and professional sounding answer. However i wouldn't consider this 'cheating'. If you hear it happening, mark them down as not knowing the answer to that question rather than disqualify them from the interview.

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I don't agree with how you determine someone is looking up answers. A correct answer sometimes need time to think. And once i finish thinking Ill give the very polished answer. Making this assumtion is wrong. –  wtsang02 Jan 20 at 18:40
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I've had direct experience of the second paragraph. Long pause and then very polished answer. It rings extremely false and is actually pretty easy to spot. –  Dancrumb Jan 20 at 19:41
    
Wait, wouldn't be a cheater also "clearly unsuited?" –  Sklivvz Jan 21 at 1:41
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@wtsang02: There is usually a difference in style and tone between a polished verbal answer and a polished written one –  Neil Slater Jan 21 at 13:04
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It doesn't seem that big a problem to me. We live in an age of internet and should use it to be better developers.

So, if a developer can get the answers to software development questions in short order, doesn't that essentially mean they're a good developer researcher able to answer your trivia questions, whether or not they recalled the answer directly from their brain?

Edit to add: Non-trivia questions won't have quickly Googleable answers, and are probably your best bet to assess programming skill.

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No it doesn't mean they are a good developer. Finding the answer and understanding it are two differnt things. –  HLGEM Jan 20 at 13:25
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I would say that there are two parts here: finding the answer and then understanding it. First you ask for the answer (this tells you that they are a good researcher), then you ask them a question requiring understanding it (this tells you that they are a good developer). –  Gabe Jan 20 at 20:50
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I agree strongly with this point. Understanding the answers is crucial, knowing them by hard should be irrelevant. –  David Mulder Jan 20 at 21:13
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I agree with this. A few months ago I had a really tough technical phone interview where I was actually googling some stuff as we talked. I went in for an in-person interview a week or two later, where a variation of the same questions were asked. I got the job, and later asked them why on earth they liked me so much when I felt like I had failed the phone interview so badly. It turns out they were evaluating how candidates were learning and retaining the knowledge from the difficult phone interview, and if they could communicate it effectively. They didn't just want some "right" answer. –  Rachel Jan 20 at 22:56
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Agree: in the real world, anyone who can have all the answers in seconds with a computer in front of them is just as useful as someone who has all the answers in their head. –  Nate C-K Jan 21 at 17:21
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Ask questions that demand a clear understanding of the technology behind it:

  1. Generally, what problem in OO development do design patterns solve? What's your favorite design pattern, and why?
  2. What are the benefits and drawbacks of database normalization?
  3. How does a binary tree work?
  4. What's a lambda expression?
  5. I want to process [fill in here]. What would suit me better - a stack, or a queue?

You want someone who can connect ideas and concepts with real-work requirements, not just a robot who can tell you how many days old the latest version of Eclipse is.

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Far and away the best answer here IMO. No developer has to know stupid factoids - they can be quickly determined online, with help files, even with the compiler and intellisense etc. What you need to know about is that person's grasp and depth of understanding of technology. Impossible to cheat on that. –  Vector Jan 21 at 0:34
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Hey codenoire, and welcome to The Workplace. This doesn't seem to actually address cheating in a phone interview (which is what the question is about). As-is this seems like more of a comment than an answer. If you could address the asker's concerns with an edit it would be appreciated. Thanks in advance! –  jmac Jan 21 at 1:15
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Actually, this isn't a bad answer (and I'm up-voting it). If the applicant can explain in their own words what/why, then you can tell if they grasp the abstract concepts behind these types and objects. I may just "steal" the technique, too! –  Wesley Long Jan 21 at 4:12
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I want to rejig my burger matrix - should I use a cheese stack or a bacon plugin? –  itcouldevenbeaboat Jan 21 at 13:17
    
Hey codenoire, from the context of your post it sounds like you don't think the op should worry about cheating on Q&A, but could you address this anyway in a small edit? This will help reduce ambiguity. Good luck. –  jmort253 Jan 23 at 1:46
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First, if your interviews amount to a game of Trivial Pursuit, then you're wasting your time and are definitely not hiring the best candidates. It doesn't really matter whether this is an in-person interview or a phone interview. Good developers will turn you down because they see that you don't really understand the skills that make a developer a good one. You'll be left with the ones who think memorizing trivia equates to knowledge. Look up Bloom's taxonomy if you have reached this point in the answer and still doubt what I'm saying.

Interviews should be about evaluating communication. How quickly and thoroughly can the candidate absorb a concept? How quickly can they come up with a usable approach to a theoretical problem? How well can they communicate the work they've done in the past to you so that you understand their approach and contributions?

Evaluating the level of knowledge about the minutia of syntax of any particular development language is pointless. They (languages) all pretty much get overhauled every 3-5 years, anyway. Plus the code generation tools out there keep improving. Humans are there to take abstract ideas and develop tangible solutions. THAT is the skill set you should be trying to find.

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Absolutely. I interviewed at a FX trading company where the recruiter emailed me the screening questions in advance ("not 100% reliable, but past candidates say they usually use these ones"). Hey presto, those exact questions turned up. And there were some embarrassed silences as they were expecting fresh-faced graduates armed with pre-canned definitions, eg. difference between const and readonly in C#. It was me who terminated the interview during the screen, as it was obvious my experience wasn't what they were looking for. –  Julia Hayward Jan 21 at 9:18
    
I agree generally with this statement. However, I used to give phone screenings for a tech company. We asked trivia questions on the phone screening, and they were pretty effective. The reason is because most of the applicants were very bad and the phone screen weeded out people who clearly had NO idea about the core technical areas we required knowledge of. For example, if you say you know a lot about Java, you should know the difference between == and String.equals(); if you say you know a lot about databases, you should know a little about indexes; that kind of thing. –  Nate C-K Jan 21 at 17:55
    
In the end it probably depends a lot on what kind of candidates you typically get. If you attract a lot of great candidates then you can afford to really probe into how good they are. If the position you're hiring for isn't very attractive (e.g. your company pays below the market rate) then you might be stuck just weeding out the obvious incompetents. –  Nate C-K Jan 21 at 17:57
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I do about 50 - 100 interviews per year for my company (consulting), and in that time I've changed my process to almost never use questions that take a single correct answer. Instead, I ask the candidate to walk through different scenarios with me. For example, if the position is an ASP.Net position, I'll start with: "You're brought into refactor an application that's been running ASP.Net for 7 years, and performance has been degrading for over a year now, especially on some routinely used admin screens. How do you determine where the performance bottlenecks are?" There's no right answer to this question, you can go about it a bunch of different ways, but their answers then lead to my next question. It's all about role-playing, and you get a really good sense of their ability level and where they're weak, etc.

On average I recommend 10 - 20 people total per year out of the total that I interview, but I have a much higher level of confidence that the people I've recommended are quality.

We do also do a second-level of interviews, typically a team interview with someone from the client as well as someone from our project team, and we try to do that in person. At that time, we sometimes ask more "quiz-like" questions.

Best of luck!

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There are many great answers already, but I thought I will share a very common practice I have observed - specifically if you are hiring a contractor - be careful of a "substitute" scenario in phone interviews. Not everyone is using this trick, but if you are interviewing a substitute, then all of the suggestions from everyone else may not be of much help because the substitute might be an experienced techie who will be very comfortable with MOST of your questions.

EDIT: (per comment/suggestion from CMW) I suggest that you...

  • conduct interview over skype or facetime if possible. Irrespective of concerns of a "substitute", we should be conducting "phone interviews" this way. Phone interviews are to save on travel time and costs etc., not to keep face hidden from each other. Technology is available to us, lets make use of it.
  • Check with your HR, but very likely you won't be allowed to ask candidate's age due to some regulations. If you figure that candidate is under 25, has masters degree and 7 years of experience on resume, a flag should be raised for further discovery. Not being able to ask age question has hurt me a few times but I now use following points to get to what I need to discover.
  • During interview process, if necessary (use your judgement), inquire about the visa status / work authorization status of the candidate. Your goal is take some notes and connect dots to make sure whether this is a "substitute" OR if candidate resume is a falsified one. As a rule of thumb, for anyone with OPT or H1 status and less than 10 years of experience on resume, I engage in discussions about their education, university and when he/she obtained bachelors/masters degree etc. If nothing else, this will help you better understand your candidate.

First, note that this is not my opinion or a speculation, but reality as I have personally experienced and observed happening too frequently - sharing this info here for greater good. Significant number of resumes are "created to cater to your liking" - i.e. includes all of the made-up experience (borrowed from genuine resumes) to match experience levels you have asked for. Many times these candidates have ZERO years (yes, zero) experience with technologies you have asked for but resume will state experience in the range of 5 to 9 years! With H1 quotas for entire year getting filled in a week, one of the common practice I have observed that someone with 7 years of experience has NO REAL EXPERIENCE, is in early 20s, who came to US for a Masters degree (remember, no H1 quota?) and just finished the degree and is currently on a 29 month OPT work permit (H1 likely in process). The agencies paddling such resumes are typically Tier-II or Tier-III who work with Tier-I vendors (vendors approved by your company). Tier-I vendors are mostly clueless about what is happening and their technical recruiters are mostly non-technical.

Now you can easily spot someone who has no experience, can't you? That's when phone interviews come-in. Of course, phone interviews are an efficient way of filtering candidate pool, but in many instances a "substitute" with real experience takes that phone interview. If candidate gets selected, they get a payout of $500 or more for 30 to 60 minutes of their time.

These companies are betting on two things... once candidate is selected on a project, your organization won't even have a computer and user account / security etc. for him/her for couple of weeks. Also, candidate has done his/her best to make a "good impression" on a personal level during this time. By the time you as a hiring manager/architect figure out that you have been duped, 2/3/4 weeks of billable time has passed. Now, if you "fire" the resource from your team, "your bosses" are going to look down on you for your inability to select the right candidate in first place. If you have a large enough team, there is more than 50% chance that you will continue with this resource with assumption that not everyone is going to be a "superstar"!

Yes, this is anecdotal and I understand that not everyone will agree that this is happening, but I have seen it happening far too frequently. In our case (a Fortune 500 company), at least in one instance we discovered that the substitute was already a contractor in some other department of our company with in-depth knowledge of many of our processes and systems, and that he had give such interviews for multiple candidates who later became contractors within our company.

If this information helps someone, great! If not, please ignore it. If you work for a large company with many H1 contract developers, just look around within your existing contractors with an open mind and you might find 20% - 40% of them to match above characterization.

LAST EDIT:

To add a little bit more credibility to my claim that this is happening far too frequently, I am adding a link here for curious minds - don't miss to read the comments section - http://h1bwiki.com/opt-student-deported-chicago-port-of-entry/ . If you are adventures enough, try using some "keywords" out of that discussion and google to find plenty more documented cases.

At end of the day, I remind myself that there will always be people who will do such things. My goal is to make sure I am not that sucker who falls for it, and to educate others when I have an opportunity to do so.

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Hi and welcome to The Workplace. I really appreciate this lengthy and elaborate answer, as it describes a valid problem out there that people need to be more aware of. The post however does not answer the question at hand, rather gives anecdotal evidence of related phenomena. Could you please edit it in a way that at least links your text so far to the questions placed at the top? –  CMW Jan 22 at 9:16
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@CMW thank you for the welcome and suggestion. I have updated the answer per your suggestion - I hope it makes my response more meaningful. Yes, I agree that this is anecdotal but when we discovered what we discovered, we were shocked, so posted my comments here. I am new to the community - I stumbled upon this question while googling on something similar and discovered the workplace.stackexchange.com site by accident. –  user13999 Jan 22 at 14:19
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This is a definitely a helpful edit, thanks a lot @user13999. +1 –  CMW Jan 22 at 14:21
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The trick to avoiding cheating is to eliminate it as a possibility. For most real world situations, you will be using search engines, co-workers, published best practices etc. It isn't really cheating to know how to find information. Obviously you want to know that someone knows their stuff rather than parroting back answers. So, ask questions that require something more than a simple answer. I like to call it "story based interviews".

Some of the questions are stories like: last week we had this error, how would you handle it? By making it a real situation it will make the answer more meaningful.

Some of the questions have the person tell a story: tell me of a time when you had a memory leak, what caused it and how you resolved it.

Those sorts of questions get past the cheat sheets and get into real experience. It does not take more than a few of these types of questions in an interview to know what you need to know about a person.

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I'll ask the obvious question: does your company's Human Resources department have any guidelines for you that specifically address issues like the ones you raise, particularly if you suspect the interviewee is researching Q&A rather than speaking extemporaneously? You mention you have a list of specific questions you have to ask, and that the phone interview is standard policy at the company. I'd be surprised if someone else hadn't already experienced the same concerns you've mentioned here. If you haven't already, reaching out to HR to get their input so you can balance what your employer's policy is (and expectations are) against the advice from people on this forum is good CYA.

The truth is, it's awfully hard to tell whether someone is reading from a crib sheet or googling for answers while you're conducting the interview, especially if the person isn't fluent in English or hasn't been advised of the types of questions s/he would need to be prepared for, and would have to think for a bit about how to best answer them. An interviewee who doesn't know a lot about the subject matter at hand is going to give you a bare minimum answer to your question. One who does know a lot will go beyond that and riff off the question. The smart interviewees will try to tie back their answers to academic projects or their work history so that it's clear they not only have technical knowledge, they have technical experience.

So, yes, does the interviewee get the question right? is your primary concern, but balance that against their overall communication skills and general breadth of knowledge on the topics discussed. You can't fake that.

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Ive taken considerable amount of interviews, both Telephonic and Face to Face. The key things that i noted which actually suggests the candidate has no idea of the topic and whether the candidate is cheating is as follows :

When asked a question, the candidate takes 3-5 seconds without saying anything and all of a sudden gives you right answer.

Catch it :

a. Candidate will use words that are not commonly used and when asked what that means, they have no idea.

b. The more details you ask regarding the candidates response, he/she tends to give away that he/she have no idea.

c. Considering the fact that, you actually know for sure the interview topic, then by avoiding asking obvious questions can be good.

d. You can literally hear the typing of keyboard(if he is trying to cheat with google). p.s : This really happened!

Cheers

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3-5 seconds? You are joking right? Thats far too short a time. For a start, you can't search for the question and read an answer in that time, also if it's a complicated question then sometimes they need a lot longer than 3-5 seconds for thinking. –  Velox Jan 21 at 13:35
    
@Velox : Im not joking..:).. In a normal question/answer round if you dont start within 5 seconds, it can be assumed that you're treading into unfamiliar area.. And after this stutter, when the candidate give right answer with terms and sentence construction that suggests its from a edited material, you ought to believe something is not right.. And ive personally heard the person actually typing in keyboard and all the while, the response would be "Eh...arr... hmmm.." and then suddenly gives stunning quote..Its just common sense basically..:) –  Roy M J Jan 21 at 14:49
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It depends on what sort of question you ask, if you are asking someone to spit a fact back at you then 3-5 seconds is reasonable, if you are asking a more difficult conceptual or analytical question it make take much longer. The successful candidate in these cases will sound out their thinking and piece together an answer. I have successfully interviewed by letting the questioner know I need a little bit of time and then working something out step by step, they said it was more impressive than having memorized everything (although there were questions I knew off the top of my head too). –  kleineg Jan 21 at 18:18
    
Also on the phone you do have the possibility that they are having a hard time hearing you, and might need to take a couple seconds to determine what you are asking. –  kleineg Jan 21 at 18:20
    
@kleineg : Yes that is high possibility, but then there would be communication right?? –  Roy M J Jan 22 at 4:00
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It is very difficult to tell if someone is lying over the phone, in fact even professionals have trouble doing so. There are some techniques you can use, as outlined here.

For example, if a person is lying, they take a bit longer to answer than if they are telling the truth. That being said, a person may take a bit longer to answer over the phone because their cat is doing something cute right in front of them. You can't know for sure, it's a phone.

Over the phone, you should ask questions that cannot be 'cheated,' due to their content. For example,

"Name one situation where you faced a technical challenge and overcame it."

"What is your greatest strength and why?"

Then save the creatable questions for the live interview. Seriously, it's just common sense.

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Your role is a simple one; to find out if this person can display the technical competence to get the job done to the required level. You need to know what level you are looking for, with junior being someone you can tell what to do and trust they will do it, while senior is someone whom you describe your problem to and let them solve it. To do that you need to prepare some questions you already know the answers to. General questions such as "What are the risks associated with the singleton design pattern?" and specific ones such as "What is the java syntax for opening a text file in append mode?" that are appropriate for the problem domain and expertise level you are looking for.

What you are looking for is not the answers themselves, but how they are answered. Can they understand your questions? Are their answers relevant to your questions. Do they sound comfortable and confident in their answers? Do they ask you for more information? If you change the rules, can they adapt? Remember to ask them how they have used some technique they are talking about to solve a problem. It will tell you if they came up with the idea or did someone tell them what to do ?

If someone has shown the initiative to identify the likely questions and research the answers ahead of time, then you should be offering extra to get them.

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How can you tell they haven't just simply read off of the paper to explain the answers? –  jmort253 Jan 23 at 1:48
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