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Tech Industry Interviews are Bullshit. Let's Make Them Better

If you ask almost any programmer what their least favorite part of the industry is, they'll likely say interviewing. The Tech industry has transformed what should be a simple process into an unholy nightmare. When a majority of your industry says it loathes the interview process, perhaps we should examine it more and attempt to make it better.

Let's Just Say What We're All Thinking

Technical interviews suck. I don't think I've ever met someone who was like "You know what my favorite part of our industry is? The interviews! I love being put on the spot and being harshly critiqued over my ability to think on the spot and recall random algorithms that no one ever actually uses in production." Yet, somehow, we continue to double down on a process that is not only extremely stressful but overwhelmingly biased.

Let's Put It in Perspective

Imagine you were interviewing for a job as a short order line cook at a restaurant chain. For this example, we'll call it French Toast House. You arrive at the restaurant for an interview and are greeted by the company's accountant. Now you'll never actually work with the accountant; you're a cook but the company wants people outside of the cooks to evaluate you. You have a nice conversation with the accountant, and you try to ask basic questions like, "Do we work with gas or electric stoves?". The accountant admits that they don't know; they have nothing to do with the preparation of food, but they do want you to solve this brain teaser about transporting a fox, chicken, and corn across a river. They get up to leave and ask if you have any questions about the job. You decide to not ask any because they are unaware of the cooking procedures within the kitchen and when you tell them you don't they frown and say "That's a shame."

You are then interviewed by one of the night shift cooks. They just finished cooking 100,000,000 pieces of French toast because last night was prom night and everyone decided to come to the restaurant at 3:00am in the morning. They look utterly exhausted and completely disinterested in being there. They ask you routine questions like what a stove is and how would you handle a grease fire, but then their pager goes off. They swear loudly because apparently more French toast is needed and it's their turn to be in the bi-monthly French toast hell. You ask if it is always like this and they laugh like a deranged person who just figured out they can put Red Bull in the coffee machine and never sleep again as they walk out of the room, leaving you alone for the next 10 minutes until it's time for the next interviewer.

Your next interviewer is the Senior Short Order Line Cook. You spend the first five minutes getting to know each other but then the interviewer says it's time for "a simple test, won't be too hard". You are then asked to recreate Gordon Ramsey's famous Beef Wellington, but as an added challenge you aren't allowed to use any utensils. You are confused since you thought you were going to be making French toast, but the interviewer explains that they like to see how you do under pressure. You ask if you could go to the kitchen to attempt this experiment but are told to just diagram it on the white board. You muddle through the exercise as best you can with your limited knowledge of Beef Wellingtons but when it's over you can tell the interviewer is disappointed. They come up and show you how they would have solved it and tell you that it's a standard question from the Cracking the Short Order Line Cook Interview book. You're shown out of the building and told they'll get back to you with their decision soon. You make a mental note of how to cook Beef Wellingtons, just on the off chance it shows up at your interview at Burger Queen.

If you were offered the job would you take it? Depends on your situation. You're pretty sure you'll be able to work with real utensils and not have to cook Beef Wellingtons but didn't see any evidence of this. Was this a fair interview process? No. Yet some version of this dynamic is currently being used to interview software engineers around the world, holding them to a much higher standard and rigging the situation against people who don't know the secret knock of admittance.

Why Is It Like This?

To be honest, I have no earthly idea. I don't know where this form of interviewing came from. My assumption is that one of the larger companies decided to develop a hiring practice to ensure that they could "attract and hire top talent".(1) Then everyone else in the industry was like "Hey look! Hooli does it like this, so should we!". There's a very blatant issue with this approach. Your 30 person startup does not have the same hiring challenges as the wealthiest company on the planet. I don't know who needs to hear this, but you are not Hooli. You're not. "Well if we continue growing our customer base..." No. Stop. You do not move petabytes of data a day. You do not have 3 billion concurrent users. And let's be honest, these large companies don't need this kind of process either. The only reason they get away with it is because their reputation allows them to get away with it. If I were to give a conservative estimate I would say 95% of all software engineering jobs will not require the level of stringency that is tested in interviews. I think the following image explains it perfectly (big shout out to Dare Obasanjo for posting this on their twitter. Expectation vs. reality but with dinosaurs

  1. By the way, "hire and attract top talent" is just a fancy way of saying "mask our discrimination by hiring people that look and think like us".

So, your small startup offering a store front for people to buy stuffed armadillos should not adopt these same interviewing methods. For one, they are extremely discouraging to participants. I personally know that I'm a competent engineer. These interviews make me feel like shit, hands down. I have to tell myself that "Interview questions are not the real job. You can do the job, you just struggle jumping through their hoops." Secondly, adopting their practices means that you are validating these practices. And that's your choice; just know that some people, myself included, refuse to participate in interviews like this and you're potentially alienating your talent pool. If you really cared about "top talent", your interview practice would show it.

If you want to attract the top talent, make your interview process match the level of expectation required for the job.

Why Do the Engineers at These Companies Participate in This Process?

I honestly don't know. I know that I don't. I refuse. If I had to guess about other people, I'd say it's primarily a combination of lack of training mixed with a little bit of ego, revenge, and gatekeeping.

Let's Talk About the Lack of Training First.

I've worked in the software industry for about 9 years now, with my first three years being in academia. It wasn't until I joined DigitalOcean in October of 2019 that I ever received any form of interview training. Most engineers are thrust into the interview room with no further instructions than "Interview this person." This actually surfaces a more pressing issue, and that is there is no formalized process around hiring. This is bad for both the candidate and the company. This means that there isn't any sort of standardized interviewing practices not only across teams within the company but also within a single team that is interviewing multiple candidates for the same role. This can lead to vastly different experiences for candidates and allow for bias to slip in. So when I think about it, it is kind of hard to be upset with engineers for reverting to the types of questions that they themselves were asked when they are given no training or guidance in interviewing. At that point, it is a failure of the company, not the individual interviewers.

Do You Really Think Some People Care About Where You Went to School or Imparting Their Struggles Onto Others?

Absolutely. I've witnessed it. I've been denied opportunities because of where I went to school and my inability to perform somersaults while saying the Greek alphabet backwards. If you ever want to be completely disheartened by this all you have to do is go read the Tech industry interview section on the Blind app.(1) The below bullet points are exact quotes from people I've heard in my career from interviewers and sadly enough, recruiters.

  1. I don't recommend you do this. It'll just make you sad and upset.

  2. "Well, I had to do XYZ when I was interviewing, so they should too!"

  3. "I went to a Top 10 Computer Science School. Where did you go?"
  4. "I don't want to hire students from XYZ University, their program isn't good."
  5. "We don't hire engineers from your University. (Said to me by a recruiter at a job fair on my university campus)

This saddens me to no end. But it's a reality that we need to talk about. This came up as recently as two weeks ago when someone posted the interview criteria that ex-Googlers created while they were working at Twitter. A process, btw, that is disgustingly discriminatory. (Thanks to Leslie Miley for posting this)

Ex-Googlers resume review process at Twitter

I could go on but I'm literally getting upset writing this. So long story short: Yes these people exist. Yes it's completely unfair. Call it out when you see it, speak up in your company for fair interviewing practices (I'll go into this more later in the article) and don't repeat their mistakes.

Does Everyone Do This?

Not at all. People tend to remember past bad experiences and that is exactly what happened in the paragraph above. For every asshole interviewer I've experienced I've dealt with three amazing ones. But it only takes one bad person in an interview panel to sour the entire experience. Oddly enough, I've found that it's usually the younger engineers who do this.(1) When I've interviewed with more senior engineers who haven't thought about how to balance a tree since their last interview(2) don't ask questions like this. They ask practical questions. I know one senior engineer who always asks the exact same interview questions regardless of level. He claims he can know everything about a candidate from three relatively simple programming questions, each of which should be solvable by a student who has finished a CS 101 course. I had another senior person set up a test where I had to debug an issue with a web server. None of this "If you throw an egg down a hallway how many platypuses would it take to sing La Traviata".(3) Questions that are actually relevant to the job that test proficiency, not familiarity with questions.

  1. If you're a younger engineer who doesn't do this, congrats! You're doing it right. Those who are doing this know who they are and probably will leave nasty comments or blast me on Twitter about this article.
  2. Or ever. Some of the best engineers I've ever worked with have 0 formal education in Computer Science.
  3. The answer is 17. 12 to sing the different parts and 5 extras in case any of them run after the egg. Usually the mean platypus attention span can be calculated by taking the sum of the number of platypuses divided by the average length of an egg. This can range from 53.12mm for a medium sized egg to 59.675mm for an extra large egg. For the sake of brevity I won't go into the math of converting platypuses to millimeters.

"Well Then, If You Don't Like It What's The Better Option?"

I mentioned it above but I'll repeat Ask questions that are relevant to the job you're interviewing the candidate for. If you are interviewing someone for a job to work on the front page of your website, they probably don't need to know how to build a binary tree from scratch. And I'm sure if that odd case ever did actually come up they would do what every engineer(1) does, They'll Google It. It's as if everyone believes their workplace is this XKCD comic.

  1. Including you, snobby person currently interviewing the candidate.

XKCD 1168 "To Disarm the bomb, simply enter a valid tar command.

Memorization of knowledge is an outdated measure of intelligence. We live in a world where I can ask literally any question I have ever wanted and get an answer instantly. Is having this knowledge in your mind advantageous? Absolutely. But is it an indicator of ability? Not in the slightest. In actuality it could become a hindrance. The amount of times I've learned something new about a topic I already felt very knowledgeable in because I chose to look something up to double check is non-trivial. The information in your head doesn't update unless you choose to update it.

How I Interview People

I enjoy interviewing people. It's always fun to add someone new to your team and the people you meet along the way are fascinating. I split my interviews into three parts:

  1. Let them talk about themselves
  2. Technical interview
  3. Discuss the job

Part 1 - Let the Candidate Tell You About Themselves

Candidates tend to want to tell you about themselves and their work. So let them. Questions like "So tell me about yourself" can be seen as vague but some candidates really enjoy that question. If they don't, try to make a more pointed question. "Tell me about your last job." "How did you get into programming?" "What is your favorite programming language and why?" These are all really good ways to get a conversation going. My favorite question to ask is "Tell me about a project that you're proud of." Most developers have had at least one project that they are super happy to talk about. The project might have taught them something new, been really fun to work on, or solved a complex issue. Whatever it is, you want to know about it because it will showcase the candidates ambition. I always hire enthusiastic, ambitious, and curious people ready to learn. That mindset is contagious and it elevates a team.

Part 2 - Technical Interview

"Wait Mason, didn't you just go on a long winded rant about how you hate technical interviews?" To an extent. I hate technical interviews for the sake of cleverness. I do, however, acknowledge that we have to have some metric of determining ability. I have a three-pronged technical interview. The first question is for them to implement the classic "Fizzbuzz" program.(1) You may laugh, but you'd be surprised how many people are filtered out with this question. This is the bare minimum bar for me. If a candidate can't pass this then I believe they will benefit more from practice and study than a job that has demands. The second question I ask is for the candidate to implement the game of craps. I usually explain the game and have a printout for the candidate to reference. This assignment requires keeping state and iterating until an outcome is reached. Finally, I tend to ask a question about removing all duplicate characters from a string and getting a count of all the characters of the same type in a string. I love set theory so if you use a set for this question I smile on the inside. This is the question I'd like to see some form of data structures being used.

  1. Always give a detailed assumption of the program. Don't assume everyone knows what Fizzbuzz is.

Note, none of the questions require advanced knowledge of data structures or algorithms. As someone who's worked in the DevOps space for a while, I rarely come across these concepts so I don't interview for them. I assume that the person who I hire will reach for these tools when necessary and if not that's what a code review and being a mentor is for.

Part 3 - Discuss the Job

This might be the most controversial thing I say in this entire blog post. I show every candidate who does an onsite (or virtual onsite) our Jira backlog. I show them what the team is working on. I encourage them to ask questions about the backlog. It is just as much about them interviewing me as it is me interviewing them. I had an experience where I took a job and in our first sprint planning I looked at the backlog and saw not a single thing that I wanted to work on. I spent the next year and a half hating my job. I want to ensure that doesn't happen to anyone on my team. I also take this time to discuss architecture, the technologies we use, and ask questions about these technologies. If the role is for a Senior Kubernetes Engineer then I should definitely check their knowledge. If you have a good recruiting team supporting you though, this isn't as necessary because they should have already weeded out the people with little to know experience in the technologies you need.

After the Interview

Hopefully you're not the only person interviewing a candidate and there is a team of people relevant to the project. Trust your teammates. Tell them what you're going to be interviewing the candidate on so they can adjust accordingly. Everyone should interview every candidate with the same outline. Switching it up to how you feel that day just allows for bias.

How Can This Be Made Better?

Talk with your manager. Talk with your teammates. Discuss how you can make the process better. Then take action. Here are some tips for an interview process that you can easily implement and improve your process:

  • Discuss who will ask what. Make sure everyone doesn't ask FizzBuzz. Does everyone need to know the candidates life story or could that time be better used for other questions?
  • Set your questions and ask the same questions for all candidates. This will help remove bias and ensure a fair process for the whole candidate pool.
  • Hold your teammates accountable for their questions. If you see a question that you think is unnecessary ask your teammate what they are trying to learn from that question. Don't come off confrontational about this. People can get defensive over this topic really quick.
  • Don't do group interviews. These are extremely intimidating and you will not get the results you desire from these.
  • Debrief within 24 hours of the candidate exiting the building. Impressions are best fresh.

A defined process will lead to a better experience for both the candidates and the interviewers.

Final Thoughts

We can do better than this. I love the tech industry. The people who I've met here are amazing and the innovation is inspiring. Take action. Make an active attempt to make your process standardized. Make the interview process match the requirements. Developers talk. When we experience a good interview process we tell our friends and the same for a bad one. I've not applied at companies before because I've heard their process is awful. The changes you're trying to achieve won't happen overnight. It'll take time. The only thing I can tell you is that if no one tries to make things better that we all better get used to cracking open your copy of Cracking the Short Order Line Cook Interview and remember exactly how to make Gordon Ramsey's Beef Wellington.