Blog/How to Fix Your Tech Interview to Increase Diversity

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How to Fix Your Tech Interview to Increase Diversity

June 16, 2019

Before you start reading this blog post, please know that this is for folks who care about diversity and inclusion because it is the right thing to do. If you don't believe that underrepresented people in tech are intelligent, hardworking, and deserve equal representation in tech, then this post is not for you.

A blog post about a thank you note went viral a few months back. The post said to follow a simple rule when hiring: "If someone doesn't send a thank-you email, don't hire them." I noticed a divide between how it was received on Twitter vs LinkedIn. Folks on Twitter, many who work in tech, criticized it. On the other hand, folks on LinkedIn, many who do the hiring and HR work, praised it. This seems to be the state of tech interviews. There is a disconnect between people looking for jobs and those hiring.

So, I asked what advice people would like to give tech employers on how to fix their interview process. I specifically asked underrepresented people in tech, because if you can make the interview process better for us, then everyone would benefit as well. I expected about ten responses. Instead I got over 300 comments. Folks are tired of the tech interviewing process and they had a lot to say.

I encourage you to read all of the responses. Here, I'm going to summarize the common themes I found. As you read the comments please keep an open mind, believe our experiences, and think about how you can incorporate our feedback into your current interview process.

Start with empathy and respect

The first thing to realize is that you may not be interviewing someone like you. They may not own a car. They may have to take multiple buses to get to your office. If they need to travel a long distance to interview with you, they may not be able to pay for flights and wait for reimbursement. They may have multiple people depending on them and have to arrange care. Taking half a day off to interview is a lot to ask for. They may have a hearing disability and interviewing on the phone may not be ideal. They may have been sexually harassed and being cooped up in a room full of men may be difficult. Keep in mind that your life experiences may not be the same.

Start with empathy and respect. I don't mean imagine yourself in the candidate's state and think about ways to improve. I mean listen, believe and respect that candidates have different needs and accommodate them accordingly.

Be transparent

Every company conducts interviews differently. Some do pair-programming, some do white-board interviews, and some focus on behavioral interviews. This leads to a lot of anxiety. How do you prepare for a test where you don't know how you are going to be assessed?

One of the most common questions I see in tech communities is "Hey, I have an interview at X. Could you tell me about their interview process?" We shouldn't have to ask this question. This puts underrepresented folks at a disadvantage. They may not have anyone in their network who knows the answer to this question.

Be upfront about your interview process. Tell us how long it will take, what you are going to test us on and what criteria you are using to evaluate us.

Hire junior developers

If you are serious about diversity, you must hire junior developers. I see a lot of companies sponsoring events and communities that focus on teaching underrepresented people how to code. This is great. Keep doing that.

However, what is the point of training if you are not going to hire? If you don't invest in junior developers now, they will find jobs elsewhere and get experience there. When they become mid-level developers, they will think twice to come work for you because you didn't invest in them. Worst case, they may even choose to leave tech altogether before even getting started because no one gave them a chance.

Don't Hire for Culture Fit

The term "culture fit" is vague. Everyone interprets it differently and uses their gut reaction to decide if they will fit within the company's existing culture. That means that you will give preference to someone who looks like you, has the same hobbies as you, went to the same college as you, or studied Computer Science like you.

You will decide to not to hire someone because of their skin color, their gender, their age, their disability, or their non-traditional background - characteristics that have little bearing on how they'll get the job done. This will leave underrepresented people not being considered for jobs that they are qualified for.

Accommodate people with different needs

From the beginning, assume that you are going to be interviewing people with different needs. Make sure you are able to support them to get through your interview process. If a new mom is going to come in for an interview, do you have a place where she can pump breast milk? If your potential candidate is deaf, make sure you offer an alternative to a phone interview. If someone can't come to your office to interview, offer to interview over a video call.

Michael Forzano who is a blind Software Engineer passed an interview by using his own laptop with screen-reader software instead of a whiteboard.

Ashlea McKay who is autistic recommends a one on one conversation style interview instead of a multi-person panel style interview.

Offer alternatives and flexibility but don't hold it against us if we choose a non-traditional option.

Prepare

I've walked into countless interviews where the interviewer didn't read my resume or cover letter beforehand and we spent the whole interview just going over my resume. When candidates spend so much time to apply and prepare for interviews, it's only fair that you prepare too. Use the interview to get more details about the candidate beyond what's on their job application.

Preparation needs to be done even before the interview too. You need to figure out the skills you are looking for and ask questions that are relevant to the job.

Give feedback

Get into the habit of giving feedback after an interview. This will not only help the candidates but it will help you figure out if you are actually rejecting someone based on valid or arbitrary reasons. With candidates being used to being ghosted by companies, you will stand out for respecting their time and effort by providing actionable feedback.

Give Non-traditional Candidates an Equal Chance

If you hire only Computer Science majors for your technical roles, you will miss out on a lot of great candidates. Every candidate will have some knowledge gaps regardless of their educational background. A good work environment will give the time and resources to fill in the gaps.

I studied Computer Science but I picked most of the necessary skills for my job like web development and database administration on the job. My current co-workers most of whom did not study Computer Science or Information Technology all learned web development on the job and are excellent at their jobs.

One does not need to study Computer Science or a have a formal degree to succeed in tech. Give folks with non-traditional backgrounds a chance and see how they will complement your team.

Treat interviewing as a two-way street

As you are getting to know the candidate, keep in mind that they are getting to know you too. Similar to how you are interviewing several candidates, they are also interviewing at several companies. They are trying to figure out your company's values and if they want to work for you. The impression you give will stay with them and will be shared with their community. Give them an opportunity to get to know you.

Set clear expectations for take home exercises and keep them short

Take-home tests are considered unethical by some as you are asking them to do large amounts of work for free. However, some folks prefer them as they can do them at their own convenience. Offer take-home tests as an option but make sure that you keep them short. Ask to implement a feature, not build an entire application from scratch. Give clear directions and be specific on your expectations. Also, make sure that what you are testing for is relevant to the job.

Respect our time

When interviewing candidates often are looking at multiple companies. It may not seem like a lot of time for you but it adds up on the candidate's side. Some have to balance family, travel time and other things to make it to your interview. Be upfront about the time it will take to interview with you and make sure that you are not making the process unnecessarily lengthy.

Avoid bias

Recognize that bias exists despite your best intentions. Organizations need to start addressing the bias itself and the roots of that bias by providing all their employees—even those not involved in hiring—with the necessary training and insight to recognize their own biases and correct them appropriately.

Revise your technical interview

White board interviews and puzzles are detested by most developers. However, they continue to be used by companies.

These kinds of interviews effect underrepresented folks disproportionately. Even if they can do the job, they may not have the extra time to study for these kinds of interviews.

Ask questions that are relevant to the job. If developing new algorithms or solving puzzles is part of the job, please ask those questions. If it is not, you are testing for people who have the privilege of time and money and not who can do the job. Don't make your interviews unnecessarily stressful.

Don't make diversity and inclusion an afterthought

Finally, please keep in mind that hiring underrepresented people in tech is not charity. You are not doing us a favor. You are improving your company, setting up a process to get the best candidate and fixing a system that is not including us.

Next steps

  1. Share this blog post with your co-workers, especially those in charge of hiring.
  2. Take some time to think through your current interview process. Think about the gaps that you can fill and the improvements that you can make to include everyone. Share your notes with your co-workers and managers. Discuss it and make the necessary changes.
  3. Use #DiversifyTech and let us know on Twitter or on LinkedIn what you come up with.


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