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TIM #1: What to do when a candidate tries to cheat during a tech interview?

Last night someone who worked for the Financial Times asked me:

"I hear that it is easy to cheat on tech interviews. Is that right?"

Here is what I replied to him.

"Candidates usually do not cheat during interviews."

However, it is natural to want to inflate the extend of someone's knowledge.

I have spend years in the startup world where the motto Fake it until you make it is still king. So I have gotten really good at uncovering the truth.

Here is my 2-step framework to understanding whether the candidate is faking it or really know their stuff.

1. Uncover the truth during the Q&A session

There are 2 types of questions which give room for candidates to inflate their knowledge.

Let's go over both of them and see how to counter that effect.

We have:

  • questions which can be answered with YES/NO such as "Can you ...?" or "Is it possible ...?"

  • the easy questions the answers to which can be find on the first page of Google search

For the first type of questions - allows have a follow-up question. An example of those will be "How would you do that?".

For the second type of questions - follow up with another question which asks the candidate to explain their specific experience in that matter. For example, if a devOPS person has been working with AWS for 5 years, ask them how they create an EC2 instance and what problems they have encountered with that experience so far.

I like the re-phrasing an "Is it possible ...?" question with NO for an answer to "How can you ...?".

This is a tough question because the word How primes us to think that the answer is YES and we are expected to list ways on how to get to that YES.

I smile when a candidate tells me - "Actually, no, it is not possible".

2. Observe them solve a live challenge

Whatever technical position you interview people for, you can always give the candidate to solve a little task in front of you.

Put a time limit of 1 hour for completion.

Close your mouth and let the candidate do their magic.

This is gold, because you will see how they will act at the job when you hire them.

You will be able to see how the candidate reasons, plans and executes right in front of you.

Let me give you examples on what live challenges you can give to 2 types of candidates:


Implement a RESTful API endpoint to manage a to-do list. The API should be able to create and delete an item on the list.

For DevOPS

Ask them to create a VM (Virtual Machine) in front of you on a cloud provider of their choice. Specify that DNS, the security rules and firewall need to be set up too.

What I recommend here is to allow the candidate to receive hints.

Make it clear that you can serve as they co-worker and they can approach you to ask questions and brain storm with you (as if you are a yellow rubber duck 🦆)

Be honest with yourself and ask yourself how many times a day you use Google for work. For me the answer is about 4 times per hour.

Because of this, I also allow candidates to use Google as long as they do not directly search for the solution of the task I have given to them.

This way I mimic a real-working environment as close as possible so the candidate has all the right conditions to shine.

Final Thoughts

I have not seen candidates try to cheat during tech interviews. But I have seen people try to look more knowledgeable than they are. It is normal. It is human.

Here I shared with you my 2-step framework on uncovering the truth and evaluating the candidate the best way possible.

I hope it helps - and happy hiring.

👋 See you next Saturday!


Whenever you're ready, there are 3 ways I can help you:

1. Send me the one burning question you have here, and I will write an answer to you.

2. Book an online consultation with me here, during which we go over 2-3 pains of yours and create you action plan to destroy them within 1 month.

3. Need help with interviewing tech candidates? Find the option that suits your needs the best here.

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