How to Screen and Hire Developers Remotely

By: Mainsail Partners  |  December 18, 2020

Recruiting great developers can be tricky in the best of times. It’s even more complex in COVID times with our new remote, work-from-home reality. How do you host an “on-site” when no one is on site? With location no longer a driving force, how do you compete with tech giants who are hiring voraciously? What makes a good tech interview—whether remote or in-person? 

To help us answer these questions, Mainsail Partners welcomed Amanda Richardson, CEO of CoderPad, a platform that allows companies to conduct technical interviews using a live programming environment.  

Here are Mainsail’s primary take-aways from the webinar:  

A brief history lesson: The Interview 

Going back to the 1960s, the first computers were large mainframes that were somewhat rare and took a long time to complete calculations. To assess technical skills in an interview, companies began using whiteboards. They proved to be a good tool for candidates to demonstrate how they would work through a problem—and we have barely evolved since.  

Before COVID, around 80% of technical interviews were still conducted at a whiteboard. We can do better, but we often don’t. COVID may have been the moment that forced our industry to assess talent in better and different ways. 

What is the point of a technical interview?

 Technical interviews overtly assess: (7:28)

  • Depth and breadth of skills 
  • Familiarity with language or technology 
  • Fit with team/manager 

Implied in the process: 

  • Working style 
  • Comfort with ambiguity 
  • Problem-solving capabilities 

Technical interviews should NOT: 

  • Pop quiz on obscure questions. Do not ask if they can recall the Fibonacci sequence. 
  • Measure ability to prep. A case interview is something you prep for and is not reflective of work.  
  • Stress test. We are not looking to learn how people deal with stressful environments. 

Technical interviews are a step in the process – not the process. Treat them as such. 

What does a good recruiting process look like? 

Set up your recruiting process to sell and be sold. You are assessing their skills as a developer just as they are assessing your fit as a company.  (13:00)

  1. Cast a wide net. Build a natural recruiting pipeline within your company by posting challenges on your website or allowing for take-home tests. Assess the answers first rather than focusing on procuring resumes.  
  2. Assess team fit. A crucial second step is the phone screen (not Zoom screen) with the candidate. That will force you to engage with what they’re saying as opposed to what’s in their room.  
  3. Confirm technical skills. A technical phone screen with a senior developer will help you determine their ability to collaborate and problem solve using real-world examples. The technical phone screen assesses if they can code (10%) and also assesses what it would be like to work with them (90%).  
  4. Confirm breadth of skills. Round out the process by integrating the candidate across your company. In a remote world, this may look like: meet the team virtually, discuss all existing systems, and evaluate all ongoing projects. 

How has the technical interview changed with remote arrangements?

The good news is there are more candidates than ever and it’s easier to reach them. It is also easier to schedule meetings without typical in-office friction (i.e., meeting conflicts), which can speed up the process. (25:10)

 The bad news is that developers are fatigued. Like everyone else, they need a vacation. Also, because it’s easier to reach a wide swath of people (location-agnostic), many companies end up chasing the same candidates, which narrows the pool.  

The new realities of scheduling can pose challenges as well, as candidates juggle family life and Zoom is not always an option.  The challenges are many, but more importantly, they can lead to inherent bias.  

Drivers of bias in a remote interview process 

As we adjust to this remote interview process, already we are seeing concerning trends emerge in regards to biases, including:  (28:48)

  1. Anti-diversity: It is still faster to be persuaded by looking at logos than listening to Zoom calls. You worked at Amazon? You pass. 
  2. Anti-introvert and anti-women: For the candidate, having someone watch them code each keystroke can be stressful. Research on technical whiteboard interviews has shown that no women passed. Further, they performed worse when watched. 
  3. Anti-low-income: We all have inherent judgements that arise when we see peoples’ home environments. Additionally, there are tech requirements involved in these interviews that require candidates to have their own tools. 
  4. Anti-busy people. COVID boredom will bias those with prep time over those with skill and fit. If you’re unemployed or a student with bills covered by parents, for example, you will have more time to prep. 

It’s tough to solve for bias entirely, but we can work to be more mindful of the projects we are assigning and the biases we are creating.  

An action plan to reduce bias 

Here are five ways to actively reduce bias in the recruitment and interview process. (38:33)  

  1. Screen with work samples and projects, not resumes and logos. There will never be enough graduates from the top ten technical universities to fill all of the needs in our industry, so stop being persuaded by pedigree. Look instead for demonstrated talent. 
  2. Conduct initial manager screening via phone, not Zoom. This is one of the easiest ways to remove inherent biases and allow yourself to fully focus on the content of the conversation as opposed to the candidate’s appearance or setting.  
  3. Run multiple technical interviews and add an observer as a third perspective. Choose an observer who will add a fresh perspective, different from your own. 
  4. Provide a “lunch hang” session, with or without lunch. If we were on site, we would obviously support a lunch break! Find ways to do that remotely, whether by sending them lunch and eating together, or simply hopping off Zoom for an hour.  
  5. Break up the day and don’t schedule your interviews back-to-back. You’re not actually having an on-site, so you can give your people space to recharge.  

Bonus Point 1: Publicly post a project for anyone to submit for consideration. This is a great tool for generating diversity. As companies can no longer visit universities, and are therefore not limited by travel, this is also a great tool to engage a broader swath of colleges and programs. (41:45)

Bonus Point 2: Ask your candidates how they want to be interviewed. Give them options to do a take-home versus a live phone screen. Of course, this can be a challenge for your talent team to not have a consistent process, but it also allows candidates to engage in the way they feel most comfortable. (42:45)

Remote interviews are here to stay — conduct them intentionally  

The technical interview continues to be an essential step in the developer recruitment process. In one sense, the COVID-related closures of 2020 may have helped the industry kick-start an important evolution by making these interviews remote. As we adjust to the new norm, and notice the inherent biases that arise, it’s essential that we actively identify and combat them.  

Remote interviews have the potential to revolutionize the process and level the playing field—if we are intentional about how we conduct them.  

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