Reflections on what makes the Pivotal design interview process unique.
I recently read a post in this publication entitled “The Developer Hiring Process is Broken” outlining the “no whiteboards, no tricks, no brain teasers, language-agnostic interview process” that Pivotal developers go through before they become full-fledged Pivots. That post linked to a separate, related entry entitled “How We Hire at Pivotal” which likens the Pivotal interviewing process to “a two-way street”:
If you are interviewing with us, you’re evaluating us as much as we are evaluating you. And we are all trying to answer the same question: “Do we want to work together?”
Both posts do an excellent job of explaining the Pivotal interview approach from the developer’s perspective, but what of product management and design, our other key disciplines? How do they compare — and what does it feel like to go through it?
In this post I’m going to shine a light on the design interview process (we’ll leave product management for another day), offering my personal opinions on the process I went through (I am a current Pivotal designer, after all!) and supplementing them with the voices of many other Pivotal designers worldwide.
First, a little background about me
I was not always a designer.
I began my career as a non-profit recruiter, did a 5-year stint as a public sector technology consultant, exchanged public sector for education technology consulting for another couple years, jumped feet-first into product management, and finally pivoted (no pun intended) into design where I’ve been very happily learning and growing ever since.
As a result of all of this “discipline-hopping” I’ve been exposed to a wide variety of interviewing tactics, processes, and “methodologies” (scare quotes intended), not all of which have felt effective for me or for the company. In my perfect world, the interview process:
- Lets me understand the company culture,
- Gives me a sense of what the work actually feels like,
- Allows me to demonstrate my skills, and
- Gives me direct access to potential peers and managers.
In my experience, Pivotal is the only company that lands anywhere near my ideal — no other company even comes close.
How we interview designers
To understand why, though, it’s important to have a sense of how the Pivotal design interview works. Each office is able to tweak the process a bit to fit their location, but the core approach and flow is the same; here’s what you might experience if you went through it:
- You submit an application.
- You participate in a phone screen.
- We bring you into the office for a short collaborative session with a couple designers.
- We ask you to expand on that session in a targeted, time-boxed take home exercise.
- We bring you into the office again to review the exercise, pair with designers on real project work (under NDA, of course), and have lunch with a balanced team of Pivots (product managers, designers, and developers).
Throughout the process we offer feedback and open the floor to your questions so we both can get a sense of how it would feel to work together (i.e. that “two-way street” alluded to earlier). All in all, it’s an involved process that aims for transparency and realism.
In the spirit of looking for patterns across interview experiences, I solicited feedback from my fellow Pivotal Labs designers and received responses from offices across the globe — New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Paris, Tokyo, and Sydney, to name a few.
Here’s what we think makes the Pivotal designer interview process unique.
It’s incredibly collaborative
The collaborative nature of the interviewing process is one of its strengths, and at no point in the process did I feel like the interviewers had anything but my best interest in mind. Granted, it was still an interview, but it felt like every person involved — from the initial recruiter to the Associate Director for Design — looked at our interactions as an opportunity to learn about me while exhibiting key Pivotal values of doing what’s right and always being kind.
The Pivotal design interview also felt much more like a two-way conversation in which both sides were helping direct the topics. The Pivots I interviewed with were eager to answer my questions and encouraged me to ask as many as I had. It was obvious that they wanted me to feel comfortable learning about them as they learned about me.
Many Pivotal Labs designers who responded to my survey mentioned this emphasis on collaboration as well:
“I liked the pairing and the way my final presentation went, specifically because it communicated that design was a collaborative process rather than a test.”
“With the collaborative nature of the [interview exercise] … I felt as if we were working as a team from the get go.”
“Similar in length; many shared aspects, but better because of the collaborative attitude.”
Contrast this with other interviews I’ve been in where they’ve taken on the traditional “interviewee sits across from panel” format and you really feel like you’re in a fishbowl. These often feel more like a choreographed performance than an interview and have tended to create the anxiety I imagine someone who walks the high wire might feel — one misstep and you’re out!
One other Pivot summed this feeling up nicely:
“In other interviews, I felt as if I was being grilled and it was more of an us against you mentality.”
It feels real
This was perhaps the most critical success factor for me — Pivotal was transparent about what I would be doing and then let me try it out for myself with real designers and real problems. This blew me away, and it ultimately tipped the scale from “I’m not sure if I want to dive back into consulting” to “I love how this company approaches work and I can see myself thriving here”.
My Pivotal Labs design peers felt similarly, calling out in various ways the fact that Pivotal lets you experience whether the position is a good fit — an idea that at once feels both obvious and revolutionary:
“I like that the entire Pivotal interview process is interactive. You work on a whiteboard exercise. You design low to high fidelity mockups. You pair with a designer on a real project. It not only gives the candidate first hand experience for how we work at Pivotal but it also gives Pivots a chance to evaluate how the candidate works on a balanced team.”
“[I]t gives the candidate a chance to work in the environment … so he/she can determine if it the position is a good fit.”
“…[W]orking in the team for a few hours … was a great way of showing how everybody works, what the on-the-ground environment is like, and solving real problems.”
“The pairing was a great way to experience how I would be working at Pivotal and an opportunity to solve a problem live.”
It’s immersive (if a bit lengthy)
When I learned that, as a final step, I needed to come in for nearly a full day to interview, my initial reaction was “are you serious?” After overcoming my initial hesitation, I went in and found a team ready to learn from me and let me learn from them — precisely what I needed to determine whether Pivotal would be the right place for me to (a) offer my expertise, and (b) grow as a designer.
I interacted with no fewer than eight Labs Pivots that day — nine, counting the Associate Director of Design! — from all disciplines who were excited to answer any question I had about their experiences and the company. It was truly amazing.
With the exception of a few people (who called out the immersion day’s length as a downside to the process), my design colleagues felt similarly and articulated many of the same sentiments:
“The full day immersion was really helpful from both sides — both the candidate gets a better understanding of what it’s like to work at Pivotal, and we get a good idea of their skills first hand.”
“I enjoyed the immersive interview process — sketching through an exercise of designing an app from scratch, refining it with a member of the design team, pairing on a real project, and participating in a design critique. I had a solid understanding of the type of work I’d be doing if I joined the team.”
“I liked spending a full day with Pivots and getting a good sense of the culture and how the process is done.”
“I personally didn’t think it was too much to do for a job interview — it kind of felt like a trial day and that seems like a reasonable thing to do for both the employer and you, as you also get a chance to find out much more deeply what the job you’re going for would actually be like.”
It showcases your skills
With my consulting and product management background (and 10+ years in the workforce) I’ve taken part in behavioral interviews of all flavors and can recite anecdotes about my experience with little difficulty. I was a bit worried at first that I’d be subject to something similar when interviewing at Pivotal. Thankfully, the process was much more about demonstrating my skills (vs. solely recounting them) and doing so under different conditions (e.g. at a whiteboard; paired with another designer; etc).
It felt really great to see that sentiment was emphatically echoed by my Pivotal design peers regardless of where in the world they had interviewed:
“I love that we get to show our thinking and collect the thinking of candidates. You can tell a lot about how someone sees the design process and their role in it from where they begin designing.”
“I feel like a traditional interview (i.e., sit down, answer my questions) is really good at testing a couple of things: How good are you at selling yourself? How good are you at speaking to your process (which is not the same as doing it)? How articulate and charming are you? All interesting things to know, but some interviews I left feeling like being good at my job wasn’t enough, I had to also be a master salesperson to get the job — even when the job just involved sitting at a desk by myself pumping out assets. So the Labs interview process felt for me, as a participant, like I had a chance to show my actual skills and DO some of the work I’d be doing on the job. It felt fairer to me.”
“I like that it provides various opportunities to showcase a designer’s skills.”
“It was the best interview I’ve ever done. I was asked to show my thinking, defend my work and learn how to apply my skills to a problem that felt real, well-defined and ready to implement.”
“The live problem solving and full day pairing is great since it’s something you can’t really prepare for. I think it’s a great indicator of how we work at Pivotal and very valuable as an interviewer and an interviewee.”
“I felt much more like my skills were actually on display, and it was nice to have a chance to show someone who knows what they’re doing the way I do what I do.”
I’ve given various examples of this throughout this post, but it bears repeating: Pivotal designers are incredibly empathetic people (it’s key when you’re user-centered and working to solve problems you uncover in customer workflows) and this empathy extends into the interview process. Because of this, I can honestly say that Pivotal had one of the safest interview spaces I’ve ever experienced — safe to demonstrate thinking and process, to collaboratively work on a problem without feeling judged, and to ask any and all of the questions you care about.
Other design Pivots agreed:
“I think this was the most thorough without making it seem you were wanting free work. This was a pretty honest way of asking me to perform and provide work in a realistic way that you probably wouldn’t use.”
“I felt like they were paying attention to me when asking relevant questions about my portfolio.”
“The Pivotal interview process was light years ahead of other companies I was considering. It was as much about helping me understand the Pivotal process as it was about presenting my skills. Most companies are only focused on the latter, which is a big missed opportunity.”
The bottom line
Interviewing is often scary, nerve wracking, and anxiety inducing to even the most seasoned designer. When the company you’re interviewing with views hiring as separate from the actual work — outsourcing its maintenance to HR and forgetting that it’s a key touchpoint for any prospective team member — it can become a downright painful experience.
For this reason, I’m thankful that Pivotal has spent so much time iterating on its hiring process, honing and shaping it into a sequence of events that is collaborative (like its working environment!), realistic, immersive, skills-focused, and empathetic.
A big thank you to Andrew, Courtney, Eli, Simon, Roxanne, David, Kate, Michael, Erika, Holly, Nicola, Abdou, and Jeff (among others) for offering their reflections so quickly and honestly and to everyone who provided feedback on the post itself.
Change is the only constant, so individuals, institutions, and businesses must be Built to Adapt. At Pivotal, we believe change should be expected, embraced, and incorporated continuously through development and innovation, because good software is never finished.
How Our Designers Feel About Interviewing at Pivotal was originally published in Built to Adapt on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.