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How I Interview

Brian Crain
Brian Crain
6 min read

I consider interviewing among the most important things that I do at Chorus One. If I make sure that we hire fantastic people, it seems likely that the company will do well. There are two other critical things. One is to make sure that we have a culture, where people are motivated and work well together. The other one is to ensure that the company strategy and direction makes sense. Still, hiring is especially important to me and what I want to focus on here.

I estimate that I have done around 250 job interviews in my time at Chorus One. We have ended up hiring a bit over 80 people and 60 of them work at the company today. This ratio looks good to me. In terms of the time I put into hiring and the impact it has had, I imagine it is time very well spent. I'm generally the last person to interview someone and we have become good at the selection process. Company-wide, last month we received around 1,000 applications and did 80 interviews. These days, I would estimate that around 50% of the people that I interview end up joining the team.

This isn't a general treatise on how to interview. Even at Chorus One, interviews differ widely based on stage and interviewing styles. I am, however, aiming to describe how I do my interviews. I hope that this will be helpful for others who interview. And I hope that by writing this, I may improve the quality of my interviewing.

I generally consider myself good at delegating. Or not even delegating. I prefer to give people authority to handle some area and then letting them do their thing. For this to work, you have to hire the right people. One of the few areas that I'm still not comfortable delegating is doing the final interview. So I interview almost everyone we hire. At some point, I hope we can get to the point, where other people do the final interview. Depending on how fast we grow the team, this will be necessary for me not to become a bottleneck. And not being a bottleneck is crucial. The CEO becoming a bottleneck is an extremely costly failure-mode that I have experienced several times.

Interview Structure & Approach

In my interview, I mainly focus on assessing two things: Cultural fit and potential. I want to make sure that we hire people who have very high potential and will thrive in our environment.

The particular things that I look at are the following:

  1. Crypto interest
    We do believe that crypto and decentralized technologies can play a crucial role in increasing freedom and the world's rate of innovation. By running infrastructure for lots of these networks, we can contribute to that outcome.
    I want that the people we hire also believe that crypto could have a large positive impact on the world. They don't have to have prior crypto experience. They can be skeptical about the degree to which crypto has lived up to its potential. But at least they should be curious and excited about that possibility.
    We did at various point hire people for whom this was not the case. People would come to me who had aced their technical interviews and seemed strong in many regards. They might even be passionate about Rust or infrastructure or some other thing that relates to the job they would be doing. But they didn't really care about crypto.
    Each time we hired someone like that they didn't work out. Sometimes we had to let them go. More often they just quit. I've learned that we should not compromise on this point.
  2. Clarity, intelligence and curiosity
    The second thing I look for is whether they have a deep desire to understand how things work. I also want to understand whether that curiosity has led them to deeply understand things and whether they can explain those insights in simple and clear ways.
    The way that I try to assess this is by asking people two things again and again: 'Why?' and 'Can you explain this to me?'
    Here is an example of how that will flow:
    Candidate: "I find crypto interesting because of the technology."
    Me: "Why do you find the technology interesting?"
    Candidate: "I find it interesting how blockchains allow different parties come to agreement."
    Now, there are two avenues I would go down. I could ask why that is interesting to them. And I might follow up with more why questions to go deeper another 2-3 times. The other avenue would be to get them to explain what they said. "How do blockchains allow different parties come to agreement?"
    A positive sign is when people really reflect on things. When they can articulate the deeper reasons behind things. And when they explain how things work.
    And the negative sign is when they are unaware of the deeper reasons behind. And if are not able to go to any depth in explaining things.I will often repeat this a few times during the interview focusing on different topics. One great topic is their prior work experience. I can ask them lots of whys about the things they were doing. I also like to ask about the company culture at prior work places. Ideally, they thought a lot about what what worked well in the organization as a whole and what could have been done better.
  3. Self-awareness & dedication to grow
    The previous point covers a lot. If someone has gotten to me and they have a deep interest in crypto, they really try to understand things as they are and they can explain complex things in simple ways, most likely they are a good fit. Still, I do want to explicitly look at other dimensions that I care about.
    The first is self-awareness. I want people who are aware of their own weaknesses and strengths. Who are deeply self-reflective. And who have a deep desire to grow and develop themselves.
    A good way to assess this quality is by asking people about the things that they have learned and the ways in which they have failed. Often, the desire to learn pervades the decision making throughout their entire career.
    Asking these questions can also reveals whether someone is more concerned with managing an impression or learning. For instance, if I ask someone what they learned at a previous position, this is a question that can trigger a deeper reflection. Many people do not have a prepared answer for this and welcome the opportunity to reflect and to learn something about themselves in the process of answering the question.
    But some people focus more on the impression they believe their answer will create. They do not actually look within to answer the question. Instead, they try to guess what kind of answer I might expect and then give an answer that matches their idea of that impression. That results in a fake answer. Generally, this is easy to detect and these are people that I do not want to hire.

These are the main things that I look for. When I feel that I'm doing well in an interview, the interviews can be difficult and not overly pleasant for candidates. Some might give a superficial answer and I'll just repeat the question multiple times trying to get to a real answer. Sometimes that exposes a lack of understanding or insight. The candidates realizes that and it's not a pleasant experience. They get pushed to the edge of their understanding and when they don't come through, it sucks. But I'm okay with that. It's often necessary to distinguish between candidates that are okay from those that are great.

Sometimes after an interview I'm dissatisfied with myself. And it's mostly because I feel I accepted superficial answers and didn't go deep enough. In these cases, I will sometimes be uncertain whether we should hire the candidate or not. That's not great. Ideally, I end an interview with a high degree of confidence in my assessment.

Sometimes, I prepare quite a bit for interviews. I read through their written answers, CV, priori interview notes. But other times, I do interviews with almost no preparation. I have definitely had great interviews when I did no preparation. Overall, I'm not sure that preparation adds a lot ot the quality of my interviews. It's more important to be present, to really listen, to follow my curiosity and to go deep.

Interview Notes

During the interview, I take lots of notes. I basically do a live transcription of the interview. I type my questions and I type summaries of the answers that they give. I also use to record the interview and create a transcript of it. I don't have an opinion on whether that is generally a beneficial thing to do. A lot of other people at Chorus One don't do that, though they will use Otter to create interview transcripts. But it's the way I'm used to interviewing and it works for me.

After the interview, there is another critical step: Writing interview notes. I care a lot that everyone who interviews people writes good interview notes. I will generally spend between 15-30 minutes on writing up interview notes for every interview that I do.

The interview notes follow a set format.
First, anyone who does an interview has to make a recommendation: Hire or Not hire.
Second, they have to rate their own level of confidence in that assessment. There are three options for that: Highly confident, moderately confident, not confident.
Third, they have to write up an explanation for why they reached that conclusion. Ideally, that includes a list of judgements and of observations that were the basis for arriving at these judgments.
The idea with this is two-fold. First, by explaining how a certain judgement was arrived at, we can reduce biases and help people get more clarity. And it also helps another person to look through somebody else's interview notes and form an independent assessment.

I hope that this is helpful for others who do a lot of interviewing. I still feel that I have a lot of room for improvement as an interviewer. If you have thoughts on what I have written or what the best way to interview is, I would love to hear your thoughts.