Interviewing – the importance of PASSION!

I’ve been doing quite a few interviews recently and I’ve noticed that there has been a common trait across all the best candidates – passion.

It didn’t matter what level we were interviewing for or what skill set, every single one of the good candidates was passionate about some aspect of their work. It also seemed (I have to qualify this is a purely subjective judgement here – my science training prevents me from otherwise 🙂 ) true that it was noticeably lacking in the weaker candidates.

Now I’m not suggesting that the best candidates were maniacally passionate about all aspects of their job (I’m not sure I would trust someone who was) or that the weaker candidates were completely apathetic, but throughout the interview process it was too obvious to ignore. Even the more introverted candidates were bursting to tell you things when it came to a topic that they were passionate about.

I’d even say that it was more important than confidence. Self-help books seem to be overflowing with the advice that confidence is all it takes for you to win the girl/carry the day/get the job. The trouble is that confidence is just a high level of certainty and is actually only your belief about how correct you are. It says nothing about whether you are correct or not. Indeed the Dunning-Kruger effect and Imposter syndrome often mean that the most knowledgeable people can exhibit the most uncertainty and complete half-wits would bet their life on a blatant falsehood being right.  Passion is more revealing since it normally indicates that you are so fascinated with a topic that you have taken the time to really understand it.

So why is passion so important?

It shows you have an opinion – more importantly it shows that you are secure enough in your knowledge that you are comfortable having an opinion. In an interview, it highlights qualities that the interviewer is looking for: how you learn, what sort of thing really excites you, what sort of person you are and also gives a hint to whether you could go on to instil passion in others. Passion is contagious – when someone walks into a room crackling with energy because they love what they do, everyone who sees it picks up on it.

It is also strongly associated with a good level of knowledge. When someone passionately says “I love this programming language” and you ask why, no one says ‘I don’t know, I just do!’. People who have a passionate interest in something also tend to have a incredible depth of knowledge about it and this is not a question of education (although I think that this is quality that the best teaching institutions tend to instil) but of how the candidates see learning.

Of course, having passion and nothing else is no use at all, but you will get nowhere without a bit of passion.

10 thoughts on “Interviewing – the importance of PASSION!

  1. Stuart Gunter

    I completely agree! We recently had a discussion about this with HR and were trying to explain the importance of passion when recruiting. It’s one of those aspects that you can tell straight away, and is a deal-breaker in our books.

    You can teach someone to develop software, but you can’t teach them to be passionate!

  2. Drew Preston

    I’ve always believed passion to be fundamental ingredient to achieving a highly motivated and productive person. Tell me, what sort of questions do you ask during a typical interview in order to deliberately discover if the candidate does indeed have passion?

    I frequently ask some of the following questions: What books have you read recently, What blogs do you follow?, How did you get into programming (or other relevant profession)?, What would you change about the industry to make it better?

    1. Martin Post author

      I ask similar ones to you: ‘What resources you you use to stay up to date?’, ‘If you could work on any sort of project what would it be?’. These are all fairly blunt questions but they all provide a lead into a situation where the interviewee can talk about their passions.

  3. Cedric Hurst

    Along the same lines, I usually ask something like “If you woke up tomorrow and by some major you were the lead language designer for [Python/Java/Ruby/etc], what three things would you immediately want to change about the language or surrounding development community and why?” 50% of the candidates get stumped by this, but I’ve found that the answers will vary from features they’ve seen in other languages, to areas of the language which they had a hard time picking up, to features that do exist in the language but weren’t well-advertised.

  4. ash

    Whenever I give interviews, that’s all I look for. I don’t ask them ridiculous riddles, trick questions, or arcane details about an API. Instead, we talk shop and the ones who are passionate usually know about the latest developments. More importantly, they have opinions and technical details usually surface around those opinions as they explain their passion. That’s how we determine good candidates and we’ve had a 100% success rate in hiring.

    1. Martin Post author

      I wish we could say that we had a 100% success rate but the vast majority of strong candidates do seem to share a level of passion that sets them apart. I also agree about the riddles and logic games – why on earth do you ask people questions that candidates will never come across? I guess it’s a feeble attempt at trying to get a surrogate marker for their competence without having to put the work in to actually find out.

  5. Dallas

    Why don’t all the “passionistas” out there answer this. If you are so passionate about your software product why are you hiring someone else to create it for you? The truly passionate could pick up all the necessary tools very quickly.

    The real world has taught me that passionate is code for ‘gullible’ people who will work cheap. People who will work for free because they still live dorm style. There were employees at Apple who continued to sneak into the office and work there for several months without pay after being fired. Were they passionate or gullible? As an employer you might say they were passionate and dedicated to there project. As a fellow worker I would advise these misguided souls to consider the opportunity costs for doing something like this, and to consider the effects on their personal cash flow.

    A passionate developer would spend their time working in their living room on software they’re passionate about, not your project. How long will a person’s passion hold out when they get blocked on features or forced to use an inferior tool because you told them they had to. What if you opened your financial statements to a passionate employee so that they could quantify the value placed on their passion.

    1. Drew Preston

      Hi Dallas,

      I would say the reason for hiring additional people is simply a matter of scale. One person simply can not achieve what a team of talented and motivated people can. Most projects/products require a combination of skills that rarely come in one person.

      I’d have to disagree with your point that “passionate” can be equated to gullible and cheap. In my experience the most well paid staff seem to be those with a great deal of passion. That isn’t saying you wont get those who are slightly misguided but I don’t see that as the norm.


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