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Hiring Tips & Insights: How We Run Job Simulation Days to Hire Developers at OfferZen
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How We Run Job Simulation Days to Hire Developers at OfferZen

22 September 2023, by Nic Botes

A job simulation day gives your team and a potential hire a chance to see what it’s like to work together. Here’s how OfferZen approaches job simulation days to make the most of these exercises when hiring developers for our tech team — with a bonus template to download!

How We Run Job Simulation Days to Hire Developers at OfferZen

What is a job simulation day?

A technical job simulation or “sim” day is the last step in OfferZen’s tech hiring process. It mimics a typical day in the life of the role we’re hiring for within the Product team. For the candidate, it gives them an in-depth idea of what the job will involve and what it means to be part of the team. Ultimately, it helps the hiring manager and the candidate gauge if they’d be a great fit.

At OfferZen, we have a tried-and-tested sim formula for sim days. The candidate is given a main task to complete and introduced to the team members they’ll work with on the task. The final step is presenting their work at the end of the day.

Why are technical job simulation days useful?

Sim days require a significant investment from everyone involved but are worth the effort. Working on a mission together provides the candidate and the hiring team with quality insights. A practical task performed in real time reveals a candidate’s problem-solving abilities: It shows how they approach challenges and whether they can tie a solution to the problem at hand.

Sim days are also great for assessing if the candidate can add to your culture. Unlike other stages of the interview process, there are no run-of-the-mill questions or scripted answers. It’s difficult for candidates to react or behave in a way that’s at odds with their natural demeanour, which means sim days allow everyone to learn things they may not have otherwise uncovered.

We assess the following aspects during technical sim days:

  • Collaboration: How the candidate works with the rest of the team
  • Participation: Whether they are actively involved in solving the problem
  • Adding to the thinking: If their ideas contribute to developing an innovative solution
  • Product thinking: Whether the solution they bring solves the overarching mission of the day
  • Quality processes: How they approach problem-solving
  • Start with the customer: Whether they are focused on practical solutions that centre the customer

The aim is to get a holistic view of the candidate. This is why it’s important that both the team and candidate understand how they can make the most valuable contribution on the day.

How to prepare for the job simulation day

For the candidate

Share the proposed sim day agenda and mission with the candidate beforehand (you can download a template for a sim day agenda here). Doing this shows them what will be covered and what’s expected of them. Although things don’t necessarily always follow the planned programme, giving the candidate a clear idea of what the sim day will involve reduces anxiety for them.

For your team

Give your team information from prior interview debriefs (like those from the technical assessment or panel interview) and identify specific points that you want to explore further. This enables your team to prepare and support the candidate on the day rather than creating a stressful environment.

Principles for a successful technical job simulation day

Be authentic and truthful

Be open about what you want to achieve and give the candidate the opportunity to succeed by providing the information they need to get the job done. Make them feel supported and safe, and remind them that you care about their success.

Focus on process over solutions

Look at how the candidate approaches the problem rather than the details of what they’re doing. This is especially important considering the time constraints during a sim day. A candidate might not reach a solution, which can be discouraging, so focusing on processes rather than outcomes is helpful.

Remember and emphasise that the aim is to make an impact rather than achieve perfection. There are no wrong answers, only trade-offs. The most important consideration is whether the candidate can justify their choices.

Prioritise collaboration

Assessing culture add is the main focus of the sim day. By this point in the interview process you will have tested all of the technical skills, so the task shifts to ensuring that the candidate is able to work with your team. Ensure they’re involved and are eager to participate in solving the problem in front of them.

Have fun

Don’t forget to emphasise having fun while solving problems. Giving the candidate and the team they’re working with the space to think creatively and interact with one another are key for a successful sim day.

The steps to our sim day

At the very start of the sim day, you’ll introduce the candidate to the team they’ll be working with. Recap what your main mission for the day is, and what the day’s project will involve.

For example, a good technical project for a sim day could be asking the candidate to propose and build a proof of concept that demonstrates a solution to a specific business problem.

Be sure to tie the mission to the actual work your team does on a day-to-day basis. This gives the candidate a more accurate idea of the work environment, and will help your team be invested in the task.

We divide our sim days into the following concrete phases, that allow us to test for the same outcomes across our roles:

Ideation and solutioning

What it assesses: Is the candidate able to contribute by sharing ideas?

Duration: 40 minutes

This phase involves diving deeper into the problem you want to solve on the day, and decide what solution to use based on that discussion.

Here, you will be able to identify whether the candidate is open to others’ opinions and ideas.

Explain the methods that your team uses to collaborate when ideating solutions: For example, at OfferZen, we use stickies to write down and share problems and potential solutions. If you’re working remotely, a tool like Miro can be a useful alternative.

Then, give the team a few minutes to come up with possible solutions that they can vote on to help the whole team feel included and invested in the exercise.

Be sure to be curious and explore the candidate’s way of thinking. Highlight that there are no wrong answers, only trade-offs. This will help to prevent the candidate from feeling overwhelmed.

Implementation

What it assesses: How well does the candidate communicate and collaborate with the team?

Duration: 2.5 hours

During the second phase of the sim day, the candidate will take the lead on building the solution you’ve identified. For example, building a proof of concept.

This will be a pair programming exercise, where they are assisted by engineers who can supplement any gaps in knowledge the candidate might have about the domain or code structure. This pairing exercise will also show you how well they worked with the team and whether they’re excited about the codebase.

Time constraints might mean that the team is unable to produce a complete or working solution. The sim day as a whole is typically around half a work day. About 2.5 hours is spent on building the solution, which usually means the team is unable to produce a complete solution.

To reduce any anxiety the candidate might have about not ‘completing’ the task, emphasise that the focus is on processes rather than solutions. Also ask whether you can offer assistance if you see the team is struggling.

Pro tip:

A sim day is also quite mentally taxing. Build in quick breaks throughout the day to help with this, as well as dedicated lunch time. A quick team lunch during the course of the simulation day is a great way to gauge how well the candidate gets on with the broader team.

Demo

What it assesses: Can the candidate tie the solution to the problem?

Duration: 30 minutes

This phase gives the candidate a chance to demonstrate how their solution furthers the mission for the day.

The candidate will use presentation software that they feel comfortable with (e.g. Miro) to present their solution. Some useful questions we ask candidate at this stage include:

  • How did they find the ideation & pairing exercises?
  • What tradeoffs did they have to make?
  • How would they measure the success of their solution?
  • Are there any things they’d like to improve?
  • How do they feel about the codebase?

Senior leadership chat

What it assesses: Will this candidate help to further the mission of our company?

Duration: 30 minutes

The job simulation day ends with a conversation between the candidate and someone from senior leadership. This is a freeform chat where both parties can ask any questions they might still have.

It’s important to brief the senior leader before the interaction. Run them through some of the things that have come up during the interview process. This will give them an idea of topics to discuss.

Once they’ve chatted to the candidate, have a debriefing session with your senior lead. They can give you insight into anything that came up during the conversation that might influence your hiring decision.

Debrief with the candidate

The final step is to meet with the candidate and find out whether they have any last questions before a hiring decision is made. Ask questions to help you understand how the day went for the candidate. For instance, ask if there are any green signals for them after the sim day. Then, explain the next steps of the hiring process to them.

Debrief with the team

The team debrief will focus on reviewing the team’s scorecards from the day, and making the call to issue an offer or not!


By putting in the effort to run job simulation days in this way, we’ve seen success hiring developers that are excited to work with us, and who we’re confident will be able to contribute to our mission.

Thanks to OfferZen team member Nick van Noordwyk, who contributed to this article.

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