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Companies Are Rethinking How They Hire Technical Talent


A man with a beard is using a laptop at home.


​Sargun Kaur knows from experience how flawed the process for hiring technical talent can be in some organizations. Kaur, the co-founder and CEO of Byteboard, a platform that assesses candidates for technical roles, is a former engineer who suffered through job interviews she believed weren't reflective of the skills or knowledge she'd need to succeed on the job.

Such interviews were designed more to test memorization or performance anxiety than to assess how software engineers code in real-world settings, Kaur believed, and also could have a disproportionately negative impact on underrepresented groups. Many candidates in the latter category don't have access to the same test prep materials or resources as others, and research shows people are more likely to stop interviewing after a single poor interviewing experience, Kaur said.

That seemingly broken process is why Kaur decided to launch Byteboard along with colleague Nikke Hardson-Hurley, with whom she worked at Google. Byteboard departs from traditional hiring practices by using project-based interviews featuring asynchronous tests designed to mimic how engineers work on the job every day.

"There's a whole hiring industry built around doing considerable prep work to prepare for theoretical questions during interviews," Kaur said. "It never made sense to me that job interviews for a variety of technical roles didn't reflect the work you would actually be doing."

To construct its platform, Byteboard interviewed scores of engineers at different experience levels across industries and companies, identifying 20 core skills required to succeed on the job. The founders then designed a process to replace the typical pre-onsite interview, asking candidates to take a timed, project-based assessment. Byteboard's calibrated evaluators then grade candidate materials and provide a performance report to clients.

"The assessment involves working through a project just like you would if you were on the job as an engineer," Kaur said, with its asynchronous nature helping to remove some of the performance anxiety associated with time-honored practices like live coding tests.

For example, projects for software engineers might include coding in an existing codebase. Projects for front-end engineers could focus on using HTML, CSS or JavaScript to create real webpages, and mobile engineering assessments might ask candidates to use Kotlin or Swift to build an application in a real mobile development setting.

Some recruiting industry analysts say such assessment approaches can have dual value in a market where demand for technical talent still far exceeds supply. The focus on testing practical skills applicants will use on the job rather than on theoretical questions can provide an improved candidate experience in a time when applicants can afford to be extremely selective. The assessment method also can lead to improved speed-to-hire, since the quality of the initial testing often provides a "high-quality signal" about prospective performance and requires fewer follow-on interviews to make a final hiring decision.

Ben Eubanks, chief research officer for Lighthouse Research and Advisory, an HR consulting firm in Huntsville, Ala., said recent research conducted by his company found candidates often prefer the type of project-based job assessments offered by Byteboard and other recruiting vendors in the space.

"We found that workers prefer this type of interviewing experience over use of traditional resumes or other approaches, and diverse workers prefer them even more highly," Eubanks said. "They let candidates put their best foot forward and be judged on their ability, not on any other extraneous information. In fact, the closer the line of sight between the assessment and the actual job duties, the more the candidate enjoys the experience."

Byteboard also strives to create a level playing field by reducing hiring bias on its platform. Candidate evaluation reports sent to hiring managers are fully anonymized, Kaur said, and the project-based tests are evaluated using highly structured rubrics.

"Many of our clients have seen an increase in the number of job offers going to individuals in underrepresented groups," Kaur said. "For us, it's about expanding opportunity for the kind of high-paying jobs this field can provide."

Virtual Skills-Based Hiring for Tech Talent

Another recruiting vendor with a more modern approach to hiring technical talent is San Francisco-based Filtered. The company was founded on the belief that the traditional assessment process for software engineers, data scientists, DevOps specialists and other technical workers too often is untethered from their actual job duties and leans too much on the school they attended or their employer history.

Filtered has a process that automates applications, screening calls and coding interviews, while using a combination of live and recorded video interviews to test different aspects of candidate capabilities. The platform also is designed to assess soft skills as effectively as technical skills, producing a more holistic view of candidates.

"The globe is now the talent pool for many organizations, and we think that hiring for engineering, data science and DevOps roles requires a different kind of approach," said Dan Finnigan, CEO of Filtered. "We were founded on the pillar of 'performance over pedigree,' and our platform reflects that belief."

Finnigan said that while many recruiters continue to use their applicant tracking system (ATS) for workflow and logistics tasks, they need to replace the physical interview room, which is where Filtered's virtual option comes in. The vendor uses what Finnigan said is a "completely configurable" integrated development environment for assessment, which provides a full complement of tools needed by programmers for software development.

Jeremy Bushaw, vice president of global talent acquisition for Informatica, a data management company in Redwood City, Calif., uses the Filtered platform and has found value in how it can be configured for his unique hiring needs and evaluate technical candidates' soft skills.

"The soft-skill assessment saves our recruiters and hiring teams a significant amount of time by being able to accurately assess communication skills and thinking ability without having to spend a lot of time with candidates," Bushaw said. "It's allowed us to accelerate our recruitment process."

A Referral-Based Approach to Technical Hiring

Another vendor taking a new approach to technical recruiting is Circular, located in Madrid. The company's hiring model is based on encouraging recruiters to recommend technical talent they weren't able to hire into Circular's recruitment network. The process formalizes the age-old informal practice of recruiters recommending applicants to peers in their networks.

Circular applies technology to the process to allow such referrals to occur at scale and offers recruiters incentives for their recommendations. Lauren Castleton-White, director of community for Circular, said the platform has a network of 6,000 recruiters who recommend a shortlist of top technical talent primarily in Europe. She said recommending talent through the platform can be integrated into regular hiring practices and requires few extra steps.

"Recruiters simply add a role and we do the rest," she said. "Recruiters can either add their personal recommendation link to their ATS or directly send nonhired candidates the Circular recommendation e-mail, which is 100 percent GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation] compliant."

Castleton-White said recruiters who recommend candidates can earn points, which can be redeemed for things like event tickets, merchandise, charity donations and even recruitment learning courses. "Those points also contribute to a recruiter's reputation level, which defines how much trust they have earned in the network," she said.

Dave Zielinski is principal of Skiwood Communications, a business writing and editing company in Minneapolis.

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