I’ve interviewed hundreds of engineers — and this is how companies should hire them


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I had been in professional web development for almost ten years when I had a terrible interview. It was with a well known company, I had met the founder and to say I was super excited about it is an understatement. I did well on the first whiteboard. Then my next interviewer came in and asked me to implement a Lisp parser on a whiteboard as well.

Given the time, space, and a trusted set of tools, I knew I could have done it right. But at this point I was thrown off. Writing code on a whiteboard isn’t how you normally code – you can’t test it or run it while you’re writing it. If you make a mistake, you can’t just add a new line in the middle, like with an IDE – you have to delete it and edit it manually. As I struggled, I also got no help from the interviewer. I saw him walk out, talk to my next interviewer, and then a recruiter came in to tell me to go home.

Between implementing a Lisp parser on a whiteboard versus a more intuitive environment and a total lack of interviewer involvement, it was an awful experience. But it turned out for the best – while walking down Union Square completely dejected, a recruiter for HotelTonight happened to call and I got a great job the same day after an impromptu interview. But it taught me a lasting lesson about technical interviews: they should be relevant to the job you’re seeking and designed to understand the whole person.

Today, in the age of the great layoffs and migration of talent, it is even more important to get your hiring process going as talented technical staff can go anywhere they want. You need to be able to make a compelling case for your team and company – they’re interviewing you, not just you interviewing them.

After interviewing hundreds of technical candidates, here’s what I’m thinking about.

Target engineers who resonate with your product

If you’re a small business, you can’t compete with the FAANG companies in salary or mobility – and there is a certain kind of engineer who will always choose them anyway (which is cool!). But if you’re not Amazon or Facebook, then prioritize candidates interested in solving your kind of problems.

This is how HotelTonight practically sold itself: people love free hotel rooms and it was a great product. For us, our engineers have all been through the mill with previous interviews, so they know what’s so bad about job interviews and how to fix it. Focus on your use cases as a differentiator.

We also like to emphasize that the ownership of innovation and problem solving is much bigger than a 1,000-person technical organization. You will have an inordinate impact on the direction of the product and therefore the company – and that is an incredible feeling.

Be transparent about the company

Providing a positive experience for both hiring managers and candidates means showing what it’s like to work at your company on a daily basis. That doesn’t mean you’re completely and falsely rosy. It means being clear about what problems you’re trying to solve, where the company is strong (and where it isn’t), and the technical roadmap.

I’ve found it’s better to have these conversations earlier in the process. That way, you know that the people who choose to continue are really interested in the work and feel that your company could be the place for them. The right people will be eager to tackle issues with you.

Be aware of bias — and create a system to counter it

The software engineering community is slowly becoming less homogeneous – which is great – but there is still a lot of work to be done. It is the responsibility of companies and hiring managers to create a fair process in which all candidates can give their best. Sure, it’s a challenge – but totally worth it, because you get much better products and processes.

Openly discuss prejudice as you refine your hiring process. You may be removing names and other screener-level demographic information. You need to standardize questions so that everyone who applies for the job can be compared based on the same criteria.

There should be clear criteria for what is a good or bad answer. And discuss how you can help candidates with that. At what point, for example, do you step in and help a struggling candidate with an illuminating detail? Candidates should have the same process and experiences as much as possible.

Take the non-technical elements into account in an engineer hire

Yes, technical acumen is huge, but if you use the right assessment tools, you know you’re getting an accurate picture of a candidate’s ability to code. In fact, an accurate technical evaluation builds a strong foundation so that a shiny personality doesn’t blind you to a candidate who doesn’t have the skills you need.

But the non-technical stuff is just as important. You need to find out if this is a person you would like to work with (and this goes both ways, by the way – candidates should do a similar calculation). How do they prefer to communicate with colleagues and customers? What management style will allow them to do their best work? What are their career goals and passions? How do they deal with constructive feedback?

Soft skills and personality are important. After all, even if someone is an exceptional technical talent, do you really want them on the team when they are an arrogant, morale-depleting, poisonous presence? Of course not. It’s much better to invest time in figuring out whether a candidate contributes to – or detracts from – team cohesion than, for example, asking them to create a Lisp parser on a whiteboard.

Candidates, curious about what struck you (good or bad) in your recent job interviews? And hiring managers, have you tried anything particularly innovative in your quest to stand out from new talent?

Jonathan Geggatt, VP engineering at CoderPad.

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This post I’ve interviewed hundreds of engineers — and this is how companies should hire them

was original published at “https://venturebeat.com/2022/04/07/ive-interviewed-hundreds-of-engineers-and-this-is-how-companies-should-hire-them/”

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