Tech Interview Guide: Probing Questions

Interviews provide a broader perspective of what a candidate lists on paper. While some questions are straightforward, others require a deeper dive to break beyond a surface response. These are what are known as probing questions. There might be various skills you’re looking for that require a probing question to clearly explain a candidate’s capabilities, and in these cases, the quality of questions helps determine the scope of the answers.

This is the fifth blog in our Tech Interview Guide series. As you know, interviews are a critical turning point in the hiring process that combines experience and personality. Probing questions help separate the good from the great, and provide important perspective into cultural fits. In this post we’ll explore how to formulate questions that create layers:

Are Probing Questions the Same as Follow-up Questions?

While they belong to the same broad category, probing questions and follow-up questions serve distinct purposes, which is why meticulously preparing for what you will ask a candidate in an interview is crucial. This preparation ensures that the questions you inquire about effectively lead to the insightful answers you’re seeking.

  • Follow-up Questions: As a hiring manager, you may naturally pose these questions to seek further clarification or context if a candidate’s initial response lacks detail. Some candidates provide comprehensive answers that require no further elaboration, making follow-up questions unnecessary for understanding their perspective.
  • Probing Questions: Conversely, probing questions are carefully pre-planned and are not contingent on the candidate’s responses. Regardless of whether the candidate’s reply is detailed, probing questions are designed to delve deeper, often followed by additional, targeted sub-questions. This structured approach helps uncover keener insights into the candidate’s capabilities and potential alignment with the role.

How to Formulate Probing Questions

Many companies carefully select key skills they desire in new hires, covering both technical abilities and soft skills. Typically, they craft specific questions to assess these areas. Probing questions, however, delve deeper, seeking nuanced and specific answers that align with the company’s values and cultural norms. These questions are crucial for identifying candidates who truly fit the organizational mould.

When developing your interview strategy, consider the following steps:

  1. Identify a skill that is highly valued by your company.
  2. Visualize scenarios where this skill is essential.
  3. Develop several scenario-based questions that probe this skill.
  4. Structure these questions to build upon each other, increasing in depth and complexity.
  5. Strategically sequence questions using “how,” “why,” and “what” to explore different facets of the candidate’s approach and reasoning.
  6. Define what constitutes a strong versus a weak response, setting clear benchmarks for assessment.

This methodical approach ensures that you not only assess the necessary skills but also how well the candidate aligns with the company’s core values and culture.

How to Phrase Probing Questions

Probing questions encourage plenty of dialogue from the candidate, so you’ll have to articulate them well. Consider how the following initial questions build on each other while providing the opportunity for the candidate to include new information:

  1. How did you identify that your colleague needed support or understanding?
    • What specific actions did you take to provide support or assistance to your colleague?
    • How did this experience impact your relationship with the colleague and the overall team dynamics?
  1. How do you prepare for a hard conversation, considering a colleague’s feelings and perspective?
    • What strategies did you use to communicate the feedback effectively while showing empathy?
    • How did the colleague react, and how did you respond to their emotions during the conversation?
  1. What specific actions have you taken to learn about your colleagues’ unique backgrounds or perspectives?
    • How did you adapt your communication and collaboration style to accommodate these differences?
    • What was the outcome of your efforts in promoting an inclusive and empathetic work environment?

Strong Responses

  • Responses that demonstrate the candidate’s ability to apply a combination of skills effectively.
  • Replies that reveal significant details about the candidate’s personal and professional attributes.
  • When the candidate links their current experience to a similar past situation, illustrating their growth and learning from the experience.

Poor Responses

  • Brief responses that offer only minimal information.
  • A reluctance to consider broader implications or the larger context.
  • Responses that dismiss or downplay the significance of how the situation was managed or its impact on subsequent actions.

Key Takeaways

Arming your interview toolkit with probing questions is essential. Throughout your interviews, these queries can reveal a candidate’s true capabilities, alignment with company values, and potential for growth. By challenging candidates to demonstrate their problem-solving skills and adaptability, you ensure a more comprehensive view and effective assessment of each candidate’s fit for the role.

Need a hand crafting effective probing questions or enhancing your interview techniques? Talentlab has worked with countless companies throughout the tech industry to find the perfect hires. Reach out to us today.

Sarah Doughty

Sarah is a seasoned recruitment advisor, with a background in hard-to-find technical talent searches. Over the course of her career she has worked with hundreds of clients building high-tech employment brands, leading recruitment teams, marketing candidates, executing passive search strategies, and developing expansive passive candidate pools in key markets across North America. Sarah excels in tough situations that require creativity and tenacity to overcome challenges.