Industry Trends & Research


Don’t spook your best candidates: Strategies to avoid in software engineer interviews

Don Gannon-Jones image

Don Gannon-Jones

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It may be the spookiest day of the year for those celebrating Halloween, but something else has been haunting the tech industry for quite some time: the technical hiring process. Job seekers looking for new opportunities in 2023 have had some pretty eerie experiences — experiences rife with scary strategies, terrifying tactics, and ancient rituals

It’s time to replace those methods with a fair, human-centered approach — an approach that won’t cause your best talent to ghost you. Here are some insights and guidance to help you master modern hiring, create an amazing experience for candidates, and find the best engineers:

What’s happening

In today’s job market, it’s not uncommon to be bombarded with countless job applications. The influx of highly qualified candidates can be overwhelming — something akin to the chaos you might experience tonight when your street is teeming with eager trick-or-treaters.

To navigate your talent-rich hiring funnel, it’s crucial to create an equitable and enjoyable experience for candidates. It might be tempting to fall back on “tried-and-true” tactics that are familiar to hiring managers, but relying on these outdated ghosts of the past often alienates your best candidates. On top of that, many of them aren’t fair or effective.

Simply put, you might be able to play your Goonies costume off as retro, but it’s hard to justify these kinds of hiring practices.

Why it matters

Traditional interview processes are often high-pressure, nerve-wracking experiences. The stress can cause even the strongest candidates to stumble through an interview like a protagonist running away from a villain in a horror movie. Additionally, certain interview styles and formats can put underrepresented groups at a disadvantage.

To address these concerns, it’s essential to identify and understand problematic interview tactics. Many are ineffective and set candidates up for failure. We should instead aim to create an environment that empowers them to shine.

A look at traditional methods

Let’s begin our journey by reviewing tactics used to screen candidates out of the process:

1. The Gauntlet

Don't spook your best candidates: Strategies to avoid in software engineer interviews
Mad Max: Fury Road, Warner Bros. & Roadshow Entertainment, 2015

Welcome to the first haunting — er, interview. Please sit down. All we need you to do is write an application for the next hour. We’ve all done it. Some of us don’t even have nightmares about it anymore.

High-stakes, barely solvable interview questions and assignments are more like initiation into a secret society or a gauntlet-style obstacle course than an interview. Even worse, they can become self-reinforcing, like a form of hazing. If everyone else had to complete the challenge to get here, it must be effective.

The problem with this approach

It imposes an unnaturally high cognitive load, causing candidates to perform below their actual capabilities. You’re not getting a glimpse of their everyday work — only a glimpse of their worst-case scenario. They could assume that your company culture is a dystopian existence with oppressive leadership and unrealistic expectations and decide not to go down that rough road.

2. The Pop Quiz

Don't spook your best candidates: Strategies to avoid in software engineer interviews
Monsters University, Walt Disney Studios & Pixar Animation Studios, 2013

Are you ready for our next challenge? Great! Now, answer quickly: Which command-line switch enables verbose compiler output? What’s the third element of the Repository Pattern? The clock is ticking, and your next job is on the line.

In this scenario, candidates are bombarded with tech trivia questions, jumping from topic to topic, in a limited time frame. It’s like a rapid-fire pop-quiz game show with higher stakes, and it’s not quite as entertaining.

The problem with this approach

While it seems like this tactic covers a lot of ground quickly, the truth is quite the opposite. Casting such a wide net also means these questions have to be shallow. Instead of identifying candidates based on their ability, these types of interviews tend to benefit someone who did an all-night cram session and disadvantage those who approach the interview honestly. The result doesn’t create an effective signal to hire; it just wastes the candidate’s — and the interviewer’s — time.

3. The Homework

Don't spook your best candidates: Strategies to avoid in software engineer interviews
Beetlejuice, Warner Bros., 1988

We’d be happy to interview you. We’d just like you to spend a few days building something for us before we chat. Of course, we aren’t paying. We’ll see you when you’re done!

Asking candidates to complete a substantial coding task as part of their application process borders on asking them to work for free. It’s all the stress of The Gauntlet — with a side-helping of disrespect for their time. 

The problem with this approach

In addition to disrespect, this process is biased in favor of candidates who have lots of spare time to spend on your job application, weeding out folks with existing jobs, families, or even multiple jobs they’re pursuing.

4. The Bubble Sort

Don't spook your best candidates: Strategies to avoid in software engineer interviews
Hocus Pocus, Walt Disney Pictures, 1993

What do we have here? Oh, just a collection of computer science puzzles. You remember how to write a bubble sort, right? What about Dijkstra’s Algorithm? Of course, you can’t look anything up! That would be cheating!

Implementing “classic” computer science algorithms may seem job-relevant, but when did you last actually build one yourself? We use libraries and frameworks when we need this sort of well-known algorithm. When we don’t, we at least refer to reference material.

The problem with this approach

This might be helpful to developers fresh out of a computer science program because it’s what they’ve just been studying. For everyone else, this is a test of something they may have learned once but certainly haven’t had to use in their day-to-day work — and probably won’t have to use on this job, either. 

Focus on what works effectively

To win the tech talent race, it’s time to invest in higher-cognition exercises that allow candidates to be their best selves during an interview.

Consider offering challenges that engage the higher brain and allow candidates to work through real-world problems. For instance, you can structure these challenges as mini-work reviews or code reviews. This approach invites candidates to analyze a code snippet, offering insights into their thought process without the pressure of real-time coding.

These exercises dig into a candidate’s actual experiences and provide a more realistic assessment of how they work. It’s a fairer, more human-centered approach that will help you attract and retain the top tech talent in the industry.

Ultimately, it’s not just Halloween; it’s 2023! It’s time to allow the tactics we’ve described above fade away like elusive specters in the night and create a more equitable and efficient tech hiring process. Happy hiring — and may your new approaches be equitable, efficient, and enjoyable for you and your candidates.

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