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Nine tips for interviewing over Zoom

Don’t let these videoconferencing mistakes be a stumbling block for a potential employer.

By Jim Grey (about)

I’ve been hiring engineers and testers lately. Even though pandemic restrictions are starting to lift, most of us are still working from home. So are the people I’m interviewing. That means I’m interviewing over Zoom.

I care a lot more about a candidate’s qualifications than I do about how they present on Zoom. I hope it’s true of all hiring managers. However, good presentation removes any subtle biases and barriers to your success.

What I look like on a Zoom meeting

Here are a few tips from the trenches that can help you present well.

  1. Video and audio quality need only be adequate. You don’t need pro equipment. The camera and microphone in your laptop are sufficient. A webcam from a major manufacturer will be fine. A headset might reduce ambient noise; try one and see.
  2. Test the videoconferencing platform before the meeting. A few times, candidates have struggled to get Zoom to work, and we lost the first five or ten minutes of the interview. If you know what videoconferencing platform the interview will use, install it on your computer well in advance and make sure your camera and microphone both work with it. Also make sure you know where the mute button is and how to recognize when you’re muted. Know where the app’s audio settings are, in case they say need you to turn up the volume on your end. If you don’t know what videoconferencing platform will be used, record ten seconds of yourself reading something into your computer’s video app. Play it back to see how it looks and sounds, and adjust settings in your computer accordingly.
  3. If you can, do it in a quiet place. I got to listen to loud sirens in one interview, as fire trucks rumbled by on their way to a call. I am embarrassed to admit that one interviewee got to listen to our microwave oven roar and beep while my son heated up a burrito, as my home office is just off the kitchen. Neither was the end of the world, but it would have been nicer not to have those interruptions.
  4. If you must use your phone, set it steady and level, in portrait orientation. One candidate used her phone, and turned it sideways so I appeared larger on her screen. But Zoom didn’t correct the orientation of her camera, and she appeared sideways on my screen. Another candidate held his phone in his hand the whole time, and it was a jerky experience. Get a stand for your phone.
  5. Face the camera. I know a lot of people place their laptop to the side and their main monitor in front of them. But then they appear in profile on camera, as if they’re speaking to someone outside the frame. If this is you, use the laptop screen for the interview. Or do what I did, buy a USB webcam and set it on top of your monitor.
  6. Position your camera so the top of your head is near the top of the screen, and you are centered horizontally. I spoke to one candidate who I could see only from his nose up, his head at the very bottom left of the Zoom window. I got a great view of his ceiling above. Another candidate appeared to tower over me on screen, as his monitor was somehow above his camera. When you are front and center, it’s far easier for the interviewer to connect with you. You may need to elevate your laptop to achieve this; a stack of books may do the trick.
  7. Consider how much or little of your body you want to show. My camera’s position and field of view reveals my torso from the sternum up. I’m good with that, but perhaps you prefer to show less of yourself. You can move closer to the camera, or buy a camera with a narrower field of view. Alternatively, for some cameras (like my webcam) Zoom lets you turn off HD, which will make you appear closer on the screen and show less of your body.
  8. Make sure the room behind you is tidy. In one screening call, I got a great view of the candidate’s unmade bed and some dirty clothes piled up on the dresser behind it. Tidy up behind you! If that’s not possible for some reason, consider using a Zoom background (but know that some people find them to be distracting). To use a background, you need to download Zoom in advance.
  9. Pay attention to clothes and grooming. One fellow appeared on my screen looking like he just crawled out of bed. You don’t need to dress formally for a Zoom interview, but do make sure your hair is in order, your face is clean, and your shirt is fresh.

By Jim Grey

Writer. Photographer. Leader of geeks.

14 replies on “Nine tips for interviewing over Zoom”

Good tips. The position of the camera is a challenging one. Laptop cameras are not level with the head. Assuming your vision allows you to see the tiny objects on a smartphone, even a smartphone stand won’t put the camera level with your head.

I never understood the point of wearing a suit to an interview for a job where no one wears a suit. I don’t wear suits to interviews. I don’t shave either. The 1950s mentality needs to go in the trash can.

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I added a tip to the camera position one about raising the laptop, perhaps using a stack of books. I have a nice laptop riser that does the job well.

I’m old school, I still wear a suit to interviews. It shows respect.

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Great tips, Jim. The one I recommend the most is make eye contact with the other person. Think of the camera you’re looking at as the other person’s face and don’t look at yourself! Think about it, when you’re speaking “live” with another person and you’re not making eye contact with them then you’re not really communicating.

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Many people have trouble with eye contact, either in person or on camera. It’s rather presumptive to suggest that they’re “not really communicating”. Or that if I turn on the “Eye Contact” switch in iOS that now suddenly I am.

By now I’d hope that most people (especially those hiring engineers) would be familiar with classic ASD behaviors to avoid discriminating against such people, unless eye contact is truly a necessary component of the work.

For that matter, when you’re hiring for a remote technical position, why is there a video component involved at all? This just seems ripe for all kinds of unconscious bias.

Of all the technical teams I’ve worked with (in-person or remote-only) over the past 20 years, I couldn’t tell you a single engineering advantage I ever had from knowing someone’s race/gender/age/voice/mannerisms. Individual contributors don’t deliver their work in the form of oral reports, so it’s strange that anyone hires that way.

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Where I work, during the pandemic we’ve all been on Zoom with each other for meetings. Almost everyone has their camera on. The few who don’t get no criticism.

When I reach out to a candidate to schedule an interview, I send them a Calendly link so they can schedule it on my calendar at a mutually available time. It inserts my Zoom link for me. If someone wanted to do it cameras off or even over the phone, I’d be more than happy to oblige. But at the moment there’s no way for someone to know that. They’d have to be bold and ask. I need to make that more plain in the interview request email.

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I’ve been following all of these and would add to make sure there is good lighting BEHIND your laptop/camera so your face is not in any shadows. I’ve noticed many people with lights or windows behind them that mess up the exposure, leaving their face difficult to see. You don’t take enough portraits apparently. 🙂
Personally, I find your bridge distracting.

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Good point about the lighting, although I will say that most people are lit well enough in the interviews I’ve done. I’m just advising people to avoid some things that are jarring, not to make the situation perfect. I’ve received feedback elsewhere that backgrounds are distracting period. I don’t find them to be that way, but I guess this is a personal preference thing!

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“If you can, do it in a quiet place. I got to listen to loud sirens in one interview, as fire trucks rumbled by on their way to a call.”

Well, if any quiet offices were open in 2021, I wouldn’t need to be interviewing over Zoom in the first place! Hearing trucks outside is my reality. I think it’s perfectly appropriate for the interviewer to understand firsthand that if they hire me, they’re hiring someone who, due purely to geography, is going to occasionally be interrupted by a deafening truck right outside their window. I can deal with it happening 6 or 8 times a day. They can deal with it once. Or they can arrange for me to come to their (probably empty) office. Or let me schedule the interview at 4 AM when it’s quiet (and when I’ll be doing most of my work anyway).

To turn it around: should a candidate (in a normal year) count it against the company if there’s an unrelated emergency nearby during an in-person interview? Yes, it would be “nicer” not to hear fire trucks, but they’re not using their sirens just for fun.

“If you can, use a background. […] I have several backgrounds that are interesting but not distracting.”

Please, no. We must have very different ideas of “distracting”. All fake Zoom backgrounds look incredibly distracting to me (yes, even that bridge). The lighting is way off, and the optical-illusion perspective can be slightly nauseating, and there’s that constant dancing jagged line between the photograph and your live face. Just sit in front of a plain blank wall. Everybody has a plain blank wall somewhere in their home they can use.

Fake backgrounds are the Zoom equivalent of replying to an email entirely in emoji. It’s cute for about 2 seconds.

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You can always say, “Let me mute for a few seconds while that truck rumbles through.”

I’ve gotten a lot of negative feedback about recommending backgrounds. I had no idea, really, that people found them so distracting. But I still think a background is better than showing someone the mess behind me in this room I work in.

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You clearly understand that when the local audio situation is problematic, the solution is to turn off the audio, not switch to a computer-assisted voice. So why is it when the local video situation is problematic, the solution isn’t to simply turn off the video?

Is a fake digital background better than showing a mess in the room? I don’t understand the question. Those are not the only two options.

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I’m not here to have an argument with you. It seems like that’s what you want. Sure, turn off the video. It’s easy enough to ask for that.

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