Don’t Blow Off the Social Interview

I remember getting an email with the interview schedule for my onsite at Dropbox in 2013. I was meeting with five people for various interviews, pretty standard fare, but one interview stood out:

2:00–2:30 pm Coffee with Marla 

I didn’t know it then, but this was the Social Interview.

During my onsite, at 2:00 pm, Marla picked me up and we grabbed coffee and sat down at a table in the open layout cafeteria.

I was in interview mode and a little tense.

Marla asked, “So, how are you doing?”

I was a little surprised because I was expecting direct interview questions like, Walk me through your resume or Tell me about a time when…

It took me a second to snap out of it and answer her question.

I’m doing well! How are you?

Over the next 30 minutes, we had a great conversation. We talked about the struggle that is living in San Francisco, some of my interests, and what it’s like working at Dropbox. My time with Marla felt like she was just trying to get to know me and offer a break from the long interview schedule.

After my chat with Marla, I was at ease, but it left me wondering, was that an interview? 

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What is the Social Interview?

To answer my question above, yes, it was an interview. It was the Social Interview and feedback from this conversation also informs the hire/no-hire decision. I’ve personally been in interview de-briefs where candidates have been rejected because of strong, negative Social Interview feedback even though they had strong, positive feedback from other interviews that looked into hard skills, like technical depth.

The Social Interview is generally a lunch, coffee, or a walk with a potential team member. It’s usually casual and a time for the interviewer to get to know you, answer any questions you may have about the role or company, and most importantly, for the interviewer to evaluate if he can see himself working with you.

Why is the Social Interview important?

The interviewer is looking to see how well you’d work with the team.

I give many Social Interviews to candidates at Dropbox. While the conversations are laid back, I make sure to get a good read on how they work with their current team as well as their curiosity and energy for the role. If the recruiter has called out a specific quality to probe, like how the candidate has dealt with team conflicts, I’ll make sure to cover that. However, there are no pre-determined questions. It’s really meant to be an open ended conversation rather than a formal interview.

In addition to finding concrete evidence of your qualifications for the role, the interviewer will also pick up on your social interactions. Things like, do you dominate the conversation, making it hard to get a word in? Or, do you ask curious questions about the role, company, the interviewer, or any topic that makes talking to you engaging?

The worst Social Interviews are painful conversations because candidates are either disinterested, condescending, and/or arrogant.

In essence, the interviewer is trying to answer the question,

Could I see myself spending many hours with this person working on a difficult project?

I can vouch for how important this question is from my own experience.

When I was working on the Partnerships team at Dropbox, there were a handful of contentious, time sensitive meetings with external partners. However, the most stressful part wasn’t the meeting itself, it was preparing for them.

My teammate Elizabeth and I spent long hours together preparing for these meetings. We’d create multiple versions for every partner presentation to cover any and all kinds of scenarios. We were both under intense time pressure and the success of our work depended on how well we worked together.

We would routinely be collaborating on presentation decks past midnight and then hop on a flight to China, Korea, or Spain, refining our presentation while waiting at the gate and even further on the 12 hour flight. Once we landed and checked in to the hotel, we’d continue to find supporting data and information to polish our presentation. Inevitably, on the day of the meeting, we’d be putting the finishing touches on our work at the last minute in our cab ride to the meeting.

It was an extremely stressful period of time, but Elizabeth and I supported each other to deliver high quality work and produce positive outcomes for Dropbox.

Looking back, I couldn’t have imagined going through that without Elizabeth. If I had to go through that with someone who I didn’t enjoy working with, I don’t think I could’ve handled it. Thank you, Elizabeth!

At the end of the day, you spend most of your waking hours at work or thinking about work. You want to work with people you want to spend time with.

Can you see yourself spending more time with your interviewer?

Social Interviews also double as “sell” conversations from the company’s perspective.

The interviewer is tasked to highlight the positive aspects of working at the company and answer questions about product strategy, culture, and future prospects of the company. Make the most of this time by asking thoughtful questions. Remember, you could be spending a decent chunk of your time at this company with these people over the next handful of years of your life.

The Social Interview is probably the closest indication of what it’ll be like to actually work at the company. If you end up accepting an offer there, you’ll have countless lunch and coffee conversations at the office with your co-workers about work, the future of the company, and about each others’ personal interests.

Did you have an engaging conversation with the interviewer? Could you see yourself working side-by-side on challenging projects with him? If so, that’s a good sign. If not, it’s something to consider if you end up getting an offer.

Preparing for the Social Interview

Here are tactical suggestions for your onsite Social Interview.

Research the company and its products/services.

This might be obvious, but it is surprising how many candidates I’ve interviewed who don’t have a baseline understanding of Dropbox and our products.

In the least, search for news articles about the company to get a feel for how it’s viewed in the current business environment. Comb through the company’s blogs to get up to speed on recent product launches to piece together your own hypothesis of the company’s product and business strategies.

Have at least 3 thoughtful questions ready: 1 directly for the interviewer, 1 about the role, and 1 about the company.

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Example questions to ask about the interviewer:

  • Why did you join [Company]? What’s kept you here? (Especially if the interviewer has been at the company for over 2 years).
  • How has [Company] supported your own career growth?
  • Can you tell me about an experience where you felt like you learned or grew the most here at [Company]?

Example questions about the role:

  • What do you think are the toughest challenges someone in this role will face? 
  • Who would I be working most closely with and what are they like? 
  • Can you tell me how this role fits in to the larger product and company strategy?

Example questions about the company:

  • What do you think is the biggest strength of [Company]?
  • How do strategic product and business decisions get made here?
  • What are some challenging moments [Company] has faced in the past year? How has leadership dealt with them? 

Be engaged, curious, and enthusiastic.

Show you’re interested in the company and role by proactively engaging in the conversation with energy.

After you answer a question, ask a relevant, followup question back to the interviewer. Make it a dialogue. The Social Interview is extremely painful for the interviewer if the conversation is one way and he has to carry the conversation.

Keep your thoughtful questions handy because there will be a point where the interviewer asks you, what questions can I answer for you? You will get bonus points for asking questions that go beyond superficial questions like, what do you like about working here? 

Speak enthusiastically. I know this may be difficult if this is not your natural disposition, but as best you can, be excited about what you’re talking about. This really makes a difference during the Social Interview. Think about it. Who would you rather have a conversation with, someone who comes off as excited or someone who comes off as disinterested?

Finally, if your interview is over lunch or coffee, get whatever is quickest.

Don’t spend half of the interview time waiting in line. If you have dietary restrictions, tell the interviewer so you can find what you need quickly.

I’ve conducted Social Interviews when we literally had only 20 minutes to talk during an allotted 45 minutes because the candidate spent most of the time in a long line or searching for food in the cafeteria.

If this happens, it won’t be a reason to reject you… but it won’t help your case.

Prioritize your conversation with your interviewer over finding the perfect meal or drink. Remember, the Social Interview is still an interview!

 


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