is this hiring manager too strict?

First, an announcement:  There’s been some wonkiness with the commenting system this week (comments appearing out of order on one post, people getting system messages that they are “commenting too fast” (?!), and other weirdness. I’m working on it — and by that, I really mean the wonderful Laura Moore is working on it. Thanks for your patience!

Now onward to our next letter.  A reader writes:

My company’s IT department is hiring for a new programmer and has been looking for 10 months. We’re in the Seattle area, so there is no shortage for available candidates, given our close proximity to Microsoft. During the preliminary phone interviews, they’re asking candidates to rate their skills in different areas (like .asp or .net or whatever type of programming it is that they’re looking for) on a scale of 1-5. Any candidate who rates themselves a 5 in all areas (and there are only 3 or 4 they ask about) is automatically rejected for being “too arrogant.”

Not only that, but for a 5 in any area, they’re also mocked around the office and it’s “noted.” 

I’ve never heard of this before (and frankly, I think it’s really stupid), and feel like if someone is a skilled programmer in all areas, they would want to let a potential employer know that. Is the general belief that if someone rates themselves high in all categories then they’re arrogant, or is our hiring manager just being too strict? Perhaps this is why they’re 10 months in and haven’t hired anyone yet…

The hiring manager is an ass.

Seriously, what the hell?

Some people are indeed 5’s in some areas. Some people are 5’s in multiple areas. Some people are not, of course, and it’s the hiring manager’s job to figure out when that’s the case. If she wants to note this as a signal to keep an eye out for potential arrogance, that’s fine — but that’s all it should be, not an automatic rejection.

But she might be doing these candidates a favor, because she must be a joy to work for.

{ 100 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    “But she might be doing these candidates a favor, because she must be a joy to work for.”

    Agreed! The hiring manager isn’t being too “strict”, she’s being an asshole.

  2. jmkenrick*

    That’s insane. Why would you create a system like that?

    It’s stories of trick-questions like this that keep all that crazy job advice gurus going strong.

    1. Lisa*

      I once had an interview where the interviewer said that I could do the job as it is today, but that I clueless as to how the job was done at the beginning of the industry. #1, I am way too young to know much about how my industry functioned 15 years ago, and #2 it doesnt matter! The way my job is done now is completely different from how it was done 15 years ago!

      I felt interrogated and stupid for not knowing the obsolete ways of doing the job. Eventually the guy said that I knew how to do the job as the rules are today and clearly very good at it, but he made me feel less of a human being for not knowing the magic number of times to mention a keyword in order to rank a webpage in Infoseek (remember this search engine?) back in 1997. Apparently it was 12 times, but guess what…if you used that method today you would be laughed at.

      I have no idea how knowing how an obsolete way of doing things qualifies me or doesnt qualify me for a job that no longer follows those rules from 15 years ago. The kicker was that even though he made me feel like an idiot, he wanted me to come back for a 2nd interview but he killed any good feelings I had about the company with his interrogation interview.

      1. Sandrine*

        One day I had an interview for doing the same job my Dad has been doing for over 20 years.

        I was interviewing to work on machine X, which he told me a teeny tiny bit about, like most fathers do about their job, you know ?

        They asked me about machine Y and Z, which I wasn’t going to work on at all, and when I said I didn’t know about them, asked me why my Dad hadn’t told me about them. I told them a little dryly something along the lines that he hadn’t told me EVERYTHING about the job and that our relationship didn’t allow for it anyway… but in my head it was “Not all fathers train their kids to do their jobs as if they were automatically going to work the same job!” with a pinch of “Are you that crazy, REALLY ?” .

        It’s a bullet I’m glad I dodged.

        1. Jamie*

          That’s crazy. My dad started programming in 1959 but I don’t know Fortran.

          Although I think had he still been alive when I went into IT he probably would have advised me to go into something less stressful. Like the bomb squad or wrestling alligators.

          1. Sandrine*

            Maybe I should tell my sister to teach banking to her not-two-years-old son. You know, just in case.

            Jokes aside, I did work at Dad’s job location for a couple of months at some point, and I got maybe two hours training for one of the machines (and understood how to work it in a heartbeat, almost) … when I told Dad he went “haha they gave us two days of training back in our day” .

          2. Anonymous*

            My parents are techies which is why I ran screaming from the industry with my arms in the air. They could not have possibly made it less appealing to me hahaha.

  3. KT*

    What a weird and short sighted thing to do! People in job interviews are trying to talk themselves up! People who might actually rate themselves as a four on might actually say that they are a five because they think that’s what the employer wants to hear in order to get an interview. Plus if she’s trying to poach programmers from Microsoft, she might actually be dealing with a lot of genuine ” fives.” everyone has weaknesses, but a programmers weakness not might not be his programming. For example you could be an amazing programmer but lack people skills or something like that.

    1. Anonymous*

      Plus if she’s trying to poach programmers from Microsoft, she might actually be dealing with a lot of genuine ” fives.”

      This sort of reminds me of some guy at Google not being allowed to check in code because he hadn’t taken the C programming test. His name was Ken Thompson.

      1. KT*

        That’s hilarious– like Einstein failing math!

        Any company that is letting bureaucracy interfere with results needs to self-evaluate.

        1. jmkenrick*

          The Einstein failing math thing is an urban legend. I’ve always REALLY wanted to know how that one got started, it’s so random.

          1. Anonymous*

            I’ve read that it’s because he went to school in either Austria or Germany, and a reporter from the other country saw his report card. The two countries both use a numeric system, but in one “1” is the highest grade, and in the other, “1” is the lowest.

            1. cf*

              Yeah. A guy who taught himself calculus when he was 12 is not the poster child for “See what you can accomplish even if you fail math?!”

          2. Sparky629*

            He didn’t actually fail math. He failed the test that students take when they graduate ‘college’ (for lack of an equivalent word in modern times) to become a teacher/professor.

            I learned that from helping my kid do an autobiography of Einstein for a school project.

            Besides, a lot of really brilliant people can think on a higher level and have trouble with common sense, small details, or every day stuff.

            Have you ever seen a tenured professor try to operate the copy machine or email? It’s a sight to behold.

            1. Anonymous*

              I have seen one try to operate a vending machine – all grad students present were quietly amused. And this was a guy who could shut up hecklers in his seminars with replies like “I actually wrote a paper on that – probably before you were born” (and be speaking truthfully).

        2. Gayle*

          Nah, not really. See my longer explanation below. Ken hadn’t passed the style guidelines certification for C. It’s more like telling an amazing writer that, for your company / book / website / etc, they need to use a particular font and size for headings, just to make everything consistent.

      2. Gayle*

        [Ex-Google Software Engineer here]

        Yeah, so, that’s actually perfectly reasonable.

        It’s not a test, and it’s definitely not a test on the C language. It’s more like a readability certification that shows that you know how to format / style your code the way Google wants it. You obtain it by submitting a code sample that conforms to the guidelines. The guidelines are things like how many spaces to use, how to name variables, etc. How good someone is in a language has absolutely no bearing on whether or not their code would conform to these style guidelines.

        Therefore, Ken needs to get the same readability certification as everyone else. (And, in fact, he can check in code without this readability certification as long as his code reviewer — and all code must be code reviewed — has his/her readability certification. Very minor, really.)

        To make an analogy for those who may not be engineers:

        Suppose you’re assembling a book by asking a bunch of people to submit chapters. You’re then going to just publish it immediately, without doing any additional formatting.

        Obviously, you want the book to look consistent across the chapters. You don’t want one person using Times New Roman and another person using Arial.

        So what do you do? You create a document that outlines how text, headings, images, etc should be formatted. And then you also require that everyone submit a tiny, but properly formatted, writing sample that demonstrates that they’ve read and understood these guidelines.

        J. K. Rowling comes to you and says that she’d like to write for you. Fantastic! She’s an amazing writer.

        But her being an amazing writer obviously does not mean that she’ll magically know that she’s supposed to be using Arial font.

        So you tell her: “We have formatting guidelines and we need you to meet them. We can’t just publish your chapter as-is if it’s going to be formatted completely differently. So please review these guidelines and submit a writing sample. Once you’ve done that, we can assume your document is good to go. If you haven’t done that, then we’re going to need a reviewer who DOES know the guidelines to review your entire chapter before publishing it.”

        You’re not saying that she’s not a good enough writer. You’re just saying that she doesn’t know your arbitrary style guidelines.

  4. Anonymous*

    For most position, I’d agree, but since this is for specifically a programmer, I think your company is correct in thinking that a 5 in multiple areas is arrogance – although mocking the applicants seem pretty cruel to me.

    In programming, things are constantly changing and everything is up for debate. It’s a career where one is constantly learning. To say you’re a 5 in more than one area is a sign that you’re arrogant. It’s like a doctor saying she is a 5 in both pediatrician and internal disease. It’s very dubious.

    Although I do agree – I think they’re having a hard time filling the position because they’re too picky! If they are this picky about the application process, I bet that they are hitting up all interviewees with technical and coding questions too. I guess you can be picky when there’s so many programmers looking for jobs right now (myself included)…

    1. A Bug!*

      I don’t think it’s reasonable to write them off entirely for it, though, unless other aspects of their application belie the ratings. Unless the scale is very clearly defined, an applicant might be looking at it in terms of a curve – they could consider themselves a 5 because they consider themselves in the top 20% of their field.

      And anyway, they should be given the opportunity to put their money where their mouth is, given that the company’s having such a tough time filling the position.

    2. Anonymous*

      I disagree. If someone asked me to rate myself like this I’d assume a 5 meant that you were experienced and capable of having that be a main job function while performing well. There are PLENTY of people, especially here in Seattle, that would have 5’s in 3-4 categories– especially if they listed tasks are all related, as I would assume they would be if you’re talking about the duties of one position.

    3. Ivy*

      I was thinking the same thing. No, she shouldn’t ridicule the people who say they’re all 5s. No, it’s not enough of a reason to write someone off. But when someone says they’re a 5 out of 5, that means they’re saying they’re perfect, or damn near close. It also seems like they’re saying they think they have no room to learn an grow. As you said, in an industry that’s constantly changing, it can definitely come off as sounding arrogant. If someone already thinks they know everything, they might be less inclined to keep up with the advances and get surpassed by those who are (IBM comes to mind)… I’m referring to the people that give all 5s… 1 or 2 5s is fine….

      1. fposte*

        I would interpret it as meaning you’re in the top 20%, not perfect.

        I’m particularly amused by this idiocy as I’m just taking a break from a great chronicle of the development of the atomic bomb and the espionage/counterespionage wars going on around it. I’m envisioning this hiring manager doing this at Los Alamos now.

        1. Anonymous*

          Los Alamos interviews take a full day to do and involve being asked a bunch of questions about what you’re good at. Luckily not quite this 1-5 scale crap, more the usual interactive thing. They are hard because they won’t tell you what you’ll be working on, so you’re stuck trying to guess at the competencies that you ought to talk up without solid hints about whether you’re going in the right or wrong direction.

          1. fposte*

            I actually was meaning Los Alamos in 1944. I don’t see Feynmann providing a useful answer to this question.

          2. Me*

            the problem with Los Alamos is that the interview doesn’t make you run away, it’s actually working at the lab that will. sorry, couldn’t resist ;)

        2. SB*

          Even “the top 20%” is pretty meaningless (upholding the opinions of those who say this type of question is pointless), because some respondents might use a 5 to mean “I’m in the top 20% of candidates for this position” (who therefore already have a decent working knowledge, rendering a 5 a pretty high mark and therefore potentially arrogant) while some people might use a 5 to mean “I’m in the top 20% of the general public,” which is the minimum you would even consider when interviewing for a position. I certainly hope that the questionnaire spells out exactly what the endpoints (if not the mid-points) on the scale mean, in no uncertain terms, if she’s going to reject people on that basis. One candidate could rate themselves all 5s and truly BE that good, one could rate themselves all 5s because they think it’s expected and/or they’re that arrogant, but they’re really not all that special, and one could rate themselves all 5s because They’re decent at what they do, but definitely excel compared to the general population.

          1. Katie*

            On a technical skills assessment, on a scale of 1 to 5, I would assume that 1 is “never used it,” 2 is “familiar with the logic or semantics, but not the syntax,” 3 is “taken a class, read a book, used it for small personal projects,” 4 is “have used it professionally, but don’t know it well enough to train someone,” and 5 is “have used professionally, and know it well enough to train someone else.” But again, this highlights the need for explaining what this scale means. It could mean a lot of different things to different people, and just expecting applicants will be able to psychically divine what you think it means is silly.

        3. JT*

          Yeah. If it’s the top fifth then I’m there in many things I do. Am I arrogant? Maybe, but maybe my assessment is correct.

      2. Katie*

        In terms of a programming language, I would assume a 5 on a scale of 1-5 means “expert,” which is markedly different from “perfect” or “knows everything.” An expert is very familiar with a programming language and has used it routinely in a professional capacity. They would be comfortable not only using it, but also in training others to use it.

        Because most sensible people know that “perfect” or “knows everything” is an impossible standard, most sensible people would not assume that a self-rating scale would top out at impossible. That’s ridiculous. Although this highlights the need for the company to do a better job of explaining what these numbers mean to the company. I doubt even among very experienced and intelligent programmers you’ll find many who will say they “know everything” about any programming language.

        It’s worth noting, too, that programming languages are not like disparate medical fields. Many programming languages have similar semantics, and it’s very easy to learn multiple languages to an expert level when all you have to know is the different syntax. Many of these languages you also often learn in groups because you use them in groups. So if you’re an expert in one, it makes sense that you’d also be an expert in other languages that are usually used in tandem. Does the hiring manager for this position have any programming experience him or herself? I don’t see how someone who has actually done programming would find it absurd that an experienced programmer would have a great deal of experience in multiple programming languages.

        I will say, if it’s taken you 10 months to fill a single position, particularly when you’re in an area known for having an abundance of intelligent, educated, and experienced people who could fill it, you aren’t just being an ass. You’re incompetent.

    4. Adam V*

      Considering a) this is a programming position and b) they’re asking about technologies that were in some cases *created* by a nearby company, to knock anyone for a single 5 is ludicrous and to exclude anyone with multiple 5s is a great way to lose out on some incredible talent.

      Case in point – I follow a Microsoft developer who’s on the team that *writes* the C# language (not just uses it). In the past, he has worked on other languages that Microsoft developed (VBScript, etc.).

      Should he apply for development jobs outside of Microsoft, I would be unsurprised to find that he would rate himself a 5 in all of these areas.

      Feel free to exclude him from your job search. Your loss.

  5. Carl*

    In some ways I can understand the manager’s thought, but in more ways, yeah, it’s a stupid thing. As a developer myself, we’re asked to know a lot of things so we can design and create software that meets the non-technical needs of the users (staff/customers). With that, it means we have to understand a bit about business, sales, marketing… etc., just enough to understand it, and sometimes, almost as much as the people who manage in those departments.

    So, it’s easy to come off as arrogant being a developer; if we don’t stay on top of the “game” then we’re apparently not good enough. The feeling that I get is they want you to be good, because a lot of companies see IT as a money sink if their business isn’t IT itself; just a cost, a burden. And almost anyone who has worked in IT will tell you it is a thankless job.

    Then, you humble yourself, and they think you’re lazy, don’t know what you’re doing… blah blah. The fact of the matter is that arrogance, as I see it, is a sign of understanding your own abilities. Being an ass, on the other hand, is a sign you don’t care about how you treat others.

    1. khilde*

      Same here. So I’ll take the time to tell AAM that I LOVE the frequency and pace of the posts lately. Can’t get enough (and more of the crackpot workplace stuff!! Win-Win!).

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Good! I don’t think I’ll keep this pace up all the time, but it’s been interesting to learn that I can do it when I feel like it without overwhelming people!

        Or at least not overwhelming the people who give me feedback about it.

        1. lucy*

          I love the frequency as well. I like coming on every now and then during a tedious day to find something new to read every time.

        2. Eric*

          While I don’t mind the frequency of the posts too much, I have found that I am not able to follow all of the comments as much as I would like.

          1. Chris M.*

            Whoever doesn’t have time to read everything, can just skip the posts with a title that indicates they don’t particularly care about the subject, or just the comments for those posts. I’m super busy during the work week, but am enjoying very much the higher frequency of posts. Thank you, AAM!

        3. Joe*

          I, on the other hand, was on vacation for a couple of weeks, and have a huge backlog of posts to catch up on now! Eek!

  6. SW Engineer*

    I’ve been through my share of these types of interviews. I typically don’t say 5 at all, even if I’m at that level. I’ll prefer to say 4.

    Why you ask? They’ll assume you’re an expert who should be able to answer *ANY QUESTION* about the subject, even those they pull out of their backside on the spot. You end up getting into an interview in which they just beat you up for no reason. Not fun.

    If you’re really attempting to get engineers from Microsoft, then you’re definitely working with 5’s in several places. Many of them are very smart people.

    In any case, if they’re having trouble finding engineers when you’re that close to Microsoft, then something is seriously wrong there.

    That hiring manager is a real ass, and should be avoided at all costs. I keep a list of companies and managers that I check each time I apply or interview, so I know ahead of time if I should pass.

    1. Anonymous*

      Indeed – obscure details of the .NET API are outsourced to MSDN (although I usually prefer to guess and use Intellisense).

  7. Sully*

    The question in and of itself is stupid. If a recruiter is doing their job correctly before the interview, you’ll never hear someone say anything other than 4 or 5 when asked this question about any skill in any industry during an interview (or on a 1-10 scale, 7, 8, or 9). These “rate yourself” questions provide no insight whatsoever about the actual skills of the candidate. Better questions would be, “What do you like and not-like about asp.Net?” or “Tell me some advantages asp.Net has over C#.”

  8. Anonymous*

    Being a programmer myself I would also be highly skeptical of anyone ranking themselves as a 5 in that many different technical skills. Unless they’re hiring a very senior Fellow-level position, rejecting someone on that basis doesn’t seem unreasonable.

    A 5 in a single area is possible, but in an interview they would need to be able to back that up under some detailed questioning or lose a lot of credibility.

    Let me give an example that might be more familiar across the business world than techy programming languages. If someone claims to be a 5 in Excel I would think that a pretty bold claim too. After all, think of all the things you can do with excel…advanced formulas, macros, database connections, conditional formatting, pivot tables, forms, charts and probably lots of things I’m not even aware of. And each of those areas can be pretty complicated to master. There may be some candidates who can say they’re experts, but most people even with lots of Excel experience are more likely to be experts in a few areas, competent in a few others, and could quickly pick up the remaining bits.

    Well, all of this to me boils down to the question being a bit foolish. I hate those rank yourself on a scale of 1-5 kind of questions…I think a combination of questions along the lines of “How experienced are you with Java” followed up with “What are your deepest skills with Java?” are better. If the 1-5 ranking is during a short phone screen before advancing to a technical interview that might be ok….

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I like your point about the question itself. “Rank yourself” questions are silly without a clearly defined, detailed scale that everyone has agreed on. Some people will take “5” to mean “expert knowledge, could have created the software myself,” while others will take it to mean “skilled at it and can find out how to do anything I don’t know in the program pretty quickly.”

    2. Anonymous*

      I think that’s a silly way to look at expertise. Expertise in most aspects of computing has a lot more to do with knowing what your tool is capable of, what your tool is strong at, and what your tool is bad at. This is doubly true with business applications like Excel, as opposed to programming languages which are more flexible.

      Really, the only thing I care for people to know about Excel is what it’s good for, what it shouldn’t be used for, and what it can’t do at all. It’s a business application and it has excellent documentation available. I don’t care if you’ve memorized how to do a particular Excel function, I care that you can take a problem and look up an decent way to implement a solution in Excel, or that you can turn around and say, “Excel is a poor choice for this application because of X, can we do it with Application ABC instead to get benefit Y?”

      1. Rana*

        That’s an excellent point. I remember once having to take some placement tests at a temp agency that consisted of asking you how to do certain tasks in various programs (Excel, Word, etc.) If you didn’t choose one of a very limited suite of expected responses (usually key command or going straight to drop-down) within a set amount of time, it dinged you. Now, there are some functions for which I don’t have all the steps memorized, but can easily figure out how to do with just an extra minute’s worth of exploration (or, heck, a brief visit to Google) but that’s not something that such tests can take into account. And then there are ones where I’ve figured out an equally effective way of getting the same result, but which the test designer didn’t think to include.

        It’s the same problem with any standardized test, for that matter. People are analog, not digital.

        1. SB*

          Oh, yes. I HATE those types of tests for things like Excel. I took one at a temp agency once that sounds the same as the one you’re talking about–there are often three ways to do things in Excel – keyboard shortcut, right-click, or menus (possibly more I don’t even know about). I forget which it was that they expected you to use, but in real life, I use combinations of all three of those, depending on the task and whether my hands are already on the keyboard or the mouse. I got a terrible score on the “beginner” test, but am somewhere between an “intermediate” and “advanced” user according to the designations on courses, anyway.

          Also, keyboarding (whether typing or data entry) tests that ding you for every keystroke AFTER an error, too. For example, if I’m supposed to type “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,” and accidentally leave out a letter and type “Te quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,” I get credit only for getting the T correct. To me, that should be one error out of 43 potential keystrokes. Even worse are the programs that do that AND ding you for using the backspace key–sorry, but my fingers usually know I made a typo before my brain does and are hitting that backspace key before I can stop them. In the digital age, this is not a detriment. Sure, words per minute (or whatever per time increment) should be a count of the number of words you ended up with over the amount of time you spent total, factoring in errors however they do, but if I get 100 wpm even WITH correcting my mistakes, my score should not only be 100 wpm, but should also not discount any mistakes I corrected while still netting 100 wpm.

          1. 22dncr*

            Gods, YES – I hate those tests! I am a mouse (ahem – Apple) person – don’t even know the keyboard “shortcuts” and I took one that wouldn’t let you use the mouse!!! That said, if I have to take one, I prefer the ones you can take at home. I “beta-tested” (not what we called it then) Excel and Word in the early 90’s so there is nothing I can’t figure out how to do – it just takes a while to remind myself. I’ve never been good at standard tests.

        2. Natalie*

          Oh dear god, those @$#&ing Excel tests. The last time I took one it expected me to find everything in the menu, instead of using the shortcut buttons at the top of the page. Maddening.

          About a year ago I had an interview where they gave me a small written test about using Excel, but it was more conceptual.

        3. Rana*

          You guys have no idea how happy it makes me to learn that I’m not the only one who hates those tests! :D

    3. Anonymous*

      I am a 6 in Excel.

      However, I am a 1 in Getting Up In The Morning and a 1 in Time Management…

  9. KayDay*

    I really hate arbitrary number ranks, especially for self-assessments. People typically end up basing their rank more on how they will be perceived for the number they choose (e.g. “he chose 3 so he’s not confident enough”; “she choose 5 so she’s arrogant”). If a self-assessment is really necessary it should be in terms of “novice,” “proficient,” “experienced,” “expert,” or something a little less arbitrary.

    (Just got the posting comments too quickly notice; in my case, I think I might agree with it.)

  10. Jamie*

    What is the empirical difference between a 4 and a 5?

    What’s what standardized criteria should one use to evaluate where you fall on this scale?

    Seriously, if the hiring manager wants candidates to pull answers out of their butts then she gets what she gets.

    If I anyone there is overworked and being told it’s just temporary until they hire someone, and then it’s taken 10 months…I can see people getting pissed.

    1. KT*

      Exactly! I would think some people would say a 5 is someone with all the proficiency they need to excel in a job and some would say a five is an industry-leading expert.

    2. Anonymous*

      OP here…I agree with you and it’s one of the reasons why it frustrates me so much. They don’t define a 4 or a 5, so how do I know what exactly it is I’m ranking myself on, and what the differences between each level is? It also grates on me because this is a question I feel like I should be given during a performance review (if ever), after I’ve done tasks at my job and am evaluating myself. Having said that, I don’t even like those questions then.

  11. Anonymous*

    Those candidates have dodged a major bullet with your hiring manager. Damn.

    Is there anybody she reports to at work? Her method is going to be a detriment to your company if she’s not handled soon. It’s not efficient and it’s making the hiring process SO much harder than it should be. She’s turning away many potential employees over something so shallow and ridiculous. Speaking to someone that has control over the situation might be the way to remedy this issue and make her clean up her act, get organized and not act like a snotrag.

  12. Anonymous*

    I would think in an industry like this one, weeding out candidates who are full of s*** would be pretty easy. I’m not really sure why this question even exists.

  13. Steve*

    I find this question doubly troubling. For all the reasons noted above, but also because some people will inflate their scores because they have no idea what your scale is. Or they will misrepresent.

    I have a manager who once hired a woman who described herself as a proficient use of excel. It did not take long to find out that in fact she barely knew how to click the icon (I exaggerate but cut me some slack – it is Friday afternoon.) My manager learned a valuable lesson – don’t ask someone if they can do something, ask them to demonstrate that they can do something.

    And to head off the response that the candidates will be evaluated on their abilities in these areas later, my response is “they why do you ask them to self assess if you are going to do it anyway?”

  14. Anonymous*

    I don’t really know why someone would think humility was a key trait to search for in a programmer. Fit the requirements to the job, people! Humility could be a very important trait in some jobs, but it really shouldn’t be the #1 trait in a job where you spend most of your day interacting with machines.

    Sure, arrogance or humility levels could be a factor into how well he’ll fit into your work culture. But a preliminary phone interview doesn’t seem like the best place to do a thorough test of fit, it seems like a stage where you’d weed out people based on competencies vs. your requirements. Testing for fit should happen in a subsequent interview, and it should be more involved (and more honest) than this secret test she’s performing.

  15. some1*

    If she wants to pass on applicants because she thinks they are arrogant, I don’t have an issue with that as long as she keeps that to herself or between anyone else in the hiring decision.

    I take way more of an issue with the fact that it’s being shared with her colleagues in order to mock them. Seriously, is she in middle school? So rude and unprofessional.

    1. Boina Roja*

      It’s not only rude and professional, in some countries it’s illegal. Since you are disclosing personal information, which is considered in some countries confidential, without the applicants permission. I so can see this “professional” add things out of the applicants resume/letter to the mockery.

    1. jmkenrick*

      A good point. If they’re accomplishing what they need to accomplish, then does it really matter if they overestimate their skills?

      1. Rana*

        No kidding. Think about the situations with doctors: who would you rather have, a doctor who’s at the top of their game and arrogant as all hell, or someone who’s humble and incompetent?

        (Obviously one can also be arrogant and incompetent, or humble and skilled, but this silly 5-point ranking thing won’t get at that, since it’s attempting to measure both simultaneously. An arrogant incompetent and a humble expert might well look the same, numerically.)

    2. Adam V*

      I’m sorry you’ve only ever dealt with arrogant software engineers. I’ve been in this industry for 8 years or so, and I’ve run into plenty of us who are incredibly approachable and happy to talk about their jobs without a hint of arrogance.

      I’d like to think I’m not arrogant either – it’s certainly a goal of mine to try to be friendly and down-to-earth because I believe that’s the best way to get along with everyone I deal with on a regular basis.

  16. Anonymous*

    This is why when you make a Likert style scale like this you have to define exactly what each number means. Because I would assume 5 means you’re as skilled as anyone could expect a normal person to be, making pretty much anyone who’s a great dev capable of rating an accurate 5. But from the comments it looks like plenty of devs are taking 5 to mean you’re claiming to be more skilled than the overwhelming majority of your peers, which is apparently how the manager in the OP is taking it.

    That discrepancy alone makes all the questions completely useless, and the manager an idiot for using them as a major screening tool.

    1. perrik*


      My thesis research included a survey which asked respondents to indicate the frequency with which their department conducted each of four types of a certain procedure. In the two large-scale surveys which had been conducted previously, the Likert scale choices were along the lines of “never, seldom, sometimes, often, always”. So, what is “often”? 75% of the time? What if it’s 90%? In baseball batting averages, “often” could be best interpreted as 30% of the time. Is seldom 25% of the time, or 5%? (I asked my respondents to estimate a percentage rather than pick a vague “sometimes”)

      If I were answering the interview question, I’d interpret a 5 as expert-level knowledge, meaning I have deep experience with the program/language/process and can use it to handle complex situations. That’s not arrogance, that’s expertise.

      This hiring manager is a level 5 nitwit.

  17. EngineerGirl*

    If they rated themselves a 5 in all areas, then yes. But in **any** area? Foolishness indeed. I hate to say it, but this manager is suffering from a derivation of the Dunning-Kruger effect. They think that because they aren’t a 5, then no one can be. I’ve actually worked with people like this. They think that everyones skills are the same as theirs. They are totally, completely, totally unable to recognise excellence. So that said, the 5 level programmers have escaped a horrible fate.

    And yes, self assessments like this are stupid. Better to have yes/no type of questions and build assessments that way. For example, Excel. Can you do pivot tables? Can you create multi-worksheet macros? Then interview them to find out what their real skill sets are.

    1. jmkenrick*

      +1 for the Dunning-Kruger effect

      Knowing about cognitive bias has been so helpful for me in life.

      Fundamental Attribution Error, in particular, has totally changed the way I relate to/handle rude or upsetting people. (Minor thread-jack, I’m sorry.)

    2. Henning Makholm*

      The default assumption that everyone’s abilities roughly equal your own is by no means confined to the heavy end of the Dunning-Kruger effect. It’s equally responsible for people with high ability tending to rate themselves too low: “Since I didn’t find this difficult to master, probably most other people will not have problems with it either”.

      1. Jamie*

        It is a weird phenomenon. I hate that when there is a tough skill I want to acquire and have to work at learning it – as opposed to the easy stuff – it always feels impossible until I finally get it.

        Then I am proud of myself for about .8 seconds until it feels like something everyone knows. I hate that.

  18. Anon*

    I once worked for a software and hardware development corporation. We were asked to rank ourselves in several areas. I gave myself the ranking I felt I deserved. In some cases, I ranked myself with the highest score, and in other cases, I did not. My manager told me that I should be careful about ranking myself too high because I would not want to get involved with work I cannot handle. I was offended by his lack of confidence in my abilities, but I didn’t know what to say.

    Fast forward to a few months later…several people in the company were laid off for “not having the skills required to do their jobs”. I was not laid off, but I eventually resigned to go back to graduate school.

    Idiots (in my best Debra Barrone voice).

  19. Long Time Admin*

    It sounds like this company excels at mediocrity and doesn’t really want someone with higher standards.

    And what’s with those stupid “rate yourself” questions? I hate them, for all the reasons above.

  20. Anonymous*

    Best way to turn this around and show her the error of her ways:

    Have actual employees fill out the same questionnaire. Compare to actual job performance.

    If her trick question would’ve screened out all your current employees, then it should be easy to demonstrate that this isn’t a good way to approach the interviews.

    1. Mike C.*

      In Seattle? With Microsoft, Amazon, Google and Boeing in the area? This hiring manager is a complete joke.

  21. Alisha*

    These types of screenings are becoming more common in different areas of high-tech, including the sub-field I work in, which does have some creative aspects.

    Recently, I applied for a UxD director job that essentially required me to write a mini-term paper on my work history and skills. Besides submitting the typical tech job stuff – portfolio, code samples, Twitter, LinkedIn, blah blah – I was required to answer a two-part series of questions. The first part contained 12 questions and the second part had 8. I was required to rate myself on the cluster of skills or attributes for each question, and then write a couple paragraphs justifying my rating.

    This application took two days. No joke. Besides rating myself and writing my essays, I had to lay out and “design” the document (it is a design job, and they demanded you “impress them” and go “above and beyond). My husband and I were both wondering how it would be received that I rated myself a 9 or 10 in most areas. (I did have a couple numbers that were lower than 5, concerning my back-end programming abilities. So who knows if I’ll even get it?)

    The weirdest thing about this job is they want a master-level manager, UX designer, front-end coder, back-end coder, copywriter, technical writer, and creative director all in one. Unless that’s a wish list and not a series of “must-haves” I think the position will take a while to get filled, but in a perverse way, it was fun to do, and it was one of the only jobs that week I could apply for to fulfill my state re-employment bureau quota.

    Oh yeah, and the hiring manager is an ass. I find it repulsive to make fun of candidates. On the local forum for my soon-to-be-former town, there is a woman who works in recruiting, and I swear, half her posts are about mocking people who apply for jobs at her company. I think she looks like a bitter, mean, small person, and I think her actions are very, very rude. Take solace in the fact that other people probably think the same, OP.

    1. Neeta*

      Perhaps they just want to see what other skills you have aside the one’s required by this particular job.

      For example, my company’s yearly evaluation sheet has this long list were you have to rate your proficiency in a truckload of areas. The first time I filled it in, I got so depressed and was firmly convinced they’d tell me I’m a mediocre employee. Turns out though, that this is just a way to see what other skills employees have, for when they’d need help in other areas/switch projects.

  22. anonymous*

    Long time lurker here! After 11 months of looking, I finally landed a job! Yay! Thank you, Alison and the blog community, for all of your good advice on how to land a job- I’m sure it helped. This blog helped me through some dark days.

  23. Starts & ends with A*

    But, if you’re applying to a government job, you should rate yourself as highly as possible on the KPIs, because otherwise they’ll apimmediately filter you out. If you can be a veteran too, well that would be helpful.

  24. Adam*

    As someone who lives in Seattle and knows a lot of computer programmers, any serious job interview for such a job involves a skills test. So if you are fibbing about how good you are it should become apparent very quickly.

    Some people really are that good at multiple things. We call them “achievers” doncha know.

  25. JT*

    Ten months to fill a programming position? Unless it involves some amazingly rare set of skills, that’s a fail.

  26. Neeta*

    UGH! I hate hate hate HATE these types of forms. The company I currently work with, uses something like this (and did when they hired me, as well)… and it’s just so annoying.

    I remember I rated my knowledge on Windows as 10/10 and the interviewer literally looked at me with a raised eyebrow stating: I don’t think even Bill Gates could rate his knowledge THAT high. That was an embarrassing moment, to say the least.

    I think subjecting candidates to a technical test is much more useful than having such a questionnaire that will inevitably lead to intense mockery.

  27. Greg*

    Agree with all those who have said that self-assessments are stupid. Reminds me of those Wal-mart tests Barbara Ehrenreich describes in “Nickel and Dimed”, the ones that ask questions like, “When is it OK to steal from the company? A) Always B) Sometimes C) Never.” The point is, you’re not asking people to give honest answers, you’re asking them to deduce which answer you want. (I would actually say that the infamous “greatest weakness” question suffers from the same problem.)

    Stop playing games. If you ask questions where people don’t have an incentive to answer honestly, you’ll end up with dishonest employees.

  28. Vicki*

    I talked to someone once who told me his “favorite” interview question for programming language X was something like “what’s in chapter 7 of ?”

    Aside from the fact that any good programmer would likely have the book on his desk (not memorized), different editions of the book rearranged chapters.

    Some people see an interview as a game or a contest. Blech!

  29. Vicki*

    that was “chapter 7 of [popular book on language X]”.
    But I used << instead of [ the first time and the comment system ate them.

  30. Joe*

    I agree that the hiring manager is shooting themselves in the foot with this kind of reaction, but I wanted to add that taking 10 months to fill a programmer position in a tech-heavy geographical area isn’t always a sign of a bad hiring process. In a tech-heavy area, there is going to be a lot of competition for the good developers, and in any area (and especially tech-heavy ones, and especially in this economy), there are a LOT of really, really bad programmers, and even more mediocre ones. If you have high standards, and especially if you can’t be at the top of the pay scale in your area, it can take a long time to make the right hire.

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