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I've been performing technical interviews for about a year now, and I have learned a lot about what to look for in a candidate. The thing I'm struggling with most, however, is how to gauge a candidate's motivation level.

You can determine someone's technical proficiency by asking them technical questions and evaluating their answers. Is there an objective way to determine how motivated someone is/will be?

Here are some things I've tried. Some work with some candidates and not with others:

  • Do you work on (field-related) projects outside of work?

    This one sounds like it would work, but sometimes people are really into their current job and pour all of their effort into that job and not side projects. Should candidates be penalized for this? The other extreme is there too: candidates spend all their time on side projects and don't concentrate on their full-time job.

  • What technical blogs/books have you read recently?

    This one is actually one of the most helpful ones. If you care about what you're doing, you'll keep up with the technologies you are working with and know what's going on in your field.

These are really the only two that provide any insight. Even then, it's a limited view into the person's motivation. Even if they answer both of those questions positively, they may spend too much time on those things and not on their work.

So, any suggestions on how to gauge a candidate's motivation level? Or is it just something you have to gamble on? Is the only way to determine this to call references and ask?

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    The problem with question 1 (field related side projects) assumes that they live for computers. This assumes that they don't have a family, or friends, or outside hobbies unrelated to programming. In fact the presence of these no-IT activities means they have achieved work-life balance. It doesn't tell you anything about their passion for doing quality work on the job. I don't see how either question helps you determine motivation. They are just filler questions to move the interview along. – mhoran_psprep Apr 14 '12 at 17:37
  • @Chad: I understand--Please feel free to edit the question if you do think of a way that it could be phrased better. – Andrew Whitaker Apr 14 '12 at 17:43
  • @Chad - not to flame or troll in the least, but I honestly think this question is a lot better than a lot of others that have survived here. – Adam Rackis Apr 16 '12 at 20:37
  • @AdamRackis - That does not mean that this is a good question. However it has not turned into a list question and for the most part has generated some good answers so I withdraw my reservations. – IDrinkandIKnowThings Apr 17 '12 at 12:35
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What I have noticed is that motivated people accomplish things. They deliver products, they do the hard stuff and they are more than willing generally to tell you about their accomplishments. Note the difference between the following two answers to a question on what you do in your current position:

"I write code to maintain the XYZ system. I do code reviews. I answer technical questions."

"I just delivered a module that did XYZ last month and it was quite an involved project using a technology that was unfamilar to me. In fact it started from a suggestion I made when I noticed...I had to do a lot of research to pick out the tool to use and I had to solve this really interesting problem...."

Which person do you think is more motivated?

Now you generally have to be careful to filter out the BS artists who also can sound very enthusiatic. They however are generally not able to answer technical details when you pursue the questions further and the truly motivated who really did do what they claimed to do can.

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    All your example tells you is that a) Person 2 is better at interviewing OR b) Person 2 has better social skills. It doesn't say anything about motivation. – Dunk Apr 19 '12 at 21:13
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    This is old, but I'm totally with Dunk, I'm very motivated when I have an interesting problem in front of me, but your second answer sounds like so many words. As a super introvert person 2's answer sounds socially exhausting. Though I would answer with more then person 1. Just throwing that out there since a lot of the best developers I've run into have fallen closer to me on the social scale then to your person 2. – Ryan Mar 27 '15 at 16:17
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This isn't an exact science, so this isn't fool-proof, but I like to ask things like "what's your favourite thing about X and why?" where X can be the language they'll be working with or have a lot of experience with, or a project, framework, etc. Basically, something that the candidate has worked with a lot.

I usually follow that up with "what do you hate the most about X and why?". There's often room for some follow-up discussion, depending on how the candidate responds.

When I ask these, I'm not necessarily looking for a reasonable answer (although it helps if I can tell that the candidate isn't just making stuff up), but rather for how they answer. A person with higher motivation/passion tends to have a more interesting answer because they tend to think about stuff like this.

If nothing else, you might get a glimpse into whether or not they have thought about why they like/dislike something, or if they're more likely to latch on to a fad or trash talk a technology without being able to discuss its pros and cons.

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    Wow - I just wrote (and deleted) an inferior version of this very answer. +1. Glad I caught that oversight before others :) – Adam Rackis Apr 16 '12 at 20:39
  • Thanks for the answer. It was a tough choice between this one and @HLGEM's. – Andrew Whitaker Apr 18 '12 at 12:41
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I'm one of those old-fashioned interviewers who just directly asks what I want to know:

  • Tell me about a project that motivated you, and why.
  • Tell me about a project that demotivated you, and why.

Then listen to which one more closely describes a typical project at your company. A really good follow-up question about the demotivating project is what techniques they tried to mitigate the issues, or things they might have tried given more autonomy. Don't kid yourself that every project at your company is intrinsically motivational. You need employees with coping skills to get things done when the task is important but unfun.

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Motivation varies so much, based on so many variables, that it's impossible to measure - and even if you could, all you're measuring is their motivation right now with their current set of circumstances. Many of those motivation variables will change when they come work for you, anyway.

I think what you're trying to determine is whether or not they are an effective worker - therefore, your goal should be to determine whether they've been effective in the past. What they've worked on (either on their own or in their careers), how successful it is, and whether they are excited to talk about it will tell you more than anything about how they work.

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    I think you are on the right track with your answer but it needs to be more in depth to be of use to anyone in the future. The goal of the private beta is to seed the site with great and useful content to attract users in the future. As is the answer borders on a comment as an answer. But I think if you explore your suggestions and expand on them providing some guidance to help I think this could become a great answer. – IDrinkandIKnowThings Apr 14 '12 at 18:27
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    +1 "...all you're measuring is their motivation right now...". Great point! This is what makes interviews so tough. – jmort253 Apr 16 '12 at 0:25
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It is difficult, in my mind, to explicitly quantify "Motivation." It's probably the easiest of the desirable "soft skills" to BS in a technical interview.

Rather than motivation, I look for passion. A passionate person can be a motivated person, you just have to be able to get them passionate about the right things. HLGEM is on the right track with her answer.

One of my favorite interview questions is "Tell me about your most favorite project ever - Dev / Non-Dev, Professional/Personal." If the candidate answers passionately then you can infer that they can be motivated. Conversely, if they answer flatly, I expect to be disappointed.

This question also provides a nice vector into conversationally gauging additional problem-solving skills and potentially technical skills as you dive into a deeper discussion about their most favorite project.

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    I agree that passion is usually directly related to motivation, but you could be passionate about the project you worked on before and end up not enjoying a project you're assigned to. To me, motivation transcends how passionate you are about a particular project--you work hard even on something you find dull. – Andrew Whitaker Apr 17 '12 at 13:18
  • @AndrewWhitaker Reading this answer reminds me that, to some degree, it's management's role to motivate: Even a passionate, skilled worker isn't necessarily well-motivated. BTW, did you ever find the trick to this? – employee-X Apr 4 at 15:10
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In all honestly, motivation is very hard to measure and there is always a possibility that you will not ask the right question to be able to get a good answer. For example, using the ones that you provided:

Do you work on (field-related) projects outside of work?

There are any number of reasons why someone might not work on outside field-related projects outside of the office. These reasons may run anywhere from "I/We have a new born." to "I pursue my hobbies outside of work." Neither of those answers give you any real insight into the person as well and generally not everyone wants to spend their off time working on the same thing that they do at the office - or the fact they are doing work outside of the office could also be the sign that they are moon-lighting and may not be around that long if they are able to work for themselves.

What technical blogs/books have you read recently?

Again, this isn't really a good question because there are a lot of employees that will do this while at the office and on the companies clock when they have downtime or as part of "recharge" time at the office when they need to take a break away from what they are currently working on.

The question that I generally is going to give you the most insight into how well motivated a candidate is something along the lines of the following:

What are some major projects that you have successfully completed and what did you have to do to ensure that they were accomplished?

Personally I find this to be a good question because it is open-ended enough that someone may come along with something that isn't on their usual script (i.e. "I wrote and published a book.") and you get a feel for how they may work in the face of deadlines. Additionally, you also get an extent of insight into what they consider to be a major project: if you work on projects that take 12 months on average and they find 90 days to be a challenge then you have a direction to take follow up questions to see why that is.

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In the motivation area, I find there are a number of non-sequiturs. Employers often want highly motivated people, but put them in environments that demotivate them almost instantly. Sometimes employers are concerned about highly motivated people, sometimes they need a 9-to-5er.

If I am developing a 'make or break' product for a private sector enterprise, a high level of motivation is essential. If I am a state agency with a limited budget, a highly motivated person is basically motivated to leave as soon as they can get a better offer, or play hooky. In that situation I need a person motivated to show up and stay put, along with enough interest in the job to keep the system running.

I have friends with health problems. They work for the employers they do because of the coverage, even though the pay and work is miserable. Some people are in town because their spouse got the 'main' job, and they just want something to keep them busy and make some extra money. In such circumstances focus on skills or accomplishments may not expose the actual motivation, and one may not be able to ask point blank what the 'real' reason is, even though these people will do an excellent job at what they're tasked for. Questions about accomplishments, in such circumstances, may appear lukewarm.

I've always thought that potential co-workers are often those best able to sense whether someone is a good fit. This isn't a tour of cubicles, it's more like everyone sitting around a conference table and engaging in some technical or business banter. If the candidate asks and answers with ease, one might be led to conclude they're used to working in the setting you have available.

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    Hi Meredith, this doesn't really answer the question of how one might gauge motivation. If you think it does, please edit and make that more clear. Remember, the point of answers on the Workplace SE is to answer the question, not start discussions. Good luck! :) – jmort253 Jun 16 '13 at 18:01

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