== Notes to self ==
Not gold alone brought us hither

Five Golden Rules for a Great Video Interview

I joined Bayer Crop Science on 1 April 2020, just after the onset of Covid-19 lock-downs and ever since, our engineering teams are remote. During this phase, some aspects of work changed radically, while some stayed the same. What did not change was our delivery cadence. In some ways, our deliveries improved due to factors that I will discuss some other time. What changed radically is how we interview, hire, and onboard new members to the team, which is now completely virtual.

My joining coincided with the beginning of a growth phase for the team, which resulted in some of us spending a considerable amount of time and effort conducting interviews. Every single interview [obviously] was conducted on video conferencing applications (in our case, Microsoft Teams) and in this post I want to share some observations which can help candidates improve the outcome, with the focus on what the interviewer sees on their screen during a video interview.

These “rules” matter in certain situations:

  • These hardly matter when you ace an interview, i.e., you did well in the core competencies of the position you are interviewing for, because your interviewer is less likely to notice your surroundings. They will be excited to have found a strong candidate.
  • These also hardly matter when you flunk an interview, i.e., you do poorly on core competencies. In this case, your ambience is not your top concern. You will need to focus on technical preparation to do better next time.
  • But these do matter when you sort of just did ok in an interview, i.e., good enough but not great. It matters because the interviewer needs to tap into non-technical aspects of the interview to reinforce their decision. They will look for signals that can help them predict your performance on the job. For e.g., being organized or attention to detail are traits that improve your performance on the job and you want to make sure your surroundings reflect some of these.

Let us dive in:

  1. Mind your posture: sit upright, with the video camera at about your eye level. This allows you to look straight into the camera, which is the perspective your interviewer will see if they were talking to you in person. This posture is ergonomic, this will allow you to think better, type better (when solving a coding problem), and prevent fatigue as the interview progresses. The opposite of this is to sit on a flat surface such as a bed or the floor, with your laptop placed on the same surface. This setup forces you to slouch over the screen/camera and that creates a perspective for the interviewer which they will never see in a face-to-face interaction. This also conveys that you do not have a work setup that provides a comfortable and a distraction-free environment, thereby raising concerns about your effectiveness as a remote team member. A simple solution is to get a desk and chair. This need not be expensive; just a wooden desk and chair from a local furniture shop will do. Personally, I find a straight back wooden chair surprisingly more ergonomic than a fancy office chair! Just in case you do not have or want a desk, and you prefer sitting on the floor, the least you can do is prop your laptop on a small stool or a box and that will allow you to sit upright, as well as type more comfortably.

  2. Mind the background: position yourself in the room such that your background is positive, or neutral. Some people like to show off things which reflect their personality, e.g., a bookcase, or a musical instrument or a painting etc. This is a positive background. Neutral backgrounds are a wall or a plain surface. Most modern A/V tools such as Microsoft Teams or Zoom allow you to set an artificial background, so that is also an option. The opposite of this is to have a distracting background, such as open cupboards with unorganized shelves, or clothes drying on a line, or people walking around in the background. These are best avoided to not distract the interviewer.

  3. Mind the lighting: position yourself with the dominant source of light in front of you, i.e., behind the video camera. This ensures that you are clearly visible to the interviewer and is next best to a face-to-face meeting in a well-lit room. What you do not want to do is have poor lighting or have the dominant source of light behind you, both of which makes it difficult for them to see you.

  4. Mind the noise: minimize avoidable ambient noise. It may not be possible to eliminate noise in a home setup but try to minimize it to the extent possible. Avoid being in a spot where machines or traffic can be heard, or background chatter from friends or family members can be heard. One more thing you can do to improve audio quality: use a headset with a mic, or the earplugs that you got for free with your mobile phone. These improve audio quality a lot and are better than the built-in mic/speakers on a laptop, which do not suppress ambient noise and can also introduce echo.

  5. Mind the appearance: try to dress appropriately to the role and company culture. A little bit of research will help you pick the right level of formality in clothing. Smile at appropriate moments, at least occasionally – this helps diffuse tension for you and the interviewer (remember, they are human too!) Relax and stay hydrated (keep a bottle of water by your side, just in case). During longer interviews, do not hesitate to take a small break if you need to.

To conclude, you will tilt the scale in your favor (at least in some cases) by being mindful of your setup during an online interview. I wish you all the best!

PS: Thank you Deepesh, Surabhi, and Shahin for reading the draft, providing valuable input, and for pointing out errors. Any remaining errors in this post are mine.

PPS: This article first appeared on LinkedIn here.