Time management interviewing

Time management interviewing
Photo by Jon Tyson / Unsplash

I recently did some interviewing and it was a reminder of how time-constrained the typical interview process is. A few hours (at most) is such a small amount of time to get to know a candidate well. Even if you do all the right things and have diverse, well-trained, empathetic interviewers ... interview questions can miss super important signals! A while back I came up with an exercise to gauge candidates based on how they viewed time - hopefully it will be useful to you too!

Most interview questions suck

As an interviewee, you'll always get the generic, committee-approved questions. These questions make it easy to compare responses across multiple candidates... which is really optimized for the hiring coordinator (not the candidate). You might also face the odd brain teaser or "favorite album" questions which don't really tell you about the candidate. Hopefully you won't encounter the inane and absurd questions that are basically just interviewers wasting time.

"Repeat 'peter picked a pepper' and cross sell me this washing machine"

The most useful interview questions probe into how a candidate thinks through a problem. Are they comfortable with ambiguity, can they think on their feet, value diverse opinions? It's hard to extract from a candidate, and usually interviewers have limited time but a problem-solving exercise can expose these more valuable traits.

Some roles, like in programming or engineering will lend itself to white boarding a solution. But what about more typical management or project roles? They require context that wouldn't fit into a neatly solvable puzzle for candidates. So I propose giving candidates an exercise that isn't about how well they can perform one job... but how they juggle multiple jobs at once. Since most 40-hour weeks are filled with 1:1s, project updates, internal meetings and a dizzying number of time constraints. I'm proposing an interview question that answers how well a candidate manages their time.

A simple time exercise

So how do you actually judge time management? Here's the exercise I came up with and used while I was hiring at Citigroup and GitHub:

  • Step 1: Create a time-bound scenario (typical 8 hour day)
  • Step 2: Provide a list of required tasks, totaling 16 hours+
  • Step 3: Ask candidates to choose tasks for their hypothetical day
  • Step 4: Discuss the candidate's rationale for their choices

Candidates are forced to make some tradeoffs, as they would in any job with real world constraints. This scenario has no right answers as it doesn't really matter what a candidate picks. However, there's so much valuable insight from talking through why the candidate made their choices. Here's a bit more depth on how to run this exercise yourself:

Step 1: Create a time-bound scenario

Give the candidate background on what the exercise will be and why it's useful. Once explained verbally, they won't be as worried about "correct" answers - just honest ones. My preferred scenario is usually an eight hour day, but you could run this exercise with larger time bounds (a hypothetical week, for example). But a word of caution - the larger scenarios don't provide the same visceral trade off pressure like a small eight hour day.

Step 2: Provide a list of required tasks with time estimates

Here's where you'll want to prep a list of tasks and their time estimates. You can write this on a white board, but I've found it to be much easier to just print this out and hand it to the candidate. The tasks should be specific, so the tradeoff feels real. You'll also want to include tasks of differing lengths and commitment. Here's a ready-to-go spreadsheet with sample questions, review topics, and follow up questions. Of course, you should tweak the tasks to reflect your company, industry, and role (just be careful not to introduce bias in the tasks).

Step 3: Ask the candidate to choose and order the tasks

Put a hard limit on the minutes a candidate takes to choose and order the tasks. It's not a brain teaser to fit in everything (as that's clearly impossible). Five minutes is usually enough time to read and make some quick decisions. If you add lots of tasks, you might want to increase the time allowed, but not by much. It's easy for candidates to shift into seeing this as an "optimization" puzzle they need to cram more into.

Step 4: Review candidate's rationale for their choices

The spreadsheet has some useful followup questions. I've really loved asking "if you magically had an extra hour of time, what would you change?". The sample also includes some themes to look out for, like if they choose tasks with their team, or their boss, or if the interviewee keeps all their existing time commitments or they break them. There's obviously many ways to look at the choices, so don't forget to record the candidates choices as well as their rationale.

Does this work?

In my experience, this was a great exercise to learn more about how candidates think. Plus it's not a question you can rehearse diplomatic answers to... since each choice implicitly de-prioritizes the rest of the options. I've also tried this exercise with a team of people and it is a bit chaotic, but also a big learning opportunity. As a group observer you'll notice how people argue, disagree, and ultimate come to a resolution. This mirrors real life decisions that employees make everyday with their own time and preferences.

As someone who is running their fourth calendar startup, I think hard about how time gets spent so hopefully this provides more value for your time spent interviewing.