Interviewing 101: handholding


Interview Engineering mentor, Wyatt Arent, shares his experiences and shines some light on what “handholding” means in the context of a technical interview

Last month, we explored some of the perils of automated code tests. The data shows that reliance on absolute completeness and correctness not only blocks great engineers from getting job offers, but it does so in a way that disproportionately harms underrepresented minorities and women.

This should be a red flag for every organization that aims to be inclusive, diverse, and free of systemic barriers to hiring software engineers. The nuances of a live, human-led interview, allow for more data points than a binary pass/fail grade, which gives hiring managers a deeper understanding of their candidates.

One of those nuances is guidance or “handholding” as it’s sometimes called. Knowing the difference between handholding levels and accurately recording any help that candidates receive is one of the most important things an Interview Engineer can do to ensure they’re not inserting their own bias into the process.

To elaborate on what handholding means, we asked Wyatt Arent, one of our community mentors, to share a bit of advice he offered up to an aspiring Interview Engineer. Here’s what he had to say:

What is handholding?

Back in my day, interviewers would talk at candidates, eyeball them, flex on them, and make them weep uncontrollably until they were kicked out and replaced with someone more similar to the interviewer.

​Can’t you write a simple combinatorial recursive algorithm to generate 2D palindrome matrices on a whiteboard in 15 minutes??? STOP OVER THINKING IT!​”

–sorry, that must have been a flashback. I think it’s better now…where was I?–

When I learned about Karat in 2017, I saw an opportunity to stick it to the corrupt hiring empire. I reclaimed my interviewing power, flipped the tables, and ​became the interviewer. But, with great power comes great responsibility, so I became a mentor. Through my time at Karat, the most rewarding part has been being able to help rewrite the rules of interviewing, making a positive experience for everyone so nobody else has to live through the nightmares I did when I was a candidate.

As a mentor, it’s my privilege to guide and shape the community of Interview Engineers as we grow, and as part of that, I regularly receive questions. Here’s the most recent one to cross my inbox.

Dear Mentor, 

I love going hiking with my partner, but sometimes they bring friends who are terribly inexperienced at it. Whenever we go over unsteady ground (rocks; crags; babbling brooks; and what-have-you) I happily bound across to the other side and wait patiently for the others. Recently, one of them slipped, getting bruises, and couldn’t even make it past the first part of the trail before giving up.

And you know what? My partner got upset at ​me​ for it! Then they said “I hope you don’t act this way in your interviews with that ​Karat​ company,” leaving me feeling bewildered and lost. Can you please help point my compass back on the right path?

– The Hands-free Hiker

Dear Hands-free,

It looks like you’re already most of the way there yourself, and I think with just a little bit of tweaking to your approach, you’ll be back on track in no time.

I love that you can patiently wait for your hiking buddies on the other side. The fact that you allow them the space to try and make those challenging parts of the journey on their own is such an important part of the experience for them to see what they’re made of. That being said, sometimes it doesn’t work out the way we want it to and things can go poorly for a number of reasons: maybe they had a stomach ache; maybe they were nervous; maybe they’ve rock-climbed huge mountains that would make your palms sweat, but they’ve just never crossed rivers as presented that day.

The point is, everyone struggles with one thing or another, but when we stand on the other side watching someone stuck, especially at the outset of the trail, and possibly just getting hurt, not only does it come across as indifferent or cold, but it really can make those people resent hiking and never want to do it again, with you or anyone. It’s the same thing with your work at Karat as well. I grant you that, aside from your face in the camera, being a candidate doesn’t really provide beautiful relaxing views as hiking does. However, the destination of the challenging journey can bring a great deal of joy and satisfaction. If they can’t even make any progress at all on their own, it would be a lot more memorable and pleasant if you were to step into the water with them, let them hold your hand, and allow them to lean on you so they can make it across the first part, and this is particularly true for people who are clearly becoming frustrated and upset. This is heavy handholding.

Sometimes they don’t want or need that much support. Sometimes you can just make suggestions about different steps they can take. You could point out a more specific area of “unsteady ground” that needs attention, helping them with debugging. “Perhaps if we tried to see what the values are in this function?” This is moderate handholding.

Both of these are rarely ever needed for anyone who makes it past the first part of the trail, or the first coding question. All you risk doing at that point is hurting their experience because they’ve already proved themselves to some extent. Then there are those folks who show some real skill and make solid progress, but they’ll get snagged on something small like a missing semicolon or curly brace. If someone makes a lot of progress, should you really categorize them as an inexperienced/poor hiker because they didn’t realize that somewhere along the way their shoe came untied? If it’s about to trip them up badly, just be a pal and point it out. This is minimal handholding. 

Now get back out there with your hands ready to catch someone before they get hurt!

The Karat team explores hiking and technical interview handholding during a 2019 offsite
The Karat team explores hiking and technical interview handholding during a team offsite in 2019.

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