technical assessments

Rick is the CEO and Co-Founder of Geektastic, a developer-first platform which provides technical assessments that save hours of development time. Here he discusses how to improve technical assessments in your hiring process.

Hiring is one of an organisation’s top priorities, as your team is your most vital asset. However, sometimes teams fixate on a hiring process that hinders their ability to hire the talent they need, and the process will put candidates off. While there is a bigger demand for talent than supply (certainly in tech for the foreseeable future), you are competing against companies with faster and more efficient processes. Reducing the number of steps and selecting the right technical assessments may increase your chances of hiring the best candidates.

Why are technical assessments necessary?

Most hiring teams are stretched. They rely on different company members, from HR to tech to leadership, who don’t have enough time in the day. So, creating a flexible hiring process takes time to develop and risks taking more time internally; however, this can pay dividends.

To find the best developers, you need to understand the depth of their technical skills. While you can dig deeper into skills and knowledge during an interview, technical assessments are an effective way to sift through applicants. They help you gain insights into an individual’s skill level and are objective tests which eliminate bias (which can occur during interviews).

And it goes without saying that making poor recruitment decisions is hugely costly, so you need to make the right choices when you hire.

What are the drawbacks of technical assessments?

When done well, technical assessments can create a positive candidate experience and give you an in-depth view of candidate skill levels. However, if poorly done, they can be time-consuming, irrelevant and may even ruin the candidate experience.

Unfortunately, tech tests have a bad reputation. You’ll constantly see posts on social media about developers point black refusing to take tech tests when applying for a role.

In one study of candidates, whiteboard assessments were voted the worst recruitment assessment and live coding interviews (discussion and code) were the preferred assessment method.

Best Practice for Technical Assessments
  • Be flexible – not everyone wants to do a face-to-face whiteboard session, so why not offer an alternative? For example, offer a take-home code challenge or pair programming session. Some people prefer the privacy of their homes, while others prefer discussing ideas. 

Take-home tests can provide a better and more flexible candidate experience than other tests as they can be less stressful as individuals don’t have to do them under supervision. Instead, they can work at their own pace, and the work is similar to work the candidate would actually do in the role.

  • Provide consistencyreduce the number of steps in your process (you optimise your website’s registration process and client onboarding, so why not do the same for recruiting?). Each step in your hiring process risks someone dropping out and increases the elapsed time of the overall process.

For example, if you have three stages of technical interviews, can you reduce that to two or even one?

A recent LinkedIn poll I ran asked, “How many technical stages are there in your hiring process?” (these include tech screens, take-homes, pair programming, tech interviews etc.)

37% of respondents had three plus stages.

As Jack Godau, CDO of Doctorly, responded to the poll, “If you’re doing more than one technical task while recruiting, get a better task! The task should be something candidates can’t answer with “hashmap”, but rather a real-world task that gives insights into your company’s tech stack and processes as well as being able to fairly evaluate a range of candidates.”

  • Describe your process up front – it gives clarity to the candidate.

A company that does this very well is Indident.io, as they clearly outline their process. It describes the various steps in the process and what will happen, what is expected at each stage, how long it will take and what the feedback process is like. As they rightly say, the recruitment process should not be a secret.

  • Check your challenge isn’t creating false negatives – for example, is your process filtering out good candidates? And how comfortable are you with false negatives, as some organisations may prefer to lose potential candidates than hire the wrong person.

“Google has a well-known false negative rate, which means we sometimes turn away qualified people, because that’s considered better than sometimes hiring unqualified people. This is actually an industry-wide thing, but the dial gets turned differently at different companies,” says Steve Yegge, Senior Staff Engineer and Manager at Google.

  • Give feedback – ideally, technical assessments should be a two-way street. One of the main grudges is the lack of feedback. Candidates feel that getting a score out of 100 or a binary pass/fail isn’t proper feedback for the time they invested.

For example, a call from HR saying you ‘failed’ isn’t really quid pro quo for two hours of time spent sweating over a code challenge.

Ideally, hiring teams should provide written feedback highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of the candidate’s solution or session. Even better, give the candidate the ability to feedback and explain their choices or provide an improved solution. At Geektastic, we’ve seen candidates provide feedback demonstrating an ability to take on board feedback and learn, which ended up in the team hiring them.

  • Create a challenge that tests real skills and aligns with your business – but don’t ask them to fix a problem you can’t fix!

In another poll on LinkedIn, I asked what most annoyed developers about tech tests.

48% responded that they don’t test real skills. This is primarily driven by automated tech screening platforms that test the analysis of algorithms, data structures and other computer science fundamentals. Although these can be useful, they don’t reflect the skills required for the role. They also require a second technical assessment/technical interview to probe deeper into the candidate’s problem-solving skills, solution design and general code quality.

Examples of great technical tests

We’ve seen some excellent code challenges created by our customers on Geektastic.

Some ask candidates to solve a problem the team solved themselves. For example, the candidate was provided with an anonymised data set, so they felt engaged with the brand because they were doing something similar to the job they were applying for.

Another example required developers to create a basic flight booking app, pulling data from a flight API, again getting buy-in to the company from the actual challenge.

  • Time box code challenges (but give some wriggle room)

This one is a bit controversial but bear with me.

From our data, we see more challenges being completed and returned where the candidate was given a time-boxed challenge. They can start it whenever they want, but once they start, the clock starts ticking, and the candidate should submit their solution within that period.

The reason you have more submissions is that:

  • The candidate didn’t start the challenge and promised they would come back to it later and, in the meantime, got an offer from another company.
  • They didn’t start thinking that other candidates were probably spending way more time than the prescribed time and, therefore, they should do more themselves.
  • They didn’t think their solution wasn’t the best it could be and started again, after spending 4 hours on it already and then gave up.

Yes, a time-boxed challenge isn’t a reflection of the real world (unless you are trying to fix something on the production, of course), and it can create additional stress.

But there are ways to reduce this. Realistically, it’s mostly about how the challenge is positioned to the candidate. For instance, you can tell them upfront:

  • We have time boxed this test because we want a level playing field – we don’t want some candidates spending more time than others. We want to compare apples with apples.
  • You aren’t expected to complete the challenge. We just want to see what you do within the time period. 
  • If you want more time, we can give it to you. If something happens during the assessment, don’t worry, we’ll give you more time (most people don’t ask for this, but it shows you trust the candidate).
  • If they really don’t like the idea of having a time-boxed challenge – consider having one that is open-ended. 

Technical assessments can be daunting, and they can put potential candidates off. Yet, they are an effective way of assessing skills and are often an essential component of the recruitment process in technology. The key is to be transparent about your process and present flexibility in your approach to tech tests so that candidates don’t run a mile. Ensure that they assess for the role you’re hiring for, include clear assessment criteria and don’t forget to provide feedback!

For more information about Geektastic, you can contact Rick at rick@geektastic.com or visit www.geektastic.com .

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