Hiring Tech Talent Requires Innovative Interviewing

By Catherine Skrzypinski Jun 17, 2016
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SEATTLE—Tech companies are using unconventional interviewing methods to find the strongest candidates, said Gayle Laakmann McDowell, founder and CEO of Palo Alto, California-based CareerCup.com, a company that prepares candidates for technical interviews, at the 2016 Talent42 Tech Recruiting Conference.

For example, at Amazon, “bar raisers” play a crucial role in the e-commerce company’s hiring process. Bar raisers are full-time Amazon employees assigned to interview applicants for openings in other departments. While separate from the hiring team, bar raisers wield veto power over job candidates and can block a new hire. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has said bar raisers help ensure the company makes good hiring choices by forcing several diverse employees to sign off on one candidate.

McDowell pointed out that companies should appoint bar raisers who are experienced at interviewing, and display characteristics like kindness and empathy. “Bar raisers should be smart and [be able to] challenge the candidate,” she said.

Both Google and Yahoo make use of hiring committees. Modeled after faculty hiring at prestigious universities, both companies have candidates interview with a panel of engineers. Then another panel of engineers, made of up individuals who have never met the candidate, evaluates and gives feedback based on the written report of each interviewer. This model is good for companies that receive large volumes of candidates and meet with at least five per week.

McDowell advised companies that use hiring committees to have them meet at least twice a week—rather than once—to discuss candidates in the recruitment pipeline and to vote on whether to move them through the process or reject them. “A week is a long time for a candidate to wait,” she added.

Assessing Coding

During a technical interview, recruiters ask potential employees to write code so they can demonstrate how they put their thoughts into action and show if they have good structure and style, McDowell said. 

Experts debate the best way to conduct knowledge testing in technical interviews. Applicants for technical roles typically are tested by writing down code on a whiteboard or by keying in code on a computer. A whiteboard is a more-traditional approach to the coding interview and it shows the thought process of a candidate, McDowell added. The downside is that writing on a board may slow the candidate down, and it could be intimidating for those communicating in their second language. McDowell said a company should give candidates the choice between coding on a whiteboard or a computer.

Many hiring managers are also using pair programming tests, a software development technique where two programmers—the candidate and a senior employee—work together on one computer. One programmer writes code, while the other reviews each line of code after it is typed in. The two switch roles throughout the exercise.

According to McDowell, many candidates enjoy the pair programming process, as it feels fair and similar to a real-world work experience. It also encourages interpersonal interaction.

Catherine Skrzypinski is a freelance writer in Vancouver.

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