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A candid conversation about hiring engineers and moving from code tests to live technical interviews with Ethos Life VP of Engineering and Head of Talent Acquisition
In March 2019, Ethos Life was rapidly hiring engineers to accelerate an ambitious product development roadmap. The goal was to deploy new predictive analytics and data technologies to break down the barriers keeping people from getting life insurance coverage.
“Ethos is a modern solution for life insurance and we’re leveraging advanced technologies such as machine learning and predictive analytics on top of a complex platform built by our team,” explained Ethos Life VP of Engineering, Vipul Sharma.
Vipul needed to expedite software engineer hiring, without sacrificing his team’s productivity or morale.
To successfully identify, level, hire engineers, Ethos developed interviewer training, but the volume of interviews cut into productive coding time. Sharma observed, “engineers were spending two to five hours each week on interviews and about one to three hours preparing and sharing feedback with the team. Interviewing is a productive use of time as it allows us to build our team. However, we had to consider that when engineers are interviewing, this is time they’re not able to spend on high priority projects.”
Sharma turned to his Head of Talent Acquisition, Tina Tian, for help. Together, they started evaluating technical assessment tools, including a homegrown test to identify the right candidates. The goal was maximizing hiring yield, but appropriately leveling and evaluating candidate seniority was a constant challenge.
“The test might be to write an app,” said Tian. “We could verify that the app worked, but it made it hard to say that the seniority was there, which we really look for in communication style…how a candidate takes feedback and how they work with other teams to approach a methodology. Everyone has opinions on how to approach an issue, but the most important thing is how they work together. Take-home tests can’t identify that.”
“We missed the opportunity to have candidates walk us through their thought process or show us their communication and working style,” added Sharma.
Because the take-home tests alone weren’t sensitive enough to identify seniority, Ethos complimented the code tests with live technical screens. “Our technical calls solved [the leveling issue], but again, it was taking engineering hours to build the test, administer or attend the interview, and review afterward,” said Sharma. “Our team understands how important hiring engineers is to build the best team and is willing to put in the time and effort. However, this was not the ideal setup. We were, at the time, and are still, building rapidly and constantly require all hands on deck.”
Tian and Sharma knew that the interviewing burden was not only causing product delays but also draining the team’s morale, so they started building the case for an external interviewing partner. “We had to quantify the value engineering time, once we did, it was significant. We realized that using an external partner would have a high ROI. Internal bandwidth was important,” said Tian.
That’s when a member of the engineering team suggested Karat as a potential solution.
Sharma and Tian turned to Karat to help conduct Ethos Life’s first-round technical interviews for Back End, Front End, Full Stack, Data Science, and SWE 1 roles. Karat’s Alignment Engineers worked with the Ethos team to identify competencies that accurately represented the Ethos hiring bar, and recommended formats that could accurately identify seniority and coding abilities.
“Defining our bar was a step forward for us. It allowed our team and the Karat team to be on the same page with the candidates we wanted to attract and hire,” noted Sharma. “Long-term, this saved time and created more trust in the process. As a result, we were able to gradually have more candidates go through the Karat process, and more candidates aligned with what we were looking for on the engineering team.”
“The advantage we saw in Karat was our ability to look at the candidate’s code and evaluate technical skills, but also see the interview recordings, which give us a preview into the candidate’s communication skills and working style. This gives a very balanced view of the candidate, and it allows us to be as involved or hands-off as we’d like. This also helps with the quality checks as we can always see how candidates are being evaluated.”
The human + technology approach worked for Ethos Life’s engineering team because it’s at the core of everything the company does. During last year’s Series C funding announcement, Ethos CEO and Co-Founder, Peter Colis, explained, “what makes Ethos different from other providers is our core values are aligned with the expectations of American families: life insurance should be easy and ethical. We aren’t motivated by capitalizing on individuals. Instead, we make choices like right-sizing policies for customers, so they have the best coverage for their families without ever paying more than they should.”
Today, Sharma says, “the end result is our stellar team and growth trajectory. The other thing is that [Karat] allowed us to reflect on what kind of team we wanted to build, and the caliber of engineers needed to get us there.”
Ethos has not only reclaimed engineering time previously dedicated to interviewing and evaluating code tests, but they also realized efficiencies on the recruiting team as well. “The cost is a no-brainer, we can turn any recruiter into a tech recruiter overnight,” said Tian. She added, “engineering trusts the [Karat] recommendations and lets talent acquisition run with the process, they say ‘I trust your judgment.’”
The engineering team is now more open when talent acquisition asks them to do a final round interview because they’re more confident the candidate will be someone they want to hire. Sharma concludes, “we’ve definitely seen an improvement in morale. Our engineers are some of the most talented individuals you’ll encounter, and it’s a clear value add for them and the broader team when they can dedicate more time to product launches, code reviews, and generally building the Ethos products.”
For more information, check out the full Ethos life case study on hiring engineers with a human touch!
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