My Extreme Interview at Menlo

posted Jun 3, 2010, 11:32 AM by Bill Heitzeg
Those folks at Menlo are weird.  No question about it.  Yesterday I went for my fifth visit to Menlo, but yesterday was different, yesterday I went to Menlo in an attempt to join their team.  Previously I had just been curious, trying to understand why Menlo was successful at Agile when so many others had failed, including myself.  The people at Menlo are incredibly generous with their time, so over and over again I was able to attend a variety of events, see Menlo in action, and learn about what makes them different.  Somewhere between my 3rd and 4th visit I realized that I really wanted the chance to work at Menlo.  So they set it up!  They invited me to participate in their Extreme Interview process, the first step to joining the Menlo team.

I was incredibly nervous, I can't remember an interview that made me so nervous.  I guess I really wanted to succeed more than I realized.  When I arrived, each of the four tables was full of candidates.  There where 16 in all, but other than myself and one other person, the others were Mock candidates, part of a program called Shifting Gears.  The Shifting Gears folks were there to improve their interviewing skills by experiencing a completely different kind of interview, the Menlo Extreme Interview.  It kind of blew me away.  I mean, the interview and subsequent dinner (provided by Menlo) and discussion were well over 3 hours, with 9 Menlo personnel, with really no gain to Menlo at all. 

I sat down in an empty seat and immediately all three of the Shifting Gears people at the table started talking with me; "Who was I?", "What did I do?", "Did I live around here", "What was Menlo all about?".  Boy did that help with my nervousness.  I had a supportive, friendly, and cohesive group that I would be interviewing with. 

Per instructions, I had read the Menlo white paper on Extreme Interviewing and two Menlo blogs that also discussed the process.  In my opinion, the goal was to show how well you paired with some one else in a problem solving exercise.  I was nervous.  I really didn't know how I would do.  I'm used to working by myself and pretty much doing everything on my own.  I had rejected pairing many years ago and it was only in the last few years that I had really started approaching it again. 

We were given a brief tour of the Menlo factory, all I wanted was to get started, but I tried to stay calm and not worry too much.  I even enjoyed what was now my fifth tour.  After the tour, the same instructions that the blogs and the white paper had given, were given again.  "Make your partner look good" was repeated several times.  We were to perform three exercises, each twenty minutes in length.  For each exercise we would be paired with one other person who we would sit next to.   Across the table would be an observer.  We should ignore the observer unless we had questions about the specific exercise.  For each exercise we would have a different observer and a different partner.  We would have one pen between the two of us.  "Share the pen" was strongly impressed upon us. 

So it began.  Randomly assigned a partner and an observer, I sat down at the number 8 spot.  The instructions for the exercise had been given verbally before we started and they were also printed at the top of the exercise sheet.  My partner and I introduced ourselves and we sat down to read the instructions, silently to ourselves.  It was too quiet and I was so nervous I couldn't remember the verbal instructions, nor for some reason could I actually comprehend the words I was reading.  I believe the silence stretched on for days, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't comprehend the instructions.  I was certainly panicking, but then my partner rescued me.  He started asking me questions.  I couldn't answer his questions, because I couldn't really remember my own name at that point, but the more he tried, the more I realized that I knew this stuff!  The exercise involved us identifying, from a large pool of "Stake Holders", five stakeholders that we would want to interview to better understand how to design a particular software application.  The application was an electronic form of the Menlo paper process, similar to Version One or Agile Zen.  All we really had to do was to identify good potential users of those products and we were done.  It all finally snapped into place, but now all I wanted to do was grab the pen and start circling the right people to interview.  I made a grab at it, but again, my partner saved me.  He didn't understand at all what needed to be done.  I knew that if I left him behind, I would have failed completely. Realistically if it hadn't been for him, I never would have snapped out of my panic, I certainly couldn't let him feel stupid after he had saved me.  He was a finance and accounting person, he had absolutely no idea about planning tools, but he did know Microsoft Office, so we used Excel to try to clear things up.  As 15 minutes went to 10 minutes to 5 minutes we worked through the kind of metaphors that would help us to jointly understand who would be the right people for us to interview.  Lucky for us, the Menlo board was right behind us so we could talk about the product itself in a visual manner.  As the last few seconds ticked by, we were able to complete the first part of the exercise, together as a team.  We of course never made it to the second part, which was to come up with interview questions, but as far as I was concerned, it was a great success and my brain was finally working again.

At the beginning of the second exercise, I was assigned the same observer.  Our instructions were to stay standing if we had the same observer or the same partner.  My observer handled it all very quickly and as I was in a pretty happy state, this didn't throw me at all.  My second partner was an engineer and although English wasn't his first language, he was easy to understand and was very serious about solving the problem before us.  We were presented with a number of story cards and instructed to prepare three iterations from the story cards.  My partner was a fast reader and quick to make up his mind.  I was worried a bit that I was letting him lead too much, so I started using simple interrupt patterns and questioning strategies (thank you Sandler) to get him thinking a bit more about the choices he was making.  He was also holding the pen, but the exercise was such that we either needed to share the pen or we needed two pens.  Luckily for us, there was a second pen on the table (not sure how that happened).  I reached for it, but my partner was quicker.  He said something like "Oh, we shouldn't do that".  He then looked at the pen in his hand and handed it over.  It was a breakthrough moment.  We were partners from that point on, quickly and methodically working through each story card.  We were so quick that we even had time at the end to re-arrange our iterations and perfect them a bit.

The third exercise was just fun, my nervousness was gone and I was assigned a fantastic partner.  My partner was a sales person and as so often it turns out, they are some of the easiest to get along with.  We were instructed to create Unit Tests within a set of scenarios.  I only had one strange moment here where I just started writing after saying what I thought the answer was.  Luckily my partner was very engaged and as I had done with my second partner, he slowed me down and got me to talk about the answers before I just pushed on. We laughed about our answers and even pulled out an iPhone to help us figure out one of the tougher problems.   I felt completely comfortable and was actually a little disappointed when the exercise ended. 

Typically, after the three exercises, we would all go home, but Menlo was trying something different.  This time, we would all be given our feedback from the observers live, in front of the whole group.  I was both happy and extremely worried about this.  Worse, they made us eat dinner first!  I couldn't believe they were going to drag this out.  I had a bit of dinner and passed the time talking with my second partner and a few of his colleagues.  

The feedback step turned out to be very interesting and it's the only time during the whole event that I remembered why I had started this whole quest in the first place; to learn why Menlo was so successful at applying Agile.  I started taking notes.  They worked through each one of us, one at a time, randomly chosen.  Each observer spent about one minute giving feedback.  I was blown away as to how many people had hogged the pen and how many hadn't really been able to work together, let alone make their partners look good.  I had been much luckier with my partners, than I had realized.  On a personal level, I was very engaged when any one of my partners received feedback.  Two were evaluated before me, so I received a lot of clues as to how I did through their evaluations.  Obviously, when it was my turn I was all ears.  I seemed to have done pretty well.  I had one tough moment when being given my evaluation from the first observer.  She observed something I didn't agree with.  Even with a roomful of people, it was all I could do to not argue with her.  After that, I kept a close eye on others for similar reactions.  Not one single person argued with their observers although I could tell many times that they didn't agree and would have liked to.  I imagine a few might have stayed behind for just that purpose.  Resisting this urge in my opinion was absolutely the right choice, especially since this was a very tough thing for the Menlo team to do in such a public manner.  All in all, the feedback step was done very well and the things I heard, including what the first observer said, will be useful to me in the future.

Although a bit of a harrowing experience for me, I absolutely think this is the right way to interview.  It takes into account some of the tenants of Structured Interviewing, reducing personal bias and insuring a sense of consistency.  In addition, the idea of pairing gets to the heart of the Menlo culture, which is team work.  

Gosh, I really hope I get called back for the second interview...