A superstar engineer with a bad attitude can place more drag on your engineering org than they put in, which is why I like to focus my interviews on attitude and culture. Naturally, the candidate is on their best behavior, so how do you break down these barriers and see what they’re really like?

Let’s play a board game!

A lot of us at Sincerely enjoy playing board games. If you visit us during lunch, you’ll often catch us playing Chess, Blokus, Settlers, Carcassonne, or Acquire; lately we’ve come to enjoy playing a turn a day of the Game of Thrones board game (it’s a 6-7 hour game!). Through these sessions, I’ve come to realize how much game playing styles mirror how people interact with their coworkers away from the game table. One day when we had an engineering candidate on site, I got to wondering if we should invite them to the table.

How much can you learn?

We’ve played games where @hua was losing so badly that he was effectively out of the game. Yet, he’d still show up every day to play a round, in good spirits and doing what he could to influence the game. Likewise, he has the unparalleled ability to make lemonade from lemons, and I’ve never seen him in bad spirits. Even in stressful situations, Hua has a smile on his face.

Some time ago, a talented engineer joined our team who’d have so much potential if not for a stubborn attitude. Code reviews were always a one-sided chore, as we’d always get so much push back. Low and behold a pattern emerged when others played games with him: he’d get so angry at others for attacking him that they’d just stop doing so. And so went the code reviews – they became thinner and fewer, and his code more isolated. Would an interview game have exposed this attitude and spared us the bad hire, I wonder?

The ideal interview game

The ideal game involves strategy (over chance), plenty of interaction, and an opportunity for alliances. Game of Thrones would be ideal if not for it’s 6 hour play time; the ideal game lasts no more than an hour. I’ve played dozens of great strategy board games, but three stand out in my mind as best for an interview:

Carcassonne: Plenty of interaction, strategy, and some alliance possibilities. Easy to learn for new players, and quick to play.

Blokus: Fun & easy to learn with clear strategy. No opportunity for alliances, but plenty of interaction.

Settlers: Plenty of interaction, fewer alliance possibilities, some strategy difficulties for new players. A tad bit on the long side, but some engineers will already know how to play.

What to look for

In general, you’ll learn a lot about a person and their future interactions with your team just by playing a game with them. Just as they say there is a lot of truth in a joke, I believe that people often let their guard down when playing a game, and expose more of who they are. There are few interactions to pay particular attention to:

How are they at winning and losing?

There’s nothing wrong with savoring a win, but players who gloat over successes tend to be the engineers who have trouble interacting with and leading teammates later on. Being a sore loser can stem from jealousy issues, which hints at poor teamwork skills. The player that faces a battle or a game with grace despite the outcome will most likely be a good teammate.

How do they manage their alliances?

If the game involves making and breaking alliances, it can be telling to observe how a player manages those relationships. Do they take advantage of opportunities and break alliances at appropriate times? Players who maintain permament alliances even if it means losing a game are telling you that they’re loyal but may lack self-initiative. Players who “take one for the team” by preventing a particularly strong player from winning a round are showing you they are team players. Players who make a habit of breaking alliances too early may have difficulty with impulse control and bigger picture thinking.

How effectively do they learn?

How quickly does the candidate learn the rules to the game, and do they enjoy the process? How quickly do they pick up strategies on their own? How do they deal with uncertainty if a rule or strategy isn’t explained to them? These can indicate how quickly they’ll pick up new technologies and stay ahead of the curve.

It’s all in good fun!

By the time the candidate has walked through your door, they’ve probably already gone through several days of technical interviews. Imagine their surprise when you break that monotony by asking them to play a game with the team? If nothing else, you’ve all just bonded over a good game and made your company stand out in their mind as one that values culture.

I’m looking forward to implementing and refining our own interview game process at Sincerely and would love to hear your thoughts and feedback. The next time you have a candidate in for an interview, consider making it a group interview over a friendly board game and tell me how it goes.

PS: We’re hiring!