How to Perform a Technical Phone Screen

When to Use Phone Screens

There have numerous occasions when I need to phone screen potential interview candidates. Typically this is a great way to reduce the number of resumes you are considering. You should have already whittled down the pile from say, 100 resumes to 15, and you can use phone screens to get the number down from 15 to 5. Those 5 people are the ones you’ll want to invite into the office for in-person interviews, and of those you might pick zero or one to make an offer to.

I would expect to use 30 - 45 minutes for a phone screen. Leave some time after each phone to make notes about the interview. It’s better not to schedule them back-to-back. I expect to be able to perform one phone screen per hour, which allows time if you need to go over (and ask for additional information), and time to take notes.

How to Prepare for Performing Phone Screens

It’s important to prepare before performing any of the phone screens. It’ll be much easier to compare the candidates if you ask them all the same questions.

Here is how to prepare:

  • review the requirements for the position, and come up with a list of technical skills for this position that you feel confident asking intelligent questions about
  • review candidate resumes again, and see if there are more technical aspects that you can use to compare candidates, create more questions around those areas
  • review how to introduce yourself and your position in the organization
  • review how to summarize the requirements for available position
  • review how to describe the mission of the organization

Review each person before their phone screen:

  • look for any red flags in the resume to ask about (gaps or missing skills)
  • look for skills they have that match your questions well (you’ll expect them to do well on these questions), think about whether there are enough questions in that area
  • decide if there are any questions in your list that you can skip for them
  • decide if there are any questions in your life you want to be sure they answer

Example Questions for the Phone Screen

You’ll want to come up with this list before you perform any phone screens, so that every candidate gets similar questions. Sometimes I’ll add another question or two to this list after I give the first phone screen, or qhen I find a candidate that is really good in one area, and I’m interested to know how the subsequent candidates I interview stack up in that area.

Example questions for candidates:

  1. tell me a little bit about yourself
  2. how would you describe your work style?
  3. what skills have you learned recently?
  4. what does a typical day look like at your current (or most recent) job?
  5. what was it about this role that attracted you to it?
  6. what do you see yourself contributing in this position?
  7. what do you know about these technologies? (from your list)
  8. how many people were on the last couple of teams you worked on?
  9. what was your role on that team?
  10. what part of the project were you responsible for?
  11. what would you consider one of your best accomplishments there?
  12. would you detail a successful idea that you have taken from concept to launch?
  13. how do you test your work?
  14. what are some of the typical mistakes people make in this role?
  15. what kind of work do you prefer?
  16. what makes you feel motivated and happy?
  17. how far along are you in your job search?
  18. what is your availability for an interview in the next few days?
  19. what questions do you have for me?

Typically there will also be a few questions that have to with the work itself. The phone is not a great place for a coding question (unless you use an on-line collaboration tool and allow extra time.) So I tend to save that for the in-person interviews.

How to Wrap Up

At the end, the candidate will naturally want to knoew about the next step, so prepare ahead of time so you can say something similar to each candidate.

Here’s a few ideas:

  • let them know how many days it will take you to determine if they are going on to the next stage, typically I wait until I’ve finished all of the phone screens before deciding who to bring in for interviews, it’s fine to tell the candidate if they are one of the first people you’ve interviewed and you’ll need a little time. It’s important to set a clear expectation.
  • resolve to personally get back to every single person you screen with an answer, one way or the other, that way you can honestly assure them you are going to do at the end of the phone screen
  • sell the job and the company to them a little bit, let them know why this is a great position. Either way, you want them to leave the call with a great impression of your company and your team
  • be personable and friendly, remember they are also evaluating you, will they want to work with you?

Good luck with your phone screens, and may you find the perfect candidates for in-person interviews with your team!

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