«Paper 126-2007 Assessing SAS® Skill Level during the Interviewing Process Jenine Milum, Atlanta, GA ASSESSING SAS SKILL LEVEL DURING THE ...»
SAS Global Forum 2007 Planning, Development and Support
Assessing SAS® Skill Level during the Interviewing Process
Jenine Milum, Atlanta, GA
ASSESSING SAS SKILL LEVEL DURING THE INTERVIEWING PROCESS
This paper will provide guidelines and tools that will assist in interviewing a candidate for a SAS programming
position, even for the non-programming interviewer. Skill level categories will be defined: Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced. Specific interviewing approaches, suggested topics, questions and tests will be explored. We’ll also cover tactics to get the right candidates to apply in the first place.
INTRODUCTIONInterviewing is usually one of those things that many people would prefer not to do; whether you are the interviewer or the interviewee. It requires a lot of mental effort for both sides. There is little or no opportunity to practice on either side without being involved in a true interview. You are either in the situation of needing the perfect new employee or wanting a new job. In the technical world, being the interviewer is usually not one of the skills that we had been hired for in the first place. Frequently for a technical person, interviewing doesn’t always come naturally and requires specific effort to be successful.
Having a basic predetermined approach to the interview process can yield the required results. Not having an approach will lead to misleading information, a vague interpretation of abilities, and be a waste of time for both parties. Having a solid interviewing game plan will provide a better sense of control and confidence. We will consider the approach from a technical perspective and leave other human resource needs and compatibility issues for another discussion.
A certain amount of research is required prior to conducting an interview. Within this research, a set of skills should be outlined. A level of competency needs to be determined for each desired skill. Flushing this information out will provide great guidelines for assessing the skill level you require.
KNOW WHAT KIND OF CANDIDATE IS REQUIREDIs industry experience the top most consideration? Is statistical savvy unimportant, but skill with ODS a must? Which operating systems are required? Or, is this not a crucial point. Knowing which skills are essential, which are not, and which only require general competency is of the utmost importance when conducting a technical interview. Having these skills and expertise levels well defined will allow the interviewer to weed out lacking resumes, bring in the right candidates in the first place, and devise the right set of questions to ask.
If you’re interviewing for a position that is isolated without other SAS programmers or the project is a startup, you may need a candidate with considerable experience. On the flip side, you may have a real stable programming team on a stable project. In this case, someone with intermediate skills or even a beginner may be ideal. The team can teach and build the skills of a lesser learned candidate. Basic understanding of such environments is absolutely crucial.
HOW TO GET THE RIGHT CANDIDATESWhat’s the best way to avoid wasting time interviewing? The answer is: get the best candidates to apply. It sounds simple, but it is not always easy to do.
Of course, the basic job market climate in a certain region has a big part to play in the search. This matter is for the most part, out of your hands. But there are things you can do, as a hiring manager, to make this situation as unaffecting as possible.
The number one way to find the best candidates to interview is by networking. If you have an open position, let everyone you know in the field aware of what you are looking for. No one wants to look bad based on a recommendation. Even someone you don’t care much for is likely to only send viable candidates your way. Better programmers tend to know other good workers.
One must get the job posting out to as many eyes as possible and to the best markets. Investigate which internet job posting websites are most popular, not only in your region, but for the technically savvy.
Using a job placement firm is a way to save time. A good placement company will do a lot of the screening up front saving you considerable time interviewing unworthy candidates whether it is based on financial needs, abilities, or logistics. They will usually place ads in the most effective locations.
1 SAS Global Forum 2007 Planning, Development and Support Filtering through resumes can limit the field. Focusing on key words and phrases before delving into details can quickly bring forward the most appropriate candidates. Yes, occasionally you get a resume for a SAS position and the word SAS is no where to be found. There is no sense reading further for other basic requirements.
Even using the best of the above suggestions, having a well written job description will be the second biggest way to get the right candidates. Great care needs to go into every word of the description. Be very clear which skills are required. Don’t be ambiguous in regards to which skills are preferable but not necessary. Leaving too much up to interpretation will have too many inappropriate candidates vying for an interview and you’ll end up with a bewildering mess of resumes to review. A description that is too stringent might ward off very viable candidates. Minimum experience requirements, specific skills and education level minimums should be very clear. This task, done well, will deter many candidates that are unqualified from applying in the first place. If possible have someone else review the job description to determine if the correct job is being conveyed. Having flushed out such needs will also help prepare the interviewer in developing questions to be used during the interview.
TYPES OF INTERVIEWSThere are two types of technical interviews: the phone interview and the face-to-face interview. Both have their advantages and disadvantages.
Meeting a person face-to-face gives a lot more opportunity to assess their skills. The candidate obviously brings to the interview only what they have in their head. The visual aspect can be very enlightening. Confusion, confidence, and comfort with questions are harder to hide in person. Time permitting, programming tests can easily be administered during a face-to-face interview.
There are disadvantages to a face-to-face interview. If you are going to the effort of bringing in a candidate for an interview, it’s likely that you will have this person interview with multiple people. Unless the person is a referral, you don’t know anything more about the candidate than what is in his/her resume. You run the risk of wasting the time of multiple people with a candidate that could be quickly eliminated.
Only in rare cases is a phone technical interview anything more than a screening. It allows the interviewer a chance to assess more candidates than in the face-to-face interview and doesn’t have to involve as many people. This is indeed its biggest advantage. Phone interviews tend to take less time but can not cover quite as many areas.
Obviously written tests or code review are not really options in this case. This can be overcome with a good set of questions that can be easily answered over the phone.
A thorough search through phone interviews may lead to many potential candidates. The next logical action would be a face-to-face interview since a more in-depth technical interview is not possible. Options such as code reviews and tests can be done at this point. This combination of interview stages, passing a phone technical interview and moving into a face-to-face interview for additional depth, is the most successful.
TYPES OF QUESTIONSThere are two types of interview questions: open and closed. A “closed” question is when there is only a yes or no answer or a one word answer. Questions like: “Are you a US citizen?” (yes/no), “How many years have you programmed in SAS?” (16), “What is the SAS numerical value of January 1, 1960?” (Zero).
An “open” question guides the candidate to lengthier responses and explanations. These types of questions obviously take longer but reveal the most information. It’s important to devise questions that elicit honest and revealing responses and require more thought from the candidate. Questions like: “How did you get into SAS programming?” or “Where do you go when you have a SAS programming question?” require full sentence and frequently multiple answers. It’s important to remember to give breathing time even after an open question has been answered. The interviewee may often have additional input as they think through their answer.
While open questions reveal the most, they are more tedious on both the interviewer and the interviewee. A nice mixture of both makes for the best interview. The combination of the two types helps keep the flow of the interview moving and the candidate on their toes.
DEFINING BEGINNER, INTERMEDIATE, ADVANCED, AND EXPERTDefinitions of beginner, intermediate, advanced and even expert skill level are as varied as there are jobs. The lines between each are very gray and very much up to interpretation. Someone quite skilled in one area may only be a beginner in another. Or a candidate with few years experience may be a quick learner or had the opportunity to learn
Of course, there are exceptions to everything. With this general time table, you are given a basic starting point to begin your assessment. The length of a candidate’s experience should be clearly identified in the resume. Based on this you can predetermine a skill level. The responses to the interview questions can be used to confirm their stated experience level. In the best case, their skill level exceeds the general outline above.
SUGGESTIONS DURING AN INTERVIEWThere are some recommendations that can be used to make a technical interview as productive as possible. Obvious suggestions such as “come prepared with a list of questions” and “provide a private uninterrupted time to conduct the interview”. Such suggestions are relevant for any interview. Below are some other specific suggestions.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR WITHIN THE ANSWERS TO THE GENERAL QUESTIONS
1. WHAT VERSION OF SAS ARE YOU CURRENTLY USING?
This is a nice generic question to get the conversation going and is a “closed” question. Only in the rare occasion does the candidate not know this answer. In the case he/she isn’t aware of the version; the candidate would get a big B for beginner.
2. WHAT OPERATING SYSTEMS ARE YOU CURRENTLY RUNNING ON?
This is another generic question to get the candidate comfortable and getting into the interview. What is learned from this fairly “closed” question is often critical but not difficult to answer. The more experienced candidates will likely have used more than one, if not all, platforms.
3. WHERE DID YOU LEARN SAS?
There are quite a few different responses to this question. None of them are wrong. But it helps you learn something about the candidate. Was SAS part of a statistics class in college? Did the candidate’s company pay for SAS Institute based training? Is the candidate self taught? What is good to hear is that it was a combination of sources.
4. DO YOU ATTEND ANY USER GROUP MEETINGS OR REGINAL/NATIONAL CONFERENCES?
There is no wrong answer for this. The candidate may not even be aware there are such things. While this question may be self fulfilling for this author, it’s an opportunity to let them be aware of such opportunities. If the answer is “Yes”, then there is a further opportunity for the interviewer. First of all, if a candidate does attend conferences or local users group meetings, then this candidate tends to be actively working towards increasing his/her SAS skill level. If you as the interviewer know of the groups the candidate attends, there is further potential for a personal referral from such a connection.
5. WHERE DO YOU GO WHEN YOU HAVE A SAS PROGRAMMING QUESTION?
This is a favorite question of mine. Again, there’s really not a wrong answer but if the answer is the “Online Docs” or “SAS Manuals”, I’m disappointed. I would categorize such a person as a beginner. If the answer is “from co-workers and peers”, “SAS-L”, or “user authored books” then the person has likely got more experience. But more importantly, the candidate with those answers is likely to learn faster.
6. WHAT SIZE OF DATASETS DO YOU HAVE EXPERIENCE WORKING WITH? WHAT TOOLS DO YOU USE TO DEAL WITHLARGE DATASETS?
Everyone has a different impression of what is considered a large dataset. Even if a candidate hasn’t worked with large datasets, they should be able to come up with some creative answers. The complexity and variations to this question will give you a pretty good feel for the candidate’s skill level with SAS datasets whether it fits your needs in this area.
7. HOW MANY COMPANIES HAVE YOU WORKED FOR AS A SAS PROGRAMMER?
While it is never good to hear a candidate has job hopped significantly, it can be a good thing for an experienced programmer to have worked under multiple situations. You can learn an interesting amount about a candidate based on which companies he/she has worked for.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR WITHIN THE ANSWERS TO THE SKILL QUESTIONS
1. WHAT IS THE SIGNIFICANCE OF JANUARY 1ST, 1960?
This is a nice transition question. A candidate past Beginner should be able to answer this question with ease.
2. WHICH SAS PROCEDURES (PROCS) DO YOU USE AND FOR WHAT PURPOSE?