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Returning to the Office? Don’t Bring These Bad Technical Interview Elements With You

Engineering Management , Interviewing

As the pandemic eases up and people start trickling back to offices everywhere, there are benefits to the in-person connections that result: more spontaneous collaboration, good mentoring, and easier relationship building. Plus who doesn’t love a little office cooler time?

But as we collectively open the door to some form of office life, let’s not let the bad stuff from before in with us. That means unnecessary commutes, mandated “optional” happy hours, and – most crucially – truly terrible technical interviewing techniques. 

Out of necessity, interviewing – and technical interviewing in particular – substantially changed during the pandemic. Today, as employers rush to return to the “good ole days” of office life, that good transformation is at risk. That’s a problem for them and for candidates – and it means it’s harder to achieve the great work that happens when the right talent lands with the right company.

These are the top four unhelpful, unproductive, stale technical interview elements we should all agree belong in the past (plus perspective on pandemic-era learnings we should keep!).

1. Going back to the whiteboard

In pandemic times, companies could – thankfully – no longer rely on the whiteboard interview. This was a massive improvement because, as research shows, this kind of under-the-microscope interview with irrelevant tools doesn’t produce accurate results. Worse, it likely introduces bias against women and other groups.

Today, however, I’m hearing from some leaders that whiteboards are inexplicably making a comeback. Feels a little anachronistic when you have technology options that allow for a much enhanced, less biased, more precise picture of someone’s abilities.

2. Asking obscure questions that don’t matter

Gone are the days of asking questions that are purely designed to put candidates on the spot, test against some artificial standard, or show off your own intelligence. Let’s not go back to questions that have no direct bearing on the job at hand. Instead, be rigorous about developing question sets that are closely tied to the roles’ requirements — and ensure they’re consistently asked of all candidates so a fair comparison can be made.

Leave the questions that don’t strictly map to the work required at the door. It’s a much better use of your time – and theirs – to see how they shine when asked questions that allow them to showcase what they can do on work you truly care about.

3. Forgetting the benefits of fewer, better, faster interview schedules

Technical interviews in the Great Before were day-long affairs that taxed teams and candidates alike. And based on the track record of the past two years, it’s not super clear that this old-school style produced better results than hiring remotely. We’ve seen many companies successfully make phenomenal hires remotely, time and time again.

Why? Hiring committees adjusted well during the pandemic. They became more flexible, scheduling fewer interviews and emphasizing quality over quantity. And they learned that if you dial in and ask the right questions, ones that actually align with the role, and do that in a setting where everyone is more comfortable, a shorter and sweeter interview process will uncover high-quality candidates. 

That’s why I’m puzzled by some of what I’ve heard lately from hiring teams that are returning to the office and conducting full day interviews in person the old way. They’re creating more stressful scenarios with full-day marathons instead of reaping the benefits of a speedier remote interview process.

Those old marathons, by the way, also disadvantaged anyone who might be great and have other obligations to meet like, say, school pickups. Not good when you’re trying like hell to show all different kinds of people what a great culture you have at Company X.

4. Making it harder to avoid bias

While some have seen the value of technology and blown away the whiteboard, others have gone further to let candidates use their own machines “to feel more comfortable.” Although well intentioned, this misses the need for fair and blind code reviews (and second opinions from others) after the candidates have been through the process.

If you have five candidates, each vying for the same position but who met with different interviewers, it’s easier and vastly more preferable to put the code snippets up and compare them in an apples-to-apples, bias-free way. Use playback! Technology makes this option available to you and it’s worthwhile. 

Otherwise, candidates take their laptops home and what are you left with? Nothing but your bro colleague who says, “Eh, he seemed cool – let’s hire him”? Not exactly the best practice playbook to build the diverse teams needed to make excellent products and services.

A note to end on

This is not the job market to allow your technical interview experience to regress. Preserve and leverage the gains you made in the pandemic to keep a more practical, positive, candidate-centered experience working for you. Or keep an old-school, more bias prone, less effective interview style and lose out on candidates whose transformative talents could make that critical competitive difference.