Laura Tacho knows a thing or two about coaching and engineering and writes a lot about leadership and development. Here she shares with us her views on bias in the hiring process, anonymous application screening and why coaching is important for leadership development.
Hi Laura, welcome to the CTO Craft Spotlight Q & A. You’re one of our CTO Craft coaches and an Engineering Leadership Coach at Laura Tacho Consulting. We’re excited that you’re one of the confirmed speakers at our May 2022 MiniCon, where you will discuss technical assessments. Can you give us a teaser about what you might share with our audience?
Skills assessments like a coding challenge are a great way to predict the future success of a candidate. However, doing this is actually really hard! We need to consider the contents of the assessment itself and the logistics and mechanics around the assessment.
After my talk, you’ll understand why the promise that anonymous coding challenges will ensure an unbiased interview process and get you only the best candidates is a promise that can never be kept.
You’re passionate about ensuring that bias doesn’t enter the hiring process. Can you tell us more about your views on this?
A hiring process without bias does not exist, even the ones I personally design. It’s human nature.
I’m here to help leaders understand where bias might show up, so they can recognise it and think about how it might affect their hiring decisions. Bias shows up everywhere in the process, from the candidates you reach out to, to the length and timing of interviews, to whether you do interviews with video on or off. But unfortunately, a lot of these decisions fly under the radar because they don’t stick out as something that actively introduces bias.
Think about the decision to give a 4-hour long take-home coding assessment vs a decision to only consider candidates who have attended Oxford. The latter decision often sticks out as one that introduces bias, but the coding exercise introduces just as much bias.
That’s really interesting. So, to successfully hire in the tech industry, do you think anonymous application screening is always the way forward and why?
In software engineering specifically, you aren’t making hiring decisions from a pool of applicants who have submitted an application. About 65% of jobs are filled with referrals or through sourcing, often more depending on the company.
If you’re taking the first steps to reduce bias in your hiring process, better first steps would be to change your sourcing and recruitment strategies. Then, all of your interviews have standard criteria and questions that every candidate is evaluated against.
When you look at the data on the efficacy of anonymous application screening, it’s easy to dunk on it as a bad idea. But I don’t think that’s fair. Teams who introduce anonymous screening stages do so out of a genuine desire to reduce bias and make their process more inclusive. They just don’t have the tools or data to know where to focus their effort.
Thanks Laura. What do you think are the pros and cons of anonymous application screening?
In 2018, The IZA Institute of Labor and Economics published a study reporting on the impact of anonymous hiring practices on diversity. They found that while anonymous application screening can reduce bias in organisations where discrimination is high, they also have a lot of downsides:
- Bias is moved to later stages in the process.
- These practices can work against other diversity initiatives, which require intentionally building a team with a specific composition.
- The practice can still disadvantage candidates by presenting important data out of context.
I researched extensively and wrote about this a few months ago. I’ll touch on the pros and cons of anonymous coding screening in my talk.
We can’t wait to listen to your talk. As a woman in tech and a coach, how do we ensure that underrepresented individuals who haven’t had the same opportunities as peers are given fair and equal access to new roles and opportunities in tech?
We have to rethink what we classify as a “predictor of success” when it comes to recruiting and interviewing. Classically, we’ve looked at qualities like university or previous employers to create shortcuts to a decision. We see that someone went to Oxford, and we can take a shortcut to assume that they’re probably a good hire. This just amplifies other biases.
I think a better predictor is “distance travelled.” For example, did some start as an account executive, move into customer support, and then get a job as an engineer? That’s a resourceful, resilient person and absolutely someone I’d want on my team.
For those who don’t know, can you tell us a bit more about what you do in your role?
I partner with CTOs, VPs of Engineering, and engineering managers to increase their effectiveness as leaders. I help my clients set high expectations for their teams, give more direct feedback, and improve relationships with product management and design, among other things. We also focus on getting better at skills they use day-to-day, like running engaging meetings, dealing with outages and incidents, and setting up hiring processes.
I’m here to help clients see their leadership blind spots and then help them overcome them through guided practice, live feedback, and speaking from my own experiences as a VP of Engineering.
How has your engineering background helped you do the coaching role you do today?
There is a lot of generic management advice out there. But software engineering is a really unique field, and most leaders were engineers themselves, too. So the old playbooks don’t always work. I understand firsthand the problems that my coaching clients face because I’ve been there before as a VP of Engineering.
As we’re a community of peer coaches and mentors, and as one of our coaches, what do you think are the main benefits of coaching?
Baseball practice happens on a baseball field. Learning a new programming language or framework can happen in a quick prototype or in a side project. But where do you practice leadership skills? A lot of leaders are in a position where they need to “learn by doing,” and those are situations where the stakes are very high, and a mistake can be really costly.
Coaching gives leaders a practice field where they can get guided support and immediate feedback on their techniques, so they’re able to bring their best when it really counts.
This may be difficult to answer, but at what stage should in their career do you think an individual should work with a coach?
Coaching can be effective for anyone who is ready to be coached and breakthrough some habits or patterns that might hold them back. I recommend coaching for anyone who leads people, either as a manager or as a senior IC with a lot of influence. I find that leaders in these career stages don’t often get enough feedback from within their company, so it’s wise to get an external point of view.
Absolutely. So, how has your focus shifted both business-wise and as a coach from where it started to now?
I started my business during the pandemic, which was a risky move. It’s paid off, though, because I’ve been able to help my clients navigate challenges that have sprung up because of the pandemic, which has been really rewarding.
It’s an understatement, but a lot has changed for businesses and individuals in tech over the past few years. Do you think there are trends in issues with coaching clients and have these changed since before the pandemic?
All of my clients are building teams right now, and because of the unprecedented talent market right now, this has been tougher than ever before. So all of the growth and change are really exciting, but it’s also exhausting.
Leaders are burned out from carrying so much weight during the pandemic, trying to protect and support their teams. Now they’re faced with the enormous challenge of building a team when they’re competing with hundreds of other companies for the same talent.
Finally, can you recommend a book or a podcast that every technology leader should read or listen to either in the space of coaching, learning and development or leadership in general?
I have a weekly newsletter that’s full of original articles, templates, workshops, and other useful stuff for engineering leaders. You can subscribe to it on my website, lauratacho.com.
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