Designing Cross-Functional Interviews: Are you looking for a "writer" or an "editor"?

How your interview to reflect what the job entails, and your team’s culture.

Hi, I’m Crystal Yan. 👋 I’m a product and design leader and leadership coach. Here, I write about building products and teams. Every few weeks, I write about customer development, behavioral science, and management, and share resources to help you become a better leader.

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If you’re a founder, hiring manager, or anyone who interviews to hire people outside your functional background, designing a great interview process to help you find great talent is challenging, but well worth the time spent to make improvements. Exceptional products and services come from exceptional teams, and hiring is a skill every interviewer and inclusive leader should continuously improve. I’ve hired for several functions (product, design, engineering, sales, marketing, program management, customer service), and I want to share one learning from my experience in how to design a better interview for assessing a potential cross-functional partner.

Many interviews are one of two types: technical or behavioral. As an interviewer, I have access to existing resources for these types of interviews:

  • Technical interviews (whiteboard challenges, case studies) are designed for functional experts to evaluate a candidate’s skills in that function, whether it’s in software engineering, product design, product management, marketing, or data analysis.

  • Behavioral interviews (open-ended questions) are designed to understand a candidate’s past actions and experiences: when confronted with a particular situation/challenge, what did they do, and what was the result?

However, something is missing. When I am interviewing someone from a different function (e.g. a product manager interviewing a software engineer), I’m looking for what a candidate believes successful cross-functional collaboration looks like, and looking to understand if they will add to our team’s culture. True cross-functional collaboration means a candidate is not only a great “writer”, but also a great “editor” of their functional peer’s work: a software engineer who can thoughtfully critique product design, a designer who can ask great questions after looking at a product brief, or a product manager who can suggest copy edits for a marketer’s landing page.

But because many technical interviews look for “can this candidate do [this skill] themselves?”, if I don’t have expertise in that function, as a cross-functional interviewer, it’s easy to simply decide to rely on behavioral questions alone to assess for cross-functional collaboration. However, since behavioral interviews tend to simply only ask “tell me about how you partner with [this function]”, this is often not enough. With these answers, it’s hard to tell if a candidate is overselling or underselling their skills, or if their behavior in their current employer’s culture can forecast their behavior in your team’s culture.

Thus, for cross-functional interviewers, I recommend creating a specific type of technical interview. But instead of assessing “can this candidate do [this skill] themselves?”, focus on assessing, “can this candidate improve their cross-functional peer’s work in that skill in the context of how our team operates?”. For example, you may not need to hire a software engineer who can do product design work themselves. But you certainly may want to hire a software engineer who can thoughtfully critique product design.

If you’re an interviewer and you decide how to design the interview of a cross-functional partner, design a ~20 minute cross-functional case study the next time you interview someone outside your function. If your technical interview cases are currently designed to only evaluate “writing”, design case studies that evaluate “editing” - as long as this reflects what the job entails and your team’s culture.

For example, for an engineering candidate, to understand how they partner with product and design, you could split a cross-functional case study into two parts:
1. Show them a one sentence problem statement for a new feature. Ask, “Imagine the product manager you partner with wrote this in a product brief. What’s one question you’d ask them?”
2. Show them one proposed design for this new feature. Ask, “Imagine the product designer you partner with presented this at a design review. What’s one piece of feedback you’d provide?”

Here’s a sample structure for a one hour interview:
~5 minutes: introductions
~20 minutes: a cross-functional case study
~25 minutes: behavioral questions
~10 minutes: time for the candidate to ask questions

Make sure you design your interview to reflect what the job on your team entails, and your team’s culture. The scenario for your cross-functional case should reflect a realistic scenario this candidate would be put in if they start on your team tomorrow. For example, in some organizations, product managers and designers are both expected to sketch, storyboard, and wire-frame, whereas in other organizations, one function leads (“writes”) and the other critiques (“edits”). If in your organization, you expect someone to “write”, design a case to assess their ability to come up with the first draft. If you only expect someone to “edit”, design a case to assess their ability to provide great feedback. Candidates will appreciate a sense of how your team operates today, and you should expect senior candidates to share how their leadership could improve your current operating model.

Good luck, and happy interviewing.

Additional Resources
- If you are a hiring manager, chances are you’re a people manager as well. If so, you may find these 1:1 Question Cards: Manager’s Edition helpful to have more thoughtful and meaningful conversations with your team members. Use these questions in your next 1:1s regularly so you have ongoing career growth, rapport building, performance management, and feedback conversations throughout the year, not just during review season.
- To work together on crafting a candidate-centered hiring strategy, book time with me for a hiring strategy session.

Thanks to Susumu Noda for feedback on this post.

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