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Audio: 3 Tips for Finding ‘Unicorns’ by Making Technical Interviews More Interactive
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3 Tips for Finding ‘Unicorns’ by Making Technical Interviews More Interactive

By Jomiro Eming

Technical interviews are part of most companies’ hiring process, and are one of the most important stages. But Ed O’Reilly and David O’Reilly, COO/Co-founder and CTO at NONA respectively, have found that they’re often limited in focus, and treated as a screening procedure more so than an engagement opportunity. In their experience, this reduces their efficacy and negatively impacts candidate experience. Here are three ways they make their tech interviews more interactive, get a better understanding of a candidate, and still leave them with an engaging experience.

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Ed and David have both been heavily involved in setting up the hiring process at NONA, and both have made technical interviews a primary focus for one main reason: Technical interviews are prime opportunities to engage with a candidate on a deeper, more personal, and more enlightening level. David explains:

“It’s definitely the most important part, because you get to see how someone thinks… You want to ensure that you’re hiring interested, curious people, that ask questions about things. And it’s expensive on both sides, so want to be sure you’re doing it for the right reasons.”

Ed adds to that, saying that technical interviews are a valuable opportunity to leave candidates with a good impression of your company — even if they don’t make it any further in their hiring process.. After all, technical interviews are as much an opportunity for candidates to interview you, as it is to interview them:

“We’re spending a lot of important people’s time in a lot of interviews, so we’re happy to invest that time and really create that human connection… before asking them to provide code samples and do technical assessments.”

That investment is important at this stage in particular because it’s a golden opportunity for a hiring manager to see how someone approaches problem-solving, as opposed to just seeing what they can produce on paper:

“The danger”, David explains, “is to make the process very checklist-driven — ‘here’s a list of questions that will be administered regardless’. There, you’re not giving the person a chance to show you how they think, how they conceptualise, and how they talk about it, which is a very important thing to look for.”

As a result, Ed and David’s hiring team have set up their interviews to be more effective, by making them interactive. They do this by:

  • Only doing technical tests with candidates they feel strongly about
  • Starting the technical interview with a candidate’s code examples
  • Having a team debrief immediately after the interview

If you set this interview up well, you can engage with candidates on a deeper level and find the best fit.

Only do technical tests with potential hires

Ed says that a lot of hiring teams still use automated technical assessments as a way to screen candidates, because it saves them time. In his experience, however, this can end up wasting a candidate’s time, and makes it more likely that the great developers won’t even bother. He explains:

“If they’ve had to submit a CV, complete an automated assessment, submit some code samples, and wait for feedback before they’ve actually even spoken to a human at your company, you’re gonna see a lot of drop off — especially with the exceptionally talented people.”

Instead, Ed and David’s time have found that spending even a little bit more time with candidates before doing a technical assessment dramatically improves the candidates experience, and how engaged someone will be during the tech interview itself. That’s why David starts that engagement by having an initial call with candidates, as opposed to sending an automated test.

“We found that you can garner enough from a CV and a 10-minute phone call to determine whether it’s worth having a technical interview with someone”, Ed explains. “And it’s much better to invest that time right up front, than it is to just ask someone to complete an automated assessment. It is just about the most important thing you can do in your business when it comes to hiring great people.”

If candidates have already spoken to a human being, they’re less likely to feel like they’re being filtered through a machine, and are more likely to invest time into the technical interview. In turn, your hiring team will get much better insight into how someone thinks, because they’re really applying themselves as opposed to ‘just trying to get through the machine.’

Let candidates choose how they start the technical interview

Technical interviews are normally one of the most nerve-wracking parts of an interview process for a developer. That’s why Ed and David start their technical interviews with an icebreaker: Instead of jumping straight into assessing a candidate’s technical skills, they ask candidates to bring in samples of code they’ve worked on, and showcase them to the team. David explains:

“The person gets to lead by talking about something they know and are comfortable with. And that creates a pretty interactive experience: It allows us to review code, but also interact with the person and see how they explain themselves, and what justifications they have for what or how they’ve done things.”

Instead of limiting their focus to a specific and predetermined set of questions, David’s team immediately opens the floor to candidates, and lets them shine in whatever way they want to. “Rather than a specific question about JavaScript”, Dave explains, “it’s much more interesting to ask someone what they think about JavaScript as a language, see what they’ve built, see how they have it mentally modelled, and see what other things they compare it to.”

This gives Ed and David’s team a far better idea of what someone is capable of, and — even if they don’t have the right stacks on paper — shows David’s hiring team how someone thinks about problems, and thinks about arriving at solutions.

“In fact”, David adds, “our most recent hire had next to no experience in our specific stack, but through that interactive discussion, we could see he was excellent at all the other metrics.”

Have a hiring debrief immediately after the interview

Even if hiring teams only do technical interviews with potential candidates, and make the technical interviews themselves more interactive, Ed says that many people still forget that a candidate’s time extends past the interview as well:

“If you have talented people, they’re not necessarily inclined to wait around for you for a month while you sort yourself out to get them interviewed. That’s why we have a policy of ‘Don’t have people waiting around’. Ideally, we get the process completed as quickly as possible.”

This not only shaves valuable time off of a hiring team’s time-to-hire, but keeps candidates engaged during and past the interview. When the technical interview is already a nerve-wracking experience for a developer, the last thing Ed and David want is for them to have to wait weeks before hearing anything from their team.

To get this right, they have a hiring team debrief session immediately after the technical interview is done. Otherwise, David explains, a lot of small but important details get forgotten, and candidates have to wait longer than they need to:

“If you’re only going to debrief the next day after an interview, a lot of context is lost. However, by debriefing directly after the interview, you can contact the candidate with the results of that debriefing directly after that to tell them, ‘Cool, we have scheduled you into the second round next Tuesday — does that work for you?”

Pro-tip for a better technical interview debrief: David finds that an open discussion in an interview debrief can risk that people’s opinions get influenced by what other people think of a candidate. To work around that, David starts every interview debrief session with a 15-minute gap for his team to write down their own thoughts. This lets him hear each person’s own thoughts, and lets him get a better idea of what each person honestly thought about a candidate.

Hire the best, and leave everyone with a reason to come back

Investing time into crafting a more interactive and efficient technical interview process has enabled Ed and David’s hiring teams to cut down time-to-hire, find better developers, and optimise the candidate experience. Even people who don’t make it through their process leave feeling like they’ve had the opportunity to meet a really cool team. David says:

“Even if they don’t go any further, you ideally want someone going out saying, ‘I tried to interview at NONA, I didn’t make it because the interviews were very tough, but you know: I think it’s fair, and I really want to get better!’ Otherwise, they might leave the interview feeling that they just got led down the garden path, and it didn’t make them feel good about anything.”

As Ed and David said before, technical interviews are a chance for candidates to interview your company as well. Opening it up to let them enjoy that experience is as important as just hitting a hiring target.

If you have any other questions about technical interviews that you’d like to ask, you can find Ed and David on LinkedIn!

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