Interview or Interrogation?

Interviewing for a new job is so nerve-wracking. The adrenaline kicks in, and you are trying so hard to keep it under control. Trying to deliver the polished answers you prepared and rehearsed over and over. Hoping that you don’t slip up, or get tongue-tied. There’s the weight of an entire future sitting on your shoulders while you try to parse the questions.

Then there are the interviews where you get the feeling that the interviewer is trying to trip you up. I’ve had them in the past, but couldn’t be sure if I was imagining things. Did other people find interviews combative?

As we thought about how we would approaching hiring a new support programmer, we hit the books to find out.

Don’t expect to eat at lunch.

Though a company like Lending Club claims that lunch is a time for candidates to take a breather and relax, don’t. Your interviewers care about whether you are socially skilled and easy to be around…

…Lierman recommends that you pack a small water bottle and snack in your bag which you can nibble when you excuse yourself to go to the restroom.

How to Survive a Marathon Job Interview

There’s something fundamentally broken about a hiring process that inspires bathroom snacks as career advice. Articles like Nikki Brown’s dissection of “best-in-show” hiring processes weighed heavily. As a remote company, we can avoid the barbarism of the coffee shop interview, but how could we do better? What could we do to set up a candidate for success?

Flipping the script

So, we tried a little experiment. We set up interviews with our shortlisted candidates as usual. A few hours before the scheduled start time, I sent out the following email:

I’m looking forward to chatting with you later. Before we start, I thought I’d say hello and let you know that you’ll be chatting with Justin White and myself. I’ll invite you to the call at noon Chicago time. If you’d prefer to do audio only, that’s totally fine, same if you’d like to use video. Whatever makes it more comfortable for you.

We’ve got about an hour to get to know each other, and I was thinking it might be nice to start with any questions you have, then move on to ours. This is a collaborative chat — we want you to succeed, and it’s the start of working together. That might last for an hour or 5 years, or the rest of your career, but it starts here. Should be fun!

The big change was to flip the natural order of the interview, to start off with the candidate’s questions for us. They could get to know us, settle into the conversation and get comfortable before we asked ours. We wanted to set the stage, so that they could show us their best self. The best way to do that was to turn over the keys, and let them take the wheel.

The rest of the email reinforced that aim. From letting them know who they’d be chatting with, to giving them the time in their local timezone. Giving them control over how we would do the chat, to stressing that this is where their time at Basecamp starts. Acknowledging that this should be enjoyable, and setting them up to win.

We had some great conversations with all our shortlisted candidates. Relaxed, confident and in control, they gave a great account of themselves. Because we recognise that interviews are stressful, we took a more compassionate approach. That led us to a place where every one of our finalists gave their best shot, and some tremendous interviews. They were the most fun I’ve ever had on either side of the interviewing table. We made a great hire, and Rosa started her Basecamp career with our support, right from the very first minute of her interview. Now we get to keep that promise, every day.

Could you try flipping the script in your next set of interviews? What ideas do you have to build an even more collaborative approach? A little unscientific survey shows that we’ve got a way to go:

https://twitter.com/mackesque/status/873150905138413568

Can you help change those results? I’d love to hear your ideas.

5 questions that reveal if a company has a healthy workplace culture

Everyone says, “It’s great working here.” But is it really?

“How do you know if a company’s culture is good?”

Last week, a friend who’s looking for a new job asked me this. She’d been doing a few interviews, and was trying to figure out what questions to ask during her interviews to discern if a potential employer’s workplace culture was healthy.

In each interview, she’d ask a version of: “What’s it like to work here?”

Without fail, the person on the other side of the table would tell her: “It’s great!”

But is it really?

How do you know if a company’s culture is what they say it is?

Instead of asking “What’s it like to work here?” these five questions are what I recommended she ask at the end of her next interview…

#1: When is the last time you had a 4-hour block of uninterrupted time?

Our most productive, creative work happens when we have a large block of uninterrupted time. Yet how many workplaces make that a reality regularly for their employees? Ask a question about the last time your interviewer had an uninterrupted period of time to get work done and listen closely to the answer. Your interviewer may scoff and tell you: “We like to stay busy, busy, busy — meetings all the time, messages constantly on Slack…” Or she may sit there, a little stumped by the question, before slowly answering: “Hmmm… I’m not sure.” Both bring to light a clear truth: The company does not have a culture that values a calm environment where employees’ time is protected for them to do real work.

#2: When is the last time you argued about something with someone?

Healthy company cultures have a penchant for heated debate. People who are a part of them are not afraid to voice dissenting opinions and they treat opposing views with consideration and care. You want to dig to see if this is the case at the company you’re interviewing with. Do they suffer from a “culture of nice,” where everyone is conflict-averse and afraid to step on anyone’s toes? Or are people abrasive, tone-deaf and handle conflict without any tact? Arguments are unavoidable. They will happen in whatever company you work in next. What’s important is figuring out if those arguments will be handled well. You want a culture where people are upfront and honest when they disagree, and come to a resolution civilly.

#3: When’s the last time you had a conversation with the CEO one-on-one?

(Or, if you’re interviewing with the CEO, you can ask her: “When’s the last time you had a conversation one-on-one with [a person in your role]?”)

As an employee, you want to gauge the accessibility of the leadership team — and of the CEO in particular. Sure, when you’re in interviews, many companies will point out how their CEO’s desk is out in the open with everyone else’s, or that her office door is never closed shut. Does that mean she frequently gets up from her desk or out of her office, and seeks out perspectives from the front lines? If you have a concern, will it be difficult or seen as uncouth to try get a hold of her? Asking a question about the last time the interviewer spoke one-on-one with the CEO will give you an idea of how seriously the company takes openness, access to leadership, and a desire to hear from everyone in the company.

#4: When have you felt most proud to be at the company?

This question can uncover what people at the company truly value. For example, someone might say in an interview, “Everyone here is a team-player and we all care about accomplishing our company’s mission.” But if you ask them, “When have you felt most proud to be at the company?” they might tell you their proudest moment was hitting a personal sales goal and winning an individual award in the company. While that’s no doubt an accomplishment anyone should be proud of, it does reveal a fondness for individual recognition. Compare that to, say, the interviewer telling you their proudest moment was when the company won an industry-wide award or when a customer raved about the company, etc. Either way, you’ll learn if what makes people proud to work there is about themselves or about the company. And it will give you a sense of if the same thing would make you proud to work there too.

#5: When’s the last time someone went above and beyond the call of duty at the company?

When people across departments and disciplines are willing to do favors with one another, pitch in to resolve an issue, and not worry about who’s getting credit for what — that’s the kind of company culture you want to be a part of. If you’re in a bind at work, you don’t want selfish office politics to get in the way. To clue into whether this is true for your prospective employer, ask about a time someone went “above and beyond the call of duty.” In your interviewer’s answer, you may hear her struggle to think of even one instance of this (uh oh) or you may hear her rattle off a whole list. From this, you’ll gain an understanding of how people at the company actively help and support one another… if at all.


If you’re on the job hunt, try a few of these questions at the end of your next interview. You’re bound to learn so much more than asking, “What’s it like to work here?”.

But if you’re not — if you’re an employer who’s actively recruiting new hires — ask yourself these questions.

Do you like your own answers to them?

Your company culture may not be as healthy as you’d like to say it is.


Enjoy this piece? Read more of Claire‘s writing on leadership on the Know Your Team blog. And, check out Know Your Team – software that helps you become a better manager.

Hiring a programmer? Ditch the coding interview and get back to basics

10 articles from the Basecamp archives focused on common sense hiring practices


This week was going great…until I saw yet another article coaching programmers on how to prepare for a coding interview. Imagine, the secrets to “winning” a coding interview and getting your dream job, all unlocked in one article! 🤔

I suppose I shouldn’t really blame people for writing articles and books claiming to teach you how to beat coding interviews. They’re just trying to help other people and maybe make a quick buck. They aren’t really the source of the problem.

The real problem is that this entire cottage industry is built on the false pretense that coding interviews have any value whatsoever.

So before we go any further, let’s establish one very simple truth: coding interviews are worthless.

The Practical Developer nails it. (Original Tweet)

I won’t bother going into detail as to why coding interviews are so worthless. Many have already hit the nail on the head — the reasons are varied, numerous, and already well-documented.

It is interesting, though, that nobody really seems to know when, where, or who started them. My guess is because no single person or organization wants to be blamed for so much industry wide suffering. (If you do happen to know the origin story, I’d love to read it).

Regardless of how it all got started, a growing number of tech companies seem to use coding interviews regularly (as evidenced by all those amazing how-to articles and book). And therein lies the danger.

If more and more companies start to believe in coding interviews, the trend will gain frightening momentum. Pretty soon nobody will ask why they’re even doing them. People will start to assume that if a lot of companies are interviewing like this, then they must be valuable, right?

No! We need to kill this virus before it spreads too far. There are much better ways to find a good programmer.


Over the years Basecamp has published a handful of articles about hiring. It’s something we rarely do (the company is 17 years old and has just 49 employees), so we’re very considerate with each hire.

Instead of following a silly interviewing trend that’s flawed to its core, we just follow some common sense practices.

Below are 10 articles we’ve written from the past decade or so with tried and true ideas to help you find a great programmer.

Every one of them holds up today, and we still rely on these ideas ourselves. And no, not a single one involves you watching someone sweat through a pointless whiteboard exercise. 😓

As a business focused on the long-term, these ideas have paid off in spades for us. I hope you’ll consider these ideas, and join me in giving a big 🖕 to the coding interview trend!

Stop whining and start hiring remote workers

There’s so much untapped tech talent that does not live near your office, but would work for you if you allowed them to.

The person they’ll become

I love betting on people with potential. When they finally get that chance to do their best work, they blossom in such a special way.

Why we don’t hire programmers based on puzzles, API quizzes, math riddles, or other parlor tricks

The only reliable gauge I’ve found for future programmer success is looking at real code they’ve written, talking through bigger picture issues, and, if all that is swell, trying them out for size.

Kick the tires

Before we hire anyone we give them a small project to chew on first. We see how they handle the project, how they communicate, how they work, etc. Working with someone as they design or code a few screens will give you a ton of insight.

Effort in the application: sites that got our attention and got Basecampers their jobs

Hiring is hard. Likewise, landing a great job is hard. In a sea of resumes, effort rises to the top.

“We hire only the best”

The best are generally the best because they aren’t typical. Because they came at things from a different angle that gave them a unique perspective, which happens to provide more insights than the widely-distributed approaches

Wordsmiths

If you are trying to decide between a few people to fill a position, always hire the better writer. It doesn’t matter if that person is a designer, programmer, marketer, salesperson, or whatever, the writing skills will pay off.

Hire managers of one

A manager of one is someone who comes up with their own goals and executes them. They don’t need heavy direction. They don’t need daily check-ins. They do what a manager would do — set the tone, assign items, determine what needs to get done, etc. — but they do it by themselves and for themselves.

How to hire a programmer when you’re not a programmer

Find out how they manage their work. Software often slips — find out how they avoid this. Find out when they shipped something on time and ask why that project was successful.

Actions, not words

Programing is all about decisions. Lots and lots of them. Decisions are guided by your cultural vantage point, values, and ideals. Look at the specific decisions made by a candidate in coding, testing, and community arguments to see whether you’ve got a cultural match.


Hiring is so important to us because we care a lot about our customers, our product, and our company.

If this was helpful to you, please hit the heart button below or let me know on Twitter!

Inquiring Minds

In 2011, my husband and I went to hear Umberto Eco speak at the Chicago Humanities Festival. When they opened up the talk to audience questions, I started cringing in my seat as a kind of preemptive reflex. Sure enough, someone from the audience eagerly grabbed the microphone and asked Eco if he believed in God.

I intensely dislike audience Q&As at these kinds of events. I understand why they exist, and I always take questions from the crowd when moderating panels, but I’ve come to dread the whole enterprise. There’s always the “This is more of a statement…” person; the question asker who seems to have wandered in from an entirely different event; the pedantic blowhard. At the same Chicago Humanities Festival where Eco spoke, I attended a talk about composing television for music and film where during the Q&A, a woman loudly described the rape scene in A Clockwork Orange and then sat down without asking a question. I also once went to a book reading by Joshua Ferris, who mentioned he had gotten an idea for his novel while shopping at Home Depot, and a guy in the front row called out, “What’s Home Depot?” (Ferris, without missing a beat, explained that it’s a store like Menards, where you can buy lumber and tools.)

Asking good questions is hard. I make a living from asking people questions, and I’ve had my share of blunders. As a young financial markets reporter, I once lobbed what I thought was a friendly open-ended question at a source, only to have him snap, “Do you know anything about capital markets, madam?” There was also the time Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel called on me at a press conference and I blankly said, “What?” like an idiot because I was spacing out in the front row.

But it hasn’t been all mishaps! I’ve learned a lot about interviewing and asking questions, and my last two years talking to owners of long-running businesses for The Distance have been particularly instructive in how to do interviews for feature stories. (Breaking news and more adversarial interviews for investigative pieces have their own techniques, as do live or broadcast interviews where the journalist’s end of the conversation is equally visible.)

Come prepared but with an open mind.

Sometimes I write down a list of questions and sometimes I don’t. Even if I do have a list of questions, I review it before leaving for the interview but don’t print it out. I don’t like to be so wedded to my list of questions that I forget to listen. Sometimes the best material comes from a tangent or an offhand reference that the person makes, and it’s important to let the conversation wander down those paths.

I do a lot of research before interviews and usually have some idea of what the story’s underlying thread will be so I can focus my questions, but I’m also willing to ditch that angle if my initial instincts don’t pan out. For my most recent story about Office Furniture Resources, a company that buys and resells used office furniture, I had gone in thinking that the business gets its inventory from corporations that go under. I thought the story might have a twinge of melancholy to it, examining how OFR makes its money from reselling the vestiges of defunct businesses. Instead, I learned that OFR gets used furniture from Fortune 100 corporations that are moving or upgrading their offices. That piece of information took the interview in a different direction, and the final story ended up focusing more on OFR’s years of relationship-building and the behind-the-scenes logistics of the used office furniture business.

Ask the right kinds of questions.

All the stories we do at The Distance attempt to answer the question: “What’s the key to staying in business for so long?” But I don’t pose this question directly to business owners. It’s just too on-the-nose. Most of the people I talk to don’t really think in those terms, and if they do have a response, it’s usually kind of canned. After all, if someone asked you, “What’s the biggest life lesson you’ve learned?” you probably wouldn’t have a pithy answer. What’s worked well for me is to ask a whole bunch of questions about how the business operates and how it’s evolved over time. I might also ask the person to describe how he or she got through a difficult period, or how they made certain important decisions. When I transcribe the tape and review my notes, I’m able to pick out some common themes in the discussion and get closer to answering the overarching question.

Open-ended questions are also really important, especially in the kinds of stories we do at The Distance, where the voice of the business owner is critical. Yes/no questions yield bad quotes, so you don’t want to get in a position where you’re just reciting a bunch of facts at the subject and getting them to confirm those facts. You’ll end up with an hour of you showing off all the research you’ve done, and not very much from the person you’re interviewing.

For feature reporting in particular, you often want subjects to set a specific scene for you—what something looked like, where they were, what they were thinking or feeling or wearing. When someone starts describing a scene you think might make a good anecdote for the story, slow down and walk the person through the scene in detail: “So you were sitting here? Where was the other person? Then what did you do?”

Location, location, location

I do all my primary interviews in person at the business itself. Seeing interview subjects in their natural habitat, so to speak, adds a lot to stories. When possible, ask for a tour or to tag along with someone at an event where you can see the person in action. If I have a choice between the person’s office and a conference room, I always choose the former because people’s office decor—what’s hanging on their wall and sitting on their desks—usually generates interesting material. That’s how I learned the president of Carma Labs (the maker of Carmex lip balm) collects motorcycles and self-playing musical instruments, and how the owner of Merz Apothecary ended up reading a framed letter on his wall that had him, his son and me in tears.

Take your time and over-report.

When you sit down to write, you want to be in a position where you are making tough, practically heartbreaking, decisions about what makes the final story. Also, you don’t know what’s the most important or interesting unless you’ve gathered a lot of material. A typical Distance episode is around 15 minutes, with that split between my narration and the tape I’ve gathered. That usually works out to seven or eight minutes of tape from interviews that take anywhere from one to three hours. It’s never easy to leave out so much material, especially since people take that kind of time to talk to me. But all that information lives in the background of the piece, informing the overall narrative and helping me tell the story with greater confidence and authority.

Perhaps the most important tip I can give is to act with empathy and be grateful for your interview subjects’ time, candor and trust. I am constantly amazed that anyone agrees to talk to journalists. A few months ago, I was on the phone with a potential subject who wanted to know what measurable benefits previous Distance business owners have gotten from being featured on the show. I was honest and said “none.” As far as I know, there have been no uptick in sales or life-changing business deals for any of the businesses profiled on the show. The benefits are more intangible—public relations, the opportunity to share your story with an outlet that will treat it with care. If I’m being truly honest, the show and I are the ones who benefit the most. We’re getting great stories that will hopefully keep building our audience and contribute to a conversation about business models based on long-term vision and staying independent.

By the way, if you’re wondering how Umberto Eco responded to the question about whether he believed in God, he said: “I don’t speak of private questions in public. Anyway, the only thing I am pretty sure—God believes in me!”