The action plan tech companies can use to make technical interviews more inclusive so they don’t miss out on highly-qualified women and people of color

  • Technical interviews refer to the stage of the tech recruitment process where job candidates have to demonstrate their problem-solving skills on a whiteboard in front of a panel of recruiters. 
  • But technical interviews have a big problem: they’re better at assessing performance anxiety than the actual skills that candidates need for the job. 
  • This could also be bad for diversity in hiring, because it’s likely that performance anxiety, the feeling of nervousness during an activity in front of an audience, is more prevalent in women and people of color. 
  • But there are ways that employers can reduce performance anxiety in technical interviews, including offering a private interview, having a diverse interview panel, and providing alternative accommodations.
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Technical interviews for software engineering positions are standard in tech.

In tech, technical interviews are exam-style questions where candidates demonstrate their ability to solve relevant problems, like debugging coding errors, in front of a panel of interviewers. These interviews usually involve the candidate demonstrating their problem-solving skills to the interviewers by writing down their process and final answer on a whiteboard, and are often referred to as “whiteboard interviews.” 

Though the questions vary depending on the skillset that the position requires, here’s an sample set of questions that a Java coder might be asked. Regardless of the specific skill they’re testing for, the questions involve a solid knowledge and critical thinking base. And they’re used in pretty much every major tech company you can think of, from Microsoft to Square to Google. 

But a recent study from North Carolina State University and Microsoft suggests that they have a serious flaw: instead of indicating a candidate’s potential for the job, they indicate other arbitrary factors, like performance anxiety, which or the feelings of nervousness that people can experience during an activity in front of an audience. 

The study had 48 computer science students participate in a standard technical interview in front of a panel of interviewers. It then had the students sit for a private technical interview, and measured the levels of performance anxiety using a questionnaire and by tracking biological factors like eyeball movements. According to the study, otherwise qualified candidates performed half as well when being observed by an interviewer. Their stress and cognitive load also increased significantly. In other words, their performance anxiety prevented them from solving the problems as well as they could have in a private setting. 

The lead author of the study, Mahnaz Behroozi, said that performance anxiety is more prevalent in women, and likely in people of color, as well. This means that technical interviews, as they’re currently administered, could put more pressure on diverse candidates. 

Behroozi said that the nature of questions in technical interviews don’t accurately reflect the types of tasks a new hire would be expected to do on the job. Instead, they’re more theory based, puzzle-like questions that advantage candidates with more time to practice and memorize questions. 

“A senior engineer, for example, who has work experience of more than 20 years doesn’t have time to practice such questions. They’re dealing with everyday work and real work problems, not those classical problems,” Behroozi said. 

But employers can take steps to prevent performance anxiety from getting the best of qualified candidates. Here’s how to make the process more fair.

Offer a private interview setting

During technical interviews, it’s standard to ask candidates to engage in “thinking-aloud,” or explaining their thought process to an interviewer as they solve a problem on the whiteboard. But this high-stress situation can prevent them from doing their best work. It’s often not reflective of the type of work they’d be doing on the job. 

When job candidates don’t have to answer questions in front of a panel, they experience reduced stress levels. This allows employers to assess their skills more accurately, the study found. If employers are interested in hearing about a candidate’s thought process, Behroozi suggested that they instead request a retrospective think-aloud after they are finished solving the problem.

Include more diverse people on the interview panel

Tech companies are realizing how the technical interview process can increase anxiety in job candidates and hamper diversity efforts. And they’re starting to take steps to fix the problem. 

At companies like Intuit, Intel, and Cisco, recruiters are putting more emphasis on creating diverse interview panels. Diverse interview panels are intended not only to make candidates feel more comfortable, but also to allow for a range of perspectives.

“One of the things that’s very important for us is that our assessors come from diverse backgrounds and different parts of the company. We don’t want group-think on our technical panels. We want people to come from diverse perspectives when they’re assessing talent,” Niall O’Rourke, vice president of talent acquisition at Intuit, said. “And candidates are very keen to ensure that the organization that they’re joining is representative of them as well.” 

Provide alternative accommodations

Not every job candidate is accustomed to the whiteboard format of answering questions. In some cases, it may help for candidates to have testing circumstances that they’re familiar with. That’s why interviewers at Google can choose to complete their interviews on pen and paper instead of a whiteboard. 

Alternatively, companies can offer candidates the opportunity to complete their interview on a laptop, rather than on a whiteboard. As more interviews begin to shift to remote formatting, during the pandemic, this method of interviewing is not only more feasible, but it may also decrease performance anxiety in candidates, Behroozi said.

Online testing platforms like Codility also make it easier than ever to interview remotely, and has collaborated with companies like Amazon and Slack. 

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