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The Shifting Technical Interview Process

Usually, this is a slow news period for technology. But there have been a few high profile tech news stories, from Edward Snowden turning into Carmen Sandiego to the Xbox One-Eighty DRM debacle. But one that perhaps flew under the radar was an interview with Laszlo Bock, senior vice president of people operations at Google. In the interview, Bock says that as far as hiring people goes, "brainteasers are a complete waste of time" and that they serve "primarily to make the interviewer feel smart". Subsequently, Jon Evans proclaimed that "The Technical Interview Is Dead". Quite a bold claim, seeing as how it has been a necessary part of software development interviews for years. So what's changed?

For starters, we have data. Google, which uses data to drive many decisions, including what shade of blue to use, collected data on its own hiring process. Bock studied the data and found no relationship between an employee's interview score and their actual performance. Numbers such as GPA and test scores (I assume standardized test scores, but the interview doesn't make that distinction) are worthless except in the case of new college grads. They glean more information from behavioral questions and tasks such as "Describe a problem that you found difficult and how you approached it". That sounds much closer to a run of the mill interview question.

However, this change in the interview process has been taking place before Google revealed their findings. One strong contributor to this is the code sharing site Github. Developers use Github to host open source code, whether they're complete projects or small scripts hosted in Gists. An employer can use this to gauge a candidate's interests and get a sense for how they write code. For people looking for jobs in software development, having code on Github and linking to your profile on your resume is a huge deal.

Evans also states that the process of bringing a candidate in and having them code on a whiteboard is "horribly broken". Having gone through that process a handful of times, I find it extremely stressful. So much so that I dread doing it. People will tell me that I shouldn't worry about it; that they're just trying to see your thought process. The mere fact that there's sometimes multiple answers, but usually one best answer pressures me to find that optimal answer out of fear that anything less would be the end of the road. Nowadays, you can Google "technical interview questions" and find web sites that list questions and, sometimes, their answers. There's even a book that candidates can use as a study guide, much like studying for the SAT. I believe that these two things have also influenced this change in the interview process. Does it mean anything if someone knows the difference between a semaphore and a mutex because they read about it?

Today, employers are tweaking their process to get better results and saying it's dead is an exaggeration. A phone screen to determine whether a candidate has a moderate amount of technical ability is still recommended, and anything on their resume is fair game. Instead of coding on the whiteboard, employers may ask candidates to walk them through some code they wrote on Github or complete a task in the comfort of their own home. And before they are fully hired, they might be asked to come in as a contract to hire or just pair for a day to see if they're a cultural fit. Still, don't be surprised if this process changes in the future. It is a real world optimization problem with many possible inputs but only two outputs: yes or no.

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