The  Recruiter Guide to Effective Pair Programming Interviews
Traditional interviews are more about telling than showing. In 2023, recruiters agree that more is needed to recruit for technical skills.
As a manager or recruiter, you want the most realistic view of how your technical talents will perform in their job. You also want to see how they collaborate with their peers and address tricky problems. Pair programming interviews provide precisely that.
Let’s see how you can conduct pair programming interviews that are insightful for the manager and the candidate.
What Is a Pair Programming Interview?
In pair programming interviews, tech candidates solve coding exercises in collaboration with hiring managers.
They are online interviews that enable candidates to demonstrate their coding skills in action and recruiters to assess them. The significant difference from traditional technical assessments is that recruiters can help candidates when they’re stuck in the exercise.
These interviews usually include several key components :
- A realistic development environment where candidates can do their coding.
- Standardized interview questions or tasks to guide the candidates and assess their thought processes.
- Live feedback from the recruiter on an audio/video call.
Why Add Pair Programming Sessions to Your Recruiting Process?
The traditional way of interviewing is insufficient when selecting suitable technical candidates. You won’t learn much from your candidates’ problem-solving and communication skills while they boast about their previous experiences. You got to code with them before working with them.
In that sense, pair programming interviews overcome the critical limitations of formal interviews.
Better and More Confident Hiring Decisions
How can you know for sure that your candidate is going to be the best fit without working with them? That’s the eternal dilemma of recruiting interviews.
Pair programming solves it for you by giving you a closer look at their working skills. You can see how they approach a coding problem and find creative solutions. You can see how they communicate when facing difficulties and how they react to your feedback. You can also see how they handle and master their technical environment. That’s a thousand more insights than a traditional interview will give you.
This information dramatically increases your odds of hiring a long-lasting and successful candidate in your organization. It also gives you absolute confidence when defending your final hiring decision.
More Objectivity and Less Bias
As a recruiter, you want to give every one of your tech candidates an equal chance to get the job. This is hard when relying on interviewing methods based more on verbal than performative skills.
You give more ways for external factors -like subconscious preferences- to have a say in the final decision.
What you want is an assessment method that evaluates the skills closest to the actual jobs. And pair programming interviews are about that.
They involve coding exercises and questions with an equal scoring system. Moreover, they give everyone a chance to shine by their performance rather than just words. During these collaborative exercises, recruiters and hiring managers can focus on the concrete contribution the candidate will bring to the team.
Of course, there’s always a way for unconscious bias to come into play during audio/video calls. That’s why you should always make sure to keep the same baseline for your assessment and rely on the objective performance of the candidate to make your decision. It will help you ramp up your DEI initiatives.
Related read > Building a Diverse Tech Workforce: A 10-Step Guide to Reducing Hiring Bias
Rewarding Candidate Experience
Interview fatigue is real for tech candidates. From one interview to the next, they have to rehearse the same old pitch and answer the same old questions. What t if they could both validate a hiring process and face rewarding and valuable challenges? That’s the experience pair programming interviews are providing them. They can now showcase their skills in action and get feedback in real time, putting them in an ideal flow state. They can learn from new challenges while understanding how they’ll do in this role.
7 Steps to Set up Effective Pair Programming Interviews
Pair programming interviews require more preparation and consideration than a traditional interview. There are also more ways to screw it up and leave a wrong impression.
As pioneers of pair programming interviews, here are 6 CoderPad-approved rules to make this experience smooth and insightful for both you and your talent :
1. Standardize your pair interview process
To assess your candidates on the same scale and avoid bias, you must build a standardized list of questions and exercises. Here are the steps you can take:
- Agree with your team on coding questions and challenges specific to your company and the skill sets you need.
- Build up a bank of short and open-ended coding tasks to complete or questions to answer. These should be closely related to the job responsibilities.
- Try the exercises yourself or assign them to someone on the team to ensure it feels reasonable.
- Set up a grading rubric for each task that includes possible solutions and common pitfalls. These will allow you to assess the performance of each of your interviewees on objective factors.
- Renew your bank of exercises and questions once in a while. The more you will use the same tasks in your interview process, the more odds people will find them on the internet.
2. Introduce beforehand the exercise
A techincal interview might be a new experience for your candidates. They might need to become more familiar with the live coding interview platform. You can send documentation and tutorials and let them practice via your sandbox.
Before starting the exercise, you also want to be clear about the notation system and what you will value in their performance. For example, you might reassure them that they can ask you questions when they’re stuck and that the exercise is less about their knowledge than how they face new problems. After all, they are supposed to work and learn with you.
3. Set it up in a realistic development environment
The closer your pair programming exercise is to the job’s responsibilities, the better. It means setting up questions that can be answered within the same coding framework and programming languages your hire will use. You also might test your candidates on projects similar to those they will work on. For example, if you’re hiring for a web developer position, you might ask to code parts of a new website page.
With the emergence of generative AI, another interesting idea is to give your candidates access to ChatGPT. It will help you see how they can leverage these newest technologies to improve their work.
4. Evaluate thought process and communication skills
There’s one golden rule of pair programming interviews: you want to assess less the language proficiency of your candidates than their problem-solving and communication skills. You want to see how they thought through a new problem, communicate with their peers about it, and find creative ways to resolve them.
To get a closer look, you can review their thought process in 3 steps :
- Provide language agnostic questions, so that candidates can use the coding language that works best for them.
- Giving them focus time to think about the problem or question before discussing it with them. Having a manager watching them constantly can stress them and not be a fair reflection of their capabilities.
- After this focus time, you can let them work on the task while asking for their thought process :
- Why did you make that decision?
- What are some risks associated with that approach?
- What would you improve?
- Hint them new solutions when they’re asking for help. Give them the solution when they are really stuck, but mention that in your notes.
This will help you get a deeper picture of your candidate’s soft skills.
5. Leverage visualization tools
Coding is also, in many ways, a visualization task. In front-end tasks, you want to sketch the interface you want to build and see what your program’s input looks like. But it’s also the case of back-end and more senior-level tasks. When designing a system, it’s easier to present the project by drawing a diagram and showing how each part will communicate together.
That’s why you’ll find many benefits to using drawing tools during programming interviews. It will help you brainstorm with your candidates, see their thought processes, and track their work.
Related read > Improve Front-End Coding Interviews with Mockups
6. Record and take note of the interview
During a pair programming interview, there are so many things going on that you might not notice: are your candidates struggling with specific tasks? What questions did they ask you for help? Do they proactively search for the answer themselves?
You should keep a memory of all these details. For a starter, you can record the interviewing sessions so that you can get back to any detail afterward. You can use a code playback feature built-in your coding interview tool to have an accurate view of the thought process of your candidates. You might also add comments whenever you notice something important about your candidate’s approach and behaviors.
This material will help you objectively assess your candidate after the interview. It will prevent you from being influenced by quick judgments, as you can weigh all elements with a cold eye.
7. Include and prep the rest of the team
You might not make your final decision alone. Your teammates will also work with the future hire, so be sure to include them in the hiring process. You can, for example send them the recording and ask them for their assessment. You can also set up a pair programming exercise with one of them.
If you’re running a massive recruitment plan, you can even give the responsibility to some team members to do live coding interviews for you. After screening your candidates with coding assessment tests, you can send them the most promising ones. But be always sure to not take too much of the time of your engineering time and to prepare them adequately to the interview . Everything has to be thought through and standardized to avoid bias.
Evaluate Your Tech Candidates in Action: CoderPad’s Live Coding Interview
CoderPad’s interview platform helps you see the potential of each of your tech candidates. It gives you everything to set up effective pair programming exercises. With built-in features such as :
- An intuitive IDE to interview in 43+ languages and frameworks.
- A built-in interviewing tool to interact with your candidates in real-time, record the call and evaluate their performance.
- A virtual whiteboard to collaborate and brainstorm with your candidates.
Do you want to make better and more confident hiring decisions? Try CoderPad Interview for free.