Other companies tech hiring processes are costing YOU talent
To attract diverse people that will have a positive, creative and lasting impact on our companies, it’s time to leave behind the old patterns of copying the archaic ‘elitist’ processes of others and focus on what we need for the roles we are hiring.
Using practices that I implemented to successfully remotely recruit an engineering team in a pandemic, we’ll look at the pitfalls of the outdated gatekeeping tactics of ‘Elitist Hiring’ and how a ‘Compassionate Hiring’ process that makes people feel welcomed and included is more effective.
What is Elitist hiring?
Elitist hiring embodies the processes and attitudes that have been prevalent in tech from the dawn of time and were specifically engineered to keep people out. It’s based on the idea that a company is an elite set of ‘world class’ engineers that are geniuses that can do it all and that’s who you want to attract to succeed.
One of the many problems with this is that as our environments become more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, or VUCA as coined by author Amy Edmonson, these tactics become not just exclusionary but damaging to our organisations.
We need to attract emotionally intelligent, compassionate team members that can work together on these complex problems and drive the business forward and crucially we need to start hiring for that.
Compassionate practices aren’t just good for our well-being and individual success at work they are critical for business survival.
I’m going to use 5 examples to compare what the ‘Elitist’ mindset looks like that we need to leave behind in the past to the ‘Compassionate’ mindset we need to move towards with some practical guidance and tips.
1. Elitist Hiring Says: Barriers Keep Out the Weak
Elitist hiring says you need:
- a first-class honours degree or PhD in computer science.
- X number of years in Y technology.
- an impossible number of technology stacks.
- many other ancillary skills or certifications.
The elitist hiring process wants us to think that this makes any hires to the company ‘prestigious’ and provides barriers to entry into an exclusive club. Putting up barriers like this turns away amazing applicants with unconventional routes into tech.
Compassionate Hiring Says: Everyone is Welcome Here
Compassionate hiring accepts that talent can come from any route and doesn’t always fit a rigid skill requirements list. Coding boot camps allow folk with valuable past business or life experiences to retrain into tech, which breathes so much vital new life into the industry. Similarly, some of the best programmers I’ve ever worked with have been completely self-taught.
The excellent book ‘The Better Allies Approach to Hiring’ recommends limiting the number of job requirements on an ad to just 5. If you only have 5 to work with, you better make sure everything you ask for is critical and this is a great way to get clarity on what it is you are looking for.
It also recommends encouraging applicants to apply even if they don’t meet all the requirements on the job ad by adding text like ‘we’d love to hear from you even if you don’t meet 100% of the requirements’. A famous Hewlett-Packard study found that women applied for a promotion only when they believed they met 100% of the qualifications listed for a job, while men applied when they could meet 60% of the requirements.
- Limit the requirements you ask for on a job ad to 5 and remove any ‘nice to have’ requirements.
- Instead of asking for a degree or X years in Y technology, list the behaviours and skills you expect to see.
- Determine what programming knowledge is essential to the job on day one and can’t be taught or grown with minimal impact on productivity of the team or the individual.
- Figure out what ‘good’ looks like in the current team and nail down these behaviours you are looking for.
- Add text to encourage anyone to apply even if they don’t meet the full list of skills.
- Add text to encourage anyone to apply even if they have had a career break for any reason. Even more important now in the wake of the pandemic and the disruption it has placed on people’s working lives and security.
You will find that THIS is your actual job requirements list when looking for in a candidate.
2. Elitist Hiring Says: Only Genius Tech Types Are Welcome Here
You don’t have to search Indeed long to find a tech job ad that’s peppered with elitist vocabulary such as:
- ‘A real technical wizard’
- ‘An expert rockstar developer’
- ‘Our world-class, elite team’
The same ads often refer to the applicant as ‘he/him’ as well and use masculine encoded words. This is a way to instantly disengage your non-male readers and shout ‘you are not welcome here’. If you were to break down these terms into the behaviours and skills you are looking for what would they be?
Compassionate Hiring Says: We Care About How We Communicate
We want anyone reading our ads to feel welcomed and included, reducing the chance that they will read something and think ‘wow this job is not for me’. It might be tempting to swap between her and him but this is still excluding those that are nonbinary. ‘They’ is much better and inclusive of nonbinary readers, or simply ‘the applicant’.
- Strip out any reference to a given gender in your job ads.
- Strip out any elitist or gendered terms, you can use many applications to do this automatically.
- Get someone ideally in your current team from an underrepresented group to read the job ad and give you feedback on it. Reward them for spending time on it, showing it’s a valuable part of their role.
- If you have used terms like ‘genius’ or ‘rockstar’ remove them and think about what behaviours or skills you need.
3. Elitist Hiring Says: Longer Processes Mean Better Quality Hires
No one enjoys being greeted with a 10 stage interview process. Most interviews I’ve done have ranged from 3 hours to 15 hours+. An Elitist hiring mindset believes this ‘weeds’ out the applicants that won’t fit, and making people do lots of tests and trials makes the company a kind of exclusive club. In reality, the more hoops to jump through the less likely you are to find and attract diverse people that fit your needs. In the current market, developers are in high demand and if your process is too long your star hires are going to get snapped up by other companies that have moved faster.
No amount of process is going to account for when that person joins the team and you get to know who you have hired.
Compassionate Hiring Says: Your Time Is Precious To Us
Compassionate hiring says let’s do the minimum we need to do to make sure we get reasonable confidence that the applicant is a great addition to the team and that they get their questions answered.
Many people have critical time commitments outside of work - especially women who tend to be the primary caregivers. During the hiring process, they may not only be holding down their current job but looking after others, working a second job and so on. To maximise the chances of not just attracting those with the privilege of time on their hands we need to respect these time commitments of others.
We should avoid the opposite end of the scale where the entire interview is only a 45 min chat with the CTO. This disadvantages the applicant in the long term because they don’t get time to meet the team or have their questions about the business answered in any detail.
Be transparent about the process so that applicants know exactly what they are getting into and if they can dedicate the time to it.
- Use your new job requirements list to come up with the lightest possible process that directly addresses whether a candidate meets them or not.
- Keep the entire interview process under 4 hours maximum as a general rule, including any tests and preparation for them.
- Publish your process on your careers page transparently. Explain how each step relates to the day to day of the role and what you are looking for.
- Ensure applicants are exposed to members of the team they will be working with as early as possible. This means they can get answers to any questions they have and put any concerns to rest before you use up any more of their time.
- Give the applicant plenty of time to ask questions! The questions someone asks can be just as revealing as the answers they give and lead to great conversations that help both sides understand each other better.
- It’s critical that the interview process and the questions are exactly the same for each person in the pipeline. This removes as much bias as possible and avoids veering into the territory of off-topic discussions based on the interviewer’s likes and dislikes.
Use structured interview tactics such as questions focussed on skills and abilities sought after. Ask everyone the same questions in the same order. - Better Allies Approach to Hiring
4. Elitist Hiring Says: Code Tests Ensure Quality
Elitist hiring often involves a code test before the applicant even gets to meet a member of the team, often without offering the applicant a chance to explain their work and reasoning. This allegedly vets out those that don’t meet a given expected standard and keeps the calibre of the team intact.
There are numerous problems with this:
2 Hours is Never 2 Hours
Code tests never take 2 hours, 3 hours or whatever the recommended time is. By the time you set up the testing suite, linter and everything else you need you’ve easily used up most of that time. Applicants are never going to admit your 2-hour tech test took 10 hours so the cycle continues.
As we mentioned before, we want to reduce time commitments and anything above 3 hours in total (test included) is an unreasonable ask, and anything under an hour probably isn’t testing for anything meaningful.
Coding is Subjective
There is no One True Path with coding. Coding is more like art than anything else, with lots of different ways to do the same thing that is subject to personal style and preference. Even with fairly clear instructions applicants can submit all sort of wild and wonderful solutions.
The Elitist hiring process wants us to believe that there is The Best Code and that we can objectively assess this without bias but this is not true. The pass/fail criteria can vary wildly based on the tastes of the programmer reviewing the submission.
You Can’t Automate The Human Aspect Away
There are many apps now that promise to find you the best applicants by offering online coding tests, but these often have nothing to do with the day to day requirements of the job. They easily turn away those that could be amazing at the role but are not well versed at these kinds of tests. They also don’t allow room for conversation about approach and decision making.
And don’t even start me on timed coding tests on repos that automatically shut themselves down or whatever other platform that does this. Unfair, unkind and unclear and unnecessary.
Coding Is One Aspect Of Being A Programmer
Being a programmer doesn’t just involve coding all day, you are often managing stakeholder expectations, mentoring and coaching others, breaking down projects and tasks into manageable chunks, contributing to meetings and processes and a whole host of other activities. Elitist hiring wants us to believe that our worth is determined only by our ability to code yet as business problems become more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) we are going to need much more emotionally intelligent people in our teams.
If your hiring process starts with a coding test and not a conversation it suggests your company places very little value on emotional intelligence and catalytic skills which are essential developer skills in the modern VUCA workplace. This will drive away the many talented individuals you need on your team.
Compassionate Hiring Says: We Want To Get To Know You
Compassionate hiring says we know that great programmers are more than the sum of their coding ability and we want to get to know them during the hiring process.
This includes soft skills or rather what April Wensel coins as ‘catalytic skills’, those other juicy skills that make other things happen. These are often sorely neglected when hiring programmers but are just as vital in a VUCA workplace where collaboration and working with others is essential for success.
At my last company, I hired a team of 7 amazing engineers remotely in a pandemic without any of them writing one line of code and we had our most productive year ever in the company. I did this by having structured conversations with the applications around their experience and finding out what would make them happy at work and how they like to work.
Instead of a coding test, we did a lightning talk style presentation for 10 minutes, with 20 mins for 2 of the engineers (of mixed gender/race, very important) to ask questions of the applicant and 15 mins for the applicant to ask them questions. Applicants needed no more than an hour or two to prep and we had great feedback on how the applicants enjoyed getting to share their areas of interest with us.
The list of requirements to pass was sent out clearly in advance of the task, such as:
- ‘Must be as close to 10 minutes as possible’
- ‘We are looking to see how you communicate technical topics in a clear, empathetic and engaging manner. During your work, you will be required to communicate with stakeholders, give presentations and work closely with other programmers so these skills are of high importance to us’.
- ‘Must be a topic relevant to the day to day in the role. For example, we use React and Ruby, past talks have included ‘Testing with Cypress JS’ and ‘Promises vs Callbacks vs Async Await’.
- ‘We will ask you questions about your topic, but don’t worry if you don’t know the answer. How you handle not knowing is just as important as domain knowledge’.
The reason I loved this was because:
- Applicants genuinely enjoyed the task, even those who were introverted which may be surprising. They knew exactly what was expected and how to prepare so they were set up for success.
- The hiring team enjoyed the task and got to learn new and interesting things and didn’t require much of their time.
- With a clear set of guidelines for success, we eliminated as much bias as we could and the One True Path mentality.
- It gave a true reflection of what working at the company would be like.
- The applicant got time to ask questions to the people they would be working with daily in their team.
Given the list of requirements for the role, decide what you are gaining from a coding test. What behaviours or attributes are you testing for and is the code test answering them? Could a guided, structured conversation, lightning talk or something else assess the same things?
If you must do a coding test, write down the requirements of the test clearly and unambiguously. Some poor examples I have seen of this are:
- ‘Code must be robust’
- ‘Must use SOLID principles’
- ‘Must have tests’
- ‘Code must be clean and use best practices’
This tells the applicant nothing of substance about the approach to the code. Do you want it to be scrappy, but not crappy? Do you want it to be highly performant and able to be added to easily? Take those loose ideas and turn them into really specific concrete things you want to see, for example:
To pass you must:
- ‘Use RSpec for testing, but 100% coverage is not required. Happy path tests are sufficient’.
- ‘Use Rubocop and have no linting errors present’.
- ‘Use an object-orientated style of coding’.
- ‘Write the code in the style you would use for a new, experimental feature in its first iteration’.
Make sure the pass/fail criteria is as clear and unambiguous as it possibly can be and that more than one person is involved in the assessment of it.
What if we just ditch the code test and look at their work on Github?
Tread very cautiously here. Remember that 95% of open source contributors are men, women and nonbinary folks tend to have a difficult time in that space. It also assumes that someone has the time and privilege to be doing that outside of work, so do this with serious caution.
5. Elitist Hiring says: We’re All Rockstars At Hiring
The elitist school of hiring believes that they can have a set of ‘male and pale’ interviewers that have never had any training or experience in doing interviews and still succeed. The company is so elite that everyone should want to work there right? So why do you even need to try? If you’ve already attracted ‘World Class talent’ into your team what is there to worry about?
A lot, it turns out.
I’ve gone through many interviews where I haven’t seen a non-male or non-white interviewer. This is instantly alienating and makes me think ‘I don’t belong here’ and that the company doesn’t give any care to diversity. This is instantly alienating and makes me think ‘I don’t belong here’.
A lot of interviewers give no care to putting the applicant at ease, or making them feel welcome and supported or helping them feel that they want them to be at their best. I’ve failed interviews in the past not because I was wrong for the job, but because the interviewers or the process failed to get the best out of me.
This has a real tangible effect on diverse hiring - meeting someone of the same gender, age or race as themselves resulted in a 50% increase in the odds a woman would be hired for a position at Cisco.
Interviewing is not a chance to strut your stuff and feed your ego. It’s a time to be kind and supportive of others while they are in an extremely vulnerable position.
Compassionate Hiring Says: We Pride Ourselves On Our Process
Compassionate hiring says interviewing is a skill and we pride ourselves on the people involved and the process. We think our process is the kindest, most welcoming and most fun that it can be and our interviewers are engaged, trained and rewarded for being part of it.
All too often hiring is an afterthought that no one wants to be a part of, a drain on time and energy both for the interviewers and the applicants. It shouldn’t be this way and if it is then it’s costing you great hires.
Your interview process and the people in it are clear advertisements for your business. If this is at odds with your real culture, then it’s costing you great talent. The questions you ask, the way you make people feel and how you engage with applicants must be reflective of the way people interact in your company.
Interviewing is a two-way street and you need to tell the applicant they belong, are welcome and will be supported in your company. A bad experience at interview stage will turn many great candidates away.
- Ensure you have a diverse range of people running interviews to maximise the chance that applicants will see someone that looks like them and be more likely to feel at ease.
- Be mindful of how people are acting in interviews. Check your employees are behaving in a kind and respectful manner with applicants and championing your culture and values.
- Provide support and training for anyone involved in interviews. It’s not enough to assume senior people can magically be amazing at interviews. Developing a group of people that are interested and engaged with the process acts as a real advertisement for why your company is a great place to work.
- Reward people for being involved in hiring and create space for them to do it well. Hiring is a core part of the job and needs to be acknowledged as such.
Compassionate hiring takes time, energy and effort but will attract amazing and diverse people to your workforce that will help you be creative and push the boundaries of your business.
To maximise our chances of success we need to:
- Remove the barriers to application and make everyone feel welcome.
- Be mindful of any gendered or elitist language in our hiring communications.
- Be respectful of the applicant’s time and energy and keep our processes as light and kind as possible.
- Ensure our process really checks for what matters to perform the role and we are not just copying and pasting code tests to be elitist.
- Get to know people as a whole human being and allow for great conversations with them.
- Mindfully grow and develop our interviewing teams, keeping them diverse and engaged and able to attract talent to our companies.
Hiring is hard!
Let’s stop defaulting to the outdated elitist mindset because it’s easier and familiar rather than challenging ourselves to have a hiring process that is compassionate, inclusive and works for us and the candidates and sets them up for success. Too many amazing people are missing out on great jobs because the hiring process is failing them and the change starts with us.
So be brave. Challenge yourself if you’re a hiring manager and have some control over the process. Or if you can and you have the energy, try to provide feedback on the process to companies where you can to make your proud little dent in this landscape that sorely needs to change.