Designing Technical Interviews to Simulate the Job

How do you know if a candidate will perform well on the job? Design an interview process that realistically simulates the job, say CodeSignal Co-Founders Sophia Baik and Tigran Sloyan. In this article, you’ll learn about:

  • Why your interviews should be like simulations
  • How to design technical interviews to simulate the job
  • 3 ways to improve your software engineering interviews

At the end of the day, all companies want the same thing from their recruiting team: to find and hire the candidates who will perform best on the job. One way to achieve this is to have candidates actually do the job and see how it goes. Some companies are doing this with “test-drive hires”  – they hire new employees for a 30-day contract before considering them for a permanent position. 

Trial hires, however, are not a great fit for every company. For a small startup, an unsuccessful trial hire might cause more harm than good. And it’s a lot to ask of candidates, too. The top technical talent you’re looking for may not want to leave their current position for a temporary contract position with your company. 

So what’s the best alternative? Make your interviews like simulations of the job, say Baik and Sloyan.

Why Interviews Should Be like Simulations

A great example of interviews that are run like simulations is the process of auditioning to join an orchestra. A “candidate” for an orchestra isn’t asked how they might hypothetically play a piece of music, or what they would do if they messed up mid-performance. Instead, they’re asked to show – not tell – by actually playing a piece of music for a panel of judges.

Even better, orchestra auditions are often blind, meaning judges don’t see the person auditioning. They only hear them. The musician shows judges how well they’d perform on the job by actually doing the job.

Interviews with software engineers should be more like orchestra auditions, says Sloyan. “For a software engineer, what you look like has nothing to do with how well you’re coding and building things.” Instead, technical interviews should test candidates’ abilities to actually perform the tasks required of the job. 

How to Improve Your Technical Interviews

How can you make your interviews more like simulations while also creating a great candidate experience? Sloyan believes that it comes down to creating an interview process that approximates the job as closely as possible within a constrained time frame and setting. 

It also means having consistency in how you conduct interviews to ensure all of your candidates are being assessed against the same standard. Without a consistent process and objective criteria for evaluating candidates, “biases start going wild,” says Sloyan.

He recommends three ways to make your technical interviews more like simulations:

Do a pair programming review. Most software engineers work in a Git-based environment. They are used to committing their code, receiving feedback, and then making changes in a back-and-forth process. But, re-enacting this process exactly would take several days – too much time for a hiring process.

Instead, use a pair programming review activity in your coding interview: have your candidate write some code, and then have the interviewer provide feedback and ask questions. Here, you can see how the candidate responds. Do they take feedback well? Do they listen to what the interviewer said? All of this should be taken into consideration alongside their coding skills.

Use the best tools. Software engineers will do their best work when they’re provided great tools that enable them to do that work. Investing in an assessment platform that provides a realistic IDE (including features like autocomplete and a REPL environment that allows them to interact with their code) allows you to better simulate the job in your interview process. 

Give candidates a take-home assessment. Asking a candidate to complete a long and complex coding task during the interview may not be the best way to assess their skills, says Sloyan. For one, this can be a nerve-wracking experience. But even more importantly, it does not realistically simulate the job of a software engineer.’

“A lot of great candidates get unnecessarily filtered out because they get nervous when someone is watching them,” says Sloyan. With a take-home assessment administered via a platform like CodeSignal, your hiring team can review the candidate’s work and their process. Later, they can discuss the assessment with the candidate in the interview. 

When you treat your technical interviews like simulations, you get the best of both worlds. For your company, you’ll have an effective and unbiased process for identifying and hiring the best candidate for the job. And for your candidates, they’ll have a positive recruiting experience that leaves them with a great impression of your company. 

Learn More

Want to learn more about how you can build a winning organization through data-driven recruiting? Visit CodeSignal to find out how you can measure technical skills effectively and objectively with its automated assessment and live interview solutions.

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