Taking the Initial Phone Screen with Candidates

This is the third blog post of a series titled Hiring for Engineering Managers. I plan to write a few posts on this topic since I'm incredibly passionate about how to hire for, and grow software engineering teams.

Some time ago, I started taking on the initial phone call that candidates for my team do. This experiment has stuck and I’m still very happy with this process today. If there’s no overlapping availability, I will ask another EM (Engineering Manager) or someone from the Talent Team to take the call. However, I have found that personally taking on the initial call is the best first step towards providing a positive candidate experience (I’ll get into why during this post).

I also screen all resumes from applicants (I spend 10-15 minutes on this per day). We had 1015 people apply directly to my team during the calendar year of 2022. 107 of these folks were moved forward and we ended up doing 81 initial calls which is roughly 1.7 per working week. We hired 5 people from this pipeline! (but there’s other hiring funnels too)

(Side note: I should probably write a blog post about how to get all of these metrics from Google Calendar, let me know if you’re interested!)

The Very First Call with Candidates

In a lot of companies, the first call applicants will do is with someone from the Recruiting team. However, I’ve found that taking on the first call myself as the hiring manager is the best way to initiate the relationship with candidates. I think it’s especially important to make sure people don’t drop out.

And the first call doesn’t have to be very long. 20 to 30 minutes is enough time. The main goal is setting the stage for candidates:

  • What do we do here?
  • How do we work?
  • What will the rest of the interview process look like?
  • What questions do you have for me?

That’s really it. And of course, we’ll always end up talking about what they’re looking for and their motivations. Candidates will typically ask about team processes, the company’s outlook, salary ranges, and whatever else. We will of course spend time talking about the topics they are most interested in. In fact, the goal with the first call is that they’ll ask the majority of the questions (and I let them know about this so that they’re not as shy about it).

This is not so much an “interview” in the traditional sense of the word. The first call is really about clearing things up for them, particularly with regard to the interview process structure. And notice that I will end up talking to most of these candidates again during the interview process.

Why Not Have Someone From HR Do This?

In my view, it’s perfectly fine to have a recruiter or someone from Human Resources have the first chat with new candidates. However, the experience candidates have when they get to immediately meet their potential manager is unique. Candidates can get a more accurate idea of the team's dynamic and the manager's work style. As a manager, you demonstrate that hiring the right people is a priority by investing your time in meeting them.

I consider my HR partners as close colleagues and we collaborate throughout the hiring process. I may even consult with them after my first call with candidates to determine together if we should progress with them (more on this further down). And in many situations, they will also meet candidates and provide their input.

Discussing Salary Ranges and Other “HR stuff”

It’s expected that candidates will ask about salary ranges and other things like that (perks, contractual details, benefits, insurance, etc.). I am not prepared to answer all of these questions, especially because we hire employees across more than 6 different countries. But that hasn’t been a problem. For any questions that I don’t know how to answer, I’ll just write it down and send them to my partner in the Talent Team. If they’re simple, we’ll email the responses to candidates. If not, then we schedule a quick follow-up call between the two of them.

The Email I Send After the Call

I always send an email to candidates after the initial call. I just copy and paste the same document to everyone and send it as we’re wrapping up. This document, again, has the goal of getting candidates excited about us:

The email I send to candidates after the call

It’s a 1-pager that contains a list of links to blog posts from our Engineering Blog (mainly by engineers in our team). It also contains some content written by our customers about our product, as well as links to talks given by people on our team. This is a living document in our team’s wiki, and different members of the team have contributed to it in the past.

This email almost never gets responded to, which is fine (although I sometimes wish people would respond with something). If I meet candidates again during the process, I’ll try to see what they read or which talks they watched, and what they liked the most.

An Interview or Not?

I’ve mentioned before that this isn’t really an “interview” in the traditional sense of the word. However, this is definitely an interview in many ways. During the call, I’m obviously gauging whether the person could be a good fit or not, and sometimes we can tell very early on that they’re not.

Going back to the numbers I shared above, from the 81 initial calls I did in 2022, we moved forward 51 candidates. There’s no specific trend for the rejections, the reasons vary a lot. But I would say that the most common reason in my experience (YMMV) is lack of interest in the company/product/position. If someone’s not engaged at all during the conversation, we will likely not move them forward. Of course, other reasons are much simpler such as the candidate’s salary range expectations not matching what we can offer.

Changes I'm Planning, and How Others Could Adapt This

I’m writing this blog post with just over 3 and a half years of engineering management experience. After a lot of tweaking over the years, I think I’m now at a point where I don’t really want to make any substantial changes to the interview process. And changing the structure of the initial call is not something I’m even remotely considering (there are, however, some experiments that I’d like to run in other parts of the process).

Of course, and this should go without saying, in another company I would have to rethink the whole thing. Each company’s culture will have a tremendous impact on what the ideal hiring flow should look like. For instance, some companies don’t have positions open for each team and instead do team matching later in the process. Moreover, in other companies, the number of applications might be so large that it wouldn’t be feasible for an EM alone to take on all the resume screening and first calls.

What Can You Take Away?

What I would like readers to take away is that the hiring manager, as the ultimate accountable person for filling open positions, must do whatever it takes to achieve this. The hiring manager may have to spend countless hours screening resumes, or talking to candidates very early on in the hiring process to make sure they don’t drop out. Or they may have to invest a lot of time in looking for people on LinkedIn and other platforms. It’s really up to the hiring manager to attack whatever issues that could be slowing down hiring.

This has been the main theme from all the posts in this series so far. If you haven’t read the previous posts, here they are:

Of course, I’m happy to hear any thoughts on this matter. Just reach out on Twitter!