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technical sme candid camera article

In the course of our work, we sometimes need to interview technical SMEs*.  If you’re not a technical person, this can be daunting.  But interviewing a technical SME can be fun and easy – if you don’t interview them. 

“When you least expect it, you’re elected, you’re the star todaaaaaay…”

Before Allen Funt conceived the revolutionary TV show Candid Camera and gave birth to reality television, there was Candid Microphone, its radio counterpart.

But before that, in WWII, our hero was working in the Army Signal Corp. His job was to make a radio show, including a voice-of-the-troops segment called “The Gripe Booth” where soldiers aired out their complaints. He made a discovery recording “The Gripe Booth.”  As soon as the red recording light went on, people would clam up and get tongue-tied – a phenomenon known as “mic fright.”

So he disabled the red light.

After what appeared to the interviewee to be a very long, candid, sound check, he’d have the real story, natural and easy.

Tell it to me like it is, smart guy

So how do you get a developer, data scientist, architect, CIO, or other technical SME to give you what you need?

3 things:

  1. Ditch your questions Ok, maybe don’t wad them up and eat them, but don’t read them during the interview. Start with small talk (always), then a very high-level question that is starting in the direction you are headed, but a little personal. For example:
    • “It looks like you’ve only been in your position here 6 months. What has the transition into this environment been like?”
    • “Tell me about the work you’ve done on this product at a high level.”
    • “Is this a mostly open source solution then? What do you think about that?”

    From there, hook into something they say and ask a follow-up question that is influenced by your interview questions. Follow your sincere curiosity about their words to you get there. In other words, don’t let them know you’ve started the interview.

  2. Learn just enough to expose your ignorance Good engineers are used to being asked to explain things that people don’t understand. But there are 2 types of people who don’t understand: 1) people who irritatingly act like they know things and waste their time, and 2) people who understand their own ignorance and make them feel smart by comparison. Be the second kind. Say this: “I am not a technical person and I appreciate your patience with me if I don’t get it the first time. I may ask the same question in a couple of different ways to be sure I’ve gotten it.”A lot of engineers will get excited about the challenge of helping you understand – and the opportunity to be understood. Who doesn’t enjoy being the expert when someone is truly interested?
  3. Get them 1 on 1 Lastly, the charity of explaining in simple terms goes down when you put people in groups. Nerd cred is real and it is competitive. Just the way you shouldn’t ask your boyfriend to hold your giant pink sparkly purse while he is with his friends, don’t ask a technical resource to talk baby talk to you in front of his peers. Nobody will get what they need.While you may be tempted to save time and schedule group discussions, don’t do it. 1 on 1 for understanding, every time.

Keep that red lightbulb unscrewed and you’ll never do another “interview” again.

To hear the very entertaining and thought-provoking story of how Allen Funt gave birth to Candid Camera, devour the Radio Lab podcast ‘Smile My Ass’ from October 6, 2015.

* A SME is a Subject Matter Expert.


Also See: 3 tips to confront your tech fears

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