Tech intern interviews: Character first, skills will follow

Summer is over. The last of the 2019 Affectiva summer interns have left, having accomplished signifcant project in areas spanning machine learning, human computer interactions, data analysis, and infrastructure development. (Watch this video to learn more about their projects and experience.)

As I reflect back on what made each of our interns successful, the thing that stands out foremost in my mind is their character. Character, which they displayed from very the first interview that I conducted with them.

Commonly in technical job interviews, questions are designed to identify whether the candidate can do the job at hand well and with as little in-house training as possible (which is especially important to small startups, who are often already stretched by aggressive deadlines and strained resources). Sure, there is some consideration of the candidates’ demeanor and attitude during the interview, but skills and competency are the primary focus.  

When selecting interns to be part of a tech mentoring program, however, this equation for choosing the best candidate does not translate. Prospective interns certainly must be evaluated, but for intern interviews, greater focus needs to be on character than on skills. Interview questions must be designed to identify if an intern is teachable, authentic, and motivated to learn and succeed.

The position of intern inherently needs a teachable subject. To identify this quality, we need to go beyond just asking: What are this candidate’s relevant skills and experiences? We also need to be able to answer this next set of questions with an emphatic “yes”: Will this candidate be able to take in new information or learn new skills and quickly apply them? Do the prospective interns listen? Do they ask questions?

Asking questions requires admitting that one doesn’t understand or know something. Admitting ignorance is uncomfortable, especially in an interview setting, where one naturally wants to be perceived as intelligent and knowledgeable, yet doing so shows integrity and confidence—important character traits in a budding scientist or engineer. Proposing questions also sets the tone of the subsequent conversation to be open and transparent. So with every candidate, I keenly observe the way they handle unfamiliarity with a topic: will they be forthcoming in admitting what they don’t know, or will they try to bluff their way through? I believe that a candidate who can demonstrate candor and authenticity in a high-pressure situation like an interview is likely to extend that to the rest of their internship: asking for help and advice to work through problems and accomplish goals. 

A final character quality, and perhaps the most crucial for success in any program, that I look out for when searching for an intern, is the candidate’s motivation. Why did the candidate apply for this program? What motivated them? Are they interested in the broad technical field, or is it the skills they expect to learn? Or is their motivation to broaden their resume to meet a bigger career goal? In my experience, if an intern is clear with regards to what really motivates them, and if this motivation can be supported and enhanced by the internship program, then the outcome is a magnificent positive cycle of achievement, increased motivation and greater accomplishments.

A wonderful example of internship success brought about by skills grown and supported by intrinsic character traits is the recent cohort of 2019 Affectiva interns. At the start of the summer, none of the interns possessed the skills of a seasoned technician, but what they did have in spades was teachability, authenticity and motivation. These qualities of character, which were in the forefront of my concern when interviewing them, would engender in each intern the ability to quickly learn many new skills while on-the-job, the creativity for finding innovative solutions to tough technical problems, and the persistence to face and resolve obstacles, which are inevitable in new endeavors. For this group of interns, as others I have mentored before, it was ultimately their character that propelled them to be successful at delivering on ambitious projects that made a real difference to the whole company besides benefiting them individually. 

Teachability, authenticity and motivation are three character traits I deliberately look for in intern interviews. What do you look for? How do you implement it in your interview process? Or even more foundational, do you agree with this premise?

This article was originally published on LinkedIn on September 9, 2019.

Let's connect: