complexityInterviewing is art, and perhaps the most important thing you could do for your company.

My post with tips on hiring web analysts (Hiring? What Works: Fresh blood or old hands? Experience or Novicity?) generated lots of comments [25!] and emails. The most common request was for tips on how to pick the right employer, I think that's a reflection that this is a buyers market [I promise to write that post just as soon as I can].

But is also generated this very interesting question via email:

I read your "Hiring? What Works" blog this morning and I like what you say about looking for the critical thinker. I agree that you can find this person "flipping burger" as much as anywhere else. Here's my question “how do you identify the critical thinker?" I can some gut feels on candidates, but it's really hard to say. Hire with a trial period? Doesn't necessarily seem to be the solution. Do you have some pointers/hints on this?

It is a tough question.

There are several ways to do it.

Microsoft was famous for giving out puzzles and riddles that help show the way of thinking.brain

Here's one: "You've got someone working for you for seven days and a gold bar to pay them. The gold bar is segmented into seven connected pieces. You must give them a piece of gold at the end of every day. If you are only allowed to make two breaks in the gold bar, how do you pay your worker?"

Get it? You are hired! [If you know the answer post it in comments!]

I have to admit that I am not the biggest of fans of this approach, and to do full disclosure I stink at them. :)

The model suggested in the email of, what I call, temp to perm is not a bad idea because it both allows you to test the person out but more importantly you can check other attributes like leadership and team fit etc. I have done that a lot.

Sometimes though you don't have that option. So what can you do?

My personal favorite is to give the candidate a real business problem (something that needs critical and analytical thinking) and then ask them to solve it.

It could be a numbers (web analytics) problem. It could be a competitive problem. It could be a page level problem. It could be a acquisition problem. Anything really, but a real problem for my company or a company I know. You'll see later why the reality of the problem is important.

thinkerI am watching for:

1) what they come up with as a solution and

2) how they think

The latter is perhaps even more important than the former.

I am looking for creativity and atleast some facet of the solution to surprise me (in a good or a bad way).

If you are a solid critical thinker then you'll think of something really interesting. Something I can't think about (if for no other reason than because I am too close to the problem and you are not).

I am also looking for, because I am in Analytics after all, a part of the answer to involve numbers (how to look at data to solve the problem, qualitative or quantitative – so it does not have to involve hard core numbers). Something innovative.

When Interviewee provides the answer I will push back a bit, regardless of the answer (right or wrong).

I'll probably throw a curve ball, try to say something totally silly, try to throw a spanner into the logic, point out a flaw, share a sub-plot etc.

I am trying to see if I can influence you to change your answer. I am trying to see if you can defend your original answer (most people fail here). I am trying to see what your rationale is for whatever you say / do. I am trying to see if you ask clarifying questions. I am trying to see how fast you think, and what happens, if you are backed into a corner.


If you are a critical thinker you'll think uniquely and be able to, for the lack of a better word, survive.

In fact you'll love the challenge and you'll reply with specifics and not ambiguous FUD. It is amazing how quickly one can cut through the Interviewee's BS or lack of thinking capability or actual experience. No matter how many books they have read / written :) and how long and impressive the resume was.

Frame a open ended real problem, wait for the answer, then push back politely.

There is one more reason for pushing back politely. I am also looking for a certain personality type.

Most interviews are stacked against a Interviewee. By pushing you a bit, very respectfully and in a very dignified non-challenging way, I am trying to assess your personality type.

stand out from the crowdCan't be a push over. Can't be a "report writer mindset". Can't be "pushed" too easily to change opinions. Can stand up and defend (it is amazing how many people fall at this). Can't make stuff up. Can't get flustered. Can say "I have no idea", at the right moment. Can give a complete answer (so many people fail at this), even if a wrong one.

I have used the word amazing in this post a few times. But here is the most amazing thing: even if you know precisely what I am going to do, above, it is nearly impossible for you to "prepare" for it. :)

There are always exceptions of course, there are some great FUD creators out there, but for the most part the reality of the problem offered, the Interviewee's answer, the data involved and the nature of the discussion all ensure that reality will most likely come out.

Interviewing is the hardest thing you'll ever do. Hope this post helps a bit.

Now your turn.

What do you think of this method? What works for you? Any favorite tips / best practices you have developed over the years? How did you identify the last fantastic employee you hired? How did you know?

Please share your perspectives via comments.

P S : Here are two of my favorite posts on this blog, and they are totally non web analytics related.

I wanted to highlight them for you, one about how to be a great leader, IMHO, and the second about my own rules when it comes to managing careers / jobs / work life:

I think you'll really enjoy them as well.

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