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Technical Interviews Are Pretty Terrible. You Could Help Them Be Better.

This past week, I got to have a great conversation about technical interviews with Chris Hodge of Kinkor Consulting (thanks for hosting me, Chris!). We were, of course, in total agreement: whiteboard interviews suck, they always have, and why anyone is using them in this era is a complete and utter mystery.

That said, you can’t just poke fun at bad interviews (enjoyable as it is — and more relevant than ever with work from home / interview from home as the norm). With both the pandemic and the massive (and much needed) push for racial justice, there’s a special urgency to finally (!) getting this right. We all can make technical interviews way less biased through some simple fixes. We must do it, without excuse or delay. We’ll get much better talent in place as a result – and, you know, it’s the right thing to do.

Just think about how easy it is to let bias creep in as early as the interview process, despite our best intentions. If we…

  • Are able to check out someone’s home surroundings via zoom interviews in your home, the possibility of implicit bias is real (what does interviewing from your bedroom say versus a beautiful home office with rainbow-ordered books on shelves?)
  • Require major prep and time investments, we could double down on those who have the time to prep versus those with skill and fit (only a small subset of privileged people have 30 hours to prep for interviews!)
  • Assume everyone has a robust technology setup at home, we give preference for those with lots of monthly cash flow (not everyone has money for the terabyte data plan from the cable company)
  • Rely on the same universities every time, we miss out on excellent talent from other places (we all know the best talent isn’t concentrated at five schools)
  • Watch people code constantly as the test, we’re more likely to judge women and introverts more harshly (brand-new research shows this is true!)
  • Don’t take into account schedules and childcare coverage realities of today, we make it harder for working parents (a cute Zoom bomb by a two year old is stressful as a parent – I know, it happens to me all the time!)

So what’s the action plan then? The tweaks aren’t that difficult to make. In fact, they’re pretty straightforward.

  • Do the initial screen on the phone over Zoom. This avoids any candidate concern around having the right tech in place to do the interview, the perfect backdrop, etc.
  • Screen using work samples and projects over resumes. Resumes imply a story; work samples tell you about skills.
  • Run more than one technical interview and add an observer to each. Anyone can have a bad technical interview – interviewer and candidate – but real performance shows over two or three. And having a third party to triple confirm that everyone heard and saw the same thing helps to minimize the risk of interviewer bias.
  • Provide a “lunch hang” session – no lunch required! Seriously, candidates need a more informal opportunity to chat and share ideas, not just be quizzed and grilled on tech specifics.
  • Break up the day. An entirely remote interview process should not match the typical in-person session. A candidate would need to be superhuman to hang with that (and, let’s be honest, so would we). Break it up into shorter chunks – and even space it out over a few days.

If you really want to win, give the candidate more control and ask them what their preferences are as far as interview format. The whole point is to put candidates at ease so you can accurately assess their skills; asking if someone prefers a phone call over video or projects vs live coding assessments is a courteous gesture that costs you nothing.

Ultimately, we need to move from a technical interview model that prioritizes a candidate’s ability to answer esoteric CS 101 questions; measures prep time over ability; and exposes a candidate’s ability to manage stress versus showcase real skill. __Now is the time to rethink your technical interview. Welcome to the world of measuring skills and fit – which is what the technical interview should be. Doing so will help your companies stand out at a time when everyone is stretched and developer fatigue is real, when everyone’s chasing the same candidates, and most are short on time with lots to juggle.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and questions – hit me up at amanda@coderpad.io and, of course, would love for you to check out CoderPad here.