Pairing Isn't Staring: Five Perils of Pairing In Interviews

Many companies use a ‘pairing’ step in interviews which very often can be nerve-wracking for the candidate even in the best case. Let’s have a look at five possible perils of using pairing in interviews and how we can address them to set the candidate up for success.

Peril 1: The Power Dynamic Is Misaligned

Often in pairing situations, which are already intimidating, candidates are paired up with often two people that are much higher than them in the company. For example, a junior dev might be interviewed by a staff engineer and a principal or a mid-level engineer gets interviewed by a CTO and a senior developer.

The trouble with this is that immediately the candidate is in an even more vulnerable situation where the 2 interviewers, which in itself is intimidating, are very unlikely to be able to empathise with their situation at all and even worse if the interviewers are not the same race or gender as the candidate.

If we want people to show us them at their best, we need to get people to interview them that can have the best chance at putting them at ease and making them feel supported and that we want them to succeed. If the interviewer can’t see the world from the same or similar view as the person and wouldn’t pair with them on the job, they probably shouldn’t be pairing with them in interviews. Try to stick to one pay grade above or below the candidate.

Regardless of who will be attending, send out information about who will be in the interview in advance so the candidate isn’t caught off guard.

Peril 2: Pairing Isn’t Staring!

Pairing by very definition is meant to solve the problem of working in isolation by actively collaborating closely with others. However many pairing interviews involve the candidate being stared at by multiple people while they get given orders to do and then unsympathetically grilled about their choices. This isn’t at all in the spirit of pairing.

I’ve been doing this a long time and the minute someone watches me type, even outside of interviews, I start making all sorts of mistakes. A pairing interview should give the candidate a flavour of what it’s like to work at a company with the other engineers and let the interviewers get a feel for what it would be like working with the candidate. It shouldn’t be a chance to watch someone anxiously code while they are stared at.

Pairing is a skill so the company should provide support and training for anyone doing this with candidates to make sure both people contribute to the conversation and problem at hand and the candidate gets the best experience possible.

If the interview is online there are plenty of tools now like Visual Studio Code Live Share or Code With Me by JetBrains which make the pairing sessions seamless and collaborative.

When pairing in person, be sure to check if the person is comfortable and has what they need and they can use the equipment comfortably, hear well and so on. Offering a glass of water and a smile goes a long way.

Peril 3: No Information About Setup or Format

If the candidate needs to have certain things installed on their machines, tell them in advance and ideally give them a sample bit of code to run to ensure everything is working okay in advance. It’s a disaster if a candidate’s first experience of the interview is realising they can’t run the interview code for whatever reason.

Set candidates up for success with clear environment setup guidelines.

If it’s going to be a multi-part interview let them know the format in advance so they can prepare. It’s exhausting pairing even when it does go as well as it can, so allow for a break between each section and remind the candidate of what the next section will be so they can think a little bit about it in advance.

Peril 4: Undefined Success Criteria

A lot of the time the candidate is sent an invite to a pairing interview with little to no explanation of what will be expected. Worse, a lot of the time interviewers have no common framework to work to in deciding if a candidate has passed or not. Be clear on expectations and send them out in advance to the candidate and think about:

  • Is it okay to google?
  • Can they ask the interviewers questions?
  • Is it more important to ‘finish the task’ or to ask good questions?
  • What does success look like? What does not succeeding look like?
  • Are there specific behaviours you are looking for?
  • Is the code to be written in a specific style?

Pairing is so, so intricate and difficult even in a normal working environment and being unclear on expectations will cost the business great people.

Peril 4: Failing People For Not Knowing ‘Basic’ Syntax

The number of amazing engineers that fail interviews because in the heat of the moment their minds go blank and they can’t remember something is unbelievable. It happens to everyone and is not a valid reason to fail someone. If it’s a pairing exercise, the partner should be there to help them out and ease the pressure and let them collect themselves. Not go silent or worse, berate them on the call and make them feel small.

This is the trouble with pairing at all in interviews. It’s a very artificial environment where the candidate is really vulnerable and it takes so much skill from the interviewers to keep them calm and get the best out of them.

If candidates are failing for not knowing ‘basic syntax’ but have a track record of high performance in other jobs, it’s time to look at if the ‘pairing’ step is actually serving the company and the candidates at all or if something else would be more suitable.

Peril 5: There Is No Pairing In The Day to Day

Using a pairing step in an interview when the culture of the team doesn’t involve pairing is problematic for a number of reasons.

  1. It gives the candidate the wrong impression and they might want to work somewhere that supports pairing.
  2. The interviewers have no empathy for how difficult it is to pair and get the best out of each other even in a less stressful situation outside of interviews.
  3. The interviewers may be unskilled at pairing and give the candidate a very bad experience which reflects badly on the company and may cost them talent, even if this isn’t representative of the actual day-to-day culture.
  4. The interview isn’t assessing for the actual skills and behaviours the team are employing during the working day.

In this situation, it would be better to bin the ‘pairing’ step and find a more suitable method to use that assesses the skills and behaviours the team is looking for.


When we do a pairing interview we need to:

  • Balance the power dynamic as best as possible and let the candidate know who will be interviewing them.
  • Make sure pairing is actively happening, and the candidate isn’t just being stared at.
  • Check if pairing is definitely the correct tool for the job.
  • Send out the setup instructions for the task in advance and details of the process.
  • Allow for breaks.
  • Be clear about the success criteria and don’t berate people for not knowing ‘the basics’
  • Avoid a pairing interview if there is no pairing in the day-to-day.

If we do this, we stand the best chance of identifying, fairly assessing and attracting the candidates we need.