The Art of Failing A Phone Screen

October 15, 2015

Currently I am helping my soon to be former employer in finding a replacement and it’s been an eye-opener.

Although recruiters are bringing the resumes, I am reading them, picking who to phone screen and doing the phone screens. My questions are based on what I know of the 4 apps we have (one a major update) and are all basic stuff any working senior level iOS Objective-C programmer should be doing almost every day. Nothing strange or tricky at all. I also wrote the job description as well.

Some days I just want to scream. Out of all the resumes and maybe half as many screens one person correctly answered the questions. They had a good interview as well but couldn’t come to an agreement unfortunately. The rest—not pretty.

When you read a resume you are looking for clues: does the contents make a coherent whole, is it consistent, do the words used match the supposed experience, did they spell Objective-C correctly?

Yes, one of them spelled it so wrong it was barely recognizable. If you can’t spell the language you claim to be a senior level person in, that’s not a good sign!

People apparently copy and paste resumes they find on the internet and try to make it look like they have all this experience but generally they aren’t very good at forging. You can read the jobs and notice each discusses the actual work in completely different language. Sometimes it’s obvious they didn’t even understand the lines they copied don’t make any sense together.

One person claimed to know both Android and iOS and had one job in each, but the actual frameworks and system classes referenced were the same for both jobs (iOS names), and several lines of each description matched exactly word for word.

Another referenced working on specific App Store apps at different companies but the apps were very obscure and the last ship date was long before they claimed to have to worked on the apps.

These of course were not worth screening. The people whose resumes were even passable were often unable to even answer the simplest iOS questions; sometimes they claimed to not have actually written any Objective-C in years despite the resume saying they did. I simply can’t fathom why anyone thinks they would be able to work as a senior iOS programmer (and by themselves) when they don’t even understand the difference between strong and weak properties? Or how to update a UIViewController when inside a separate thread? Or describe mutable versus immutable strings?

I guess people really want to be mobile developers and hope that the only interviewers will be managers they can fool. Does that happen much? I sure hope not.

You would also think that people would look online and at least visit all the many sites that have interview questions for people to study. Even I look at these to refresh my memory of things I might not have used recently. Why would you not at least study a little? I do try to make my questions not exactly the same as those I see online and I want also like people to elaborate a little so I can tell how deep their knowledge is. But at least get the simple stuff right!

A phone screen is supposed to be a reasonably quick way to eliminate those who really don’t know anything at all. But at the current rate of success I will likely never find anyone!

I have a new job in another state, starting in November. But before that one solidified I looked around here some as well. For each screen or interview I made sure I studied beforehand, reviewed framework documents and read up on anything that might be useful, and never had any trouble. Really a phone screen should simply let the screener understand that you do indeed know what your resume claims. The two go together; ideally you should be able to quickly verify that the resume is valid and then try to probe a little outside the box to see if the person has been paying attention to their craft.

Sadly all of the screens that failed were pretty obvious in the first couple of questions although I try to always move through the whole list just to be fair. The one successful person answered the questions just like I would, crisply and with little hesitation, and generally could expand on the answers. That’s the whole point, if they are working every day in iOS every question is something they would be routinely doing.

A few knew some of the answers but clearly weren’t working independently so they only knew them shallowly. It’s OK to hire someone who is junior but only if there is a team or someone senior to lead them; in this case there will only be one iOS programmer and I know exactly what they must be able to do on their own with no help.

In my life I’ve been interviewed and screened a lot in 34 years and I can say most of the time I’ve done well but even I have blown some here and there. Sometimes you have a bad day and sometimes the screener or interviewer is terrible. But if the design of the screen or interview is reasonable and based on verifying that the candidate is what they claim to be then usually you can pass it/validate them.

If the candidates are really unqualified you should have a screen designed to figure it out pretty fast. The interview is the place to see if they are a good fit for the need. I don’t want to talk with people for more than 20-30 minutes in a screen.

With each one I hope they will be a good candidate and I can stop this madness—but sadly the demand is very high for iOS people around here (not SF) and clearly the good pool is very small. Each place I interviewed at wanted me (in some cases desperately) but the job I took in another state is pretty much perfect and nothing local could compete.