What are technical interviews?


3 traits of technical interviews that are effective and equitable

Software engineering teams use technical interviews to assess software engineers’ technical skills during the hiring process. Technical interviews can involve writing code, discussing technology or Computer Science topics, or talking about past work. They’re facilitated by a professional interviewer with experience in a software engineering role, using consistent interview questions, and conducted in an integrated development environment (IDE).

Technical interviews are predictive of candidates’ skill and a part of an inclusive hiring process have three common characteristics:

  1. Technical interviews are relevant to the job’s seniority and skills
  2. Technical interviews are conducted using purpose-built technology
  3. Technical interviews are facilitated by a professional interviewer with software engineering experience

In this blog, we are going to focus on technical interviews that occur at the start of the hiring process as a first-round technical screen. Let’s dive deeper.

Technical interviews are relevant to the job’s seniority and skills

Many hiring processes include technical interviews with different focus areas: a technical interview designed to assess how a candidate would approach a problem, a behavioral interview dedicated to engineering collaboration best practices, and system design interview to assess architectural judgement.

Teams may use one of these, all of them, or an interview format that efficiently addresses each. At Karat, interview formats are designed to maximize efficiency and hiring signal for each level of seniority. Let’s look at three career levels and the types of interview formats appropriate for each.

  • Intern and early-career software engineers: Technical interviews start with 10 to 15 minutes of project discussion in which the interviewer will provide the question, direction, and context. It is followed by 45 to 50 minutes of coding that addresses solutions to the problem in real-time. They include two to three questions of escalating difficulty, measuring fundamental coding skills and specializations. E.g. algorithms, data structure choice, or complex business logic.
  • Mid-career software engineers: Developers with three to five years of experience are ready to tackle more complex problems and their technical interview should represent those capabilities. Technical interviews start with 10 minutes of project discussion, a shorter 30-minute coding exercise which will be more basic or advanced depending on job requirements, and end with 20 minutes of questions that demonstrate working knowledge. These knowledge questions will again be relevant to the role, and often include back-end systems, systems design, testing, algorithms and time complexity, machine learning survey knowledge, math, and statistics.
  • Senior software engineers: Here’s where things get interesting. Senior software engineer roles handle complex business problems and lead others in critical projects. Technical interviews for senior roles require a deep understanding of which competencies will make a candidate successful in order to design a format and interview rubric that will accurately assess the candidate. Typically, they are broken into three parts: discussing past work, questions that demonstrate working knowledge similar to the mid-career interview, and business logic complexity or code and architecture review. These will also be tailored by industry or use case, such as finance, healthcare, or cybersecurity.

It is important to note that these interview questions and formats must be used consistently in order to generate accurate hiring signal and be fair to candidates.

Technical interviews are conducted using purpose-built technology

Software engineers have been loath to recall requests to write code in a shared document, like Google Docs, when a proper integrated development environment (IDE) isn’t available. An IDE allows interviewers to observe how candidates normally develop or debug code, verify its functionality, and develop their write-ups based on a relevant interview rubric. These features dramatically improve fairness to candidates, ease, and accuracy for interviewers, and improve the effectiveness of the hiring process.

Proper technology for conducting a technical interview:

  • Allows candidates to run their code in an IDE
  • Includes video chat between the interviewer and candidate
  • Supports the interviewer with a pre-approved interview question and format that will ensure interview consistency
  • Removes opinion-based recommendations by allowing an interviewer to enter a rubric-based structured write-up that drives the recommendation

Technical interviews are facilitated by a professional interviewer with software engineering experience

Technical interviews are always facilitated by a software engineer that interviews as part of their job (or their full-time job). Companies may implement interviewer training programs or partner with a solution that conducts technical interviews and designs hiring processes with the greatest likelihood of success in order to bring this expertise to their team.

Professional interviewers are equipped with:

  • Technical interview questions and formats developed for each role
  • Technical interview rubrics to support consistent and accurate scoring of the interview
  • Best practices in inclusive in-interview communication
  • An IDE in which to conduct interviews

This is important to hiring success, yet relatively rare. The 2020 Interview Gap Report found that nearly 9 in 10 engineering leaders (87%) agree that expertise in technical interviewing is critical for a successful hiring process. 72% agree that “very few people at their company know how to conduct interviews,” and nearly 73% say that “the typical technical interview fails to predict the performance of software engineers.”

We hope this is a helpful guide to what a technical interview is and what it is not. For six steps to developing great technical interviews and hiring processes, check out this video with Karat’s Global Head of Solutions Engineering Shannon Hogue.

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