Looking back on my first ever software development interview, I wish I had known that I was about to experience everything from discomfort with my professional style to frustration surrounding the inaccessible interview questions.
Coming from a career in economics as a recent graduate from Hackbright Academy, a 10-week software engineering school for women in San Francisco, I thought that diving head first into software development would mean a refreshing step into innovation, freedom, and a progressive community. I was about to learn that while the industry did have these traits that I was after, it also had an outmoded set of expectations and “rules of engagement” that I would find hard to accept.
From culture clashes between the new-era and classically trained developers to unrealistic programming tests to prove your worth, the tech recruitment process is facing some serious challenges.
Let’s begin with the process
When you go in for an interview as a software engineer, you can expect a full day of one-on-one whiteboard interviews where you are given a complex series of problems to solve. No brainstorming sessions with a team of like-minded people. No computer. No trial and error.
Today’s standard whiteboard interview process is a living relic of a time when it simply wasn’t possible for potential developers to sling their development environment across their backs for an interview. It was also a time when software engineers needed to, essentially, think like a computer. The data structures and algorithms did matter.
Today, I believe this interview model reduces the candidate pool to four-year computer science undergraduates, even though there are many highly capable candidates outside that pool who are more than prepared to enter the field due to the advent of high-level programming languages.
And as more and more companies wake up to the fact that there is a shortage of tech talent, development teams will need to embrace a new, more diverse, generation of software engineers.
Old problem, new approach
This is the opportunity for development teams to do more than search for the best algorithmic minds coming out of extensive computer science programs; it’s the opportunity for them to (finally) embrace developers from non-traditional backgrounds.
This new generation of programmers may lack certain technical skills, but paired with a mentor, a hunger for learning, and the desire to prove themselves, they will learn and they will learn fast.
Developers with diverse backgrounds bring a fresh set of eyes, the ability to thrive under tight deadlines, a high esteem for their more seasoned coworkers, and the potential to excel in the soft skills that many software developers may traditionally struggle with, such as being an effective communicator or being willing to change their methods.
These new perspectives have the ability to give this fast-paced industry – one that has been dominated by the same, like-minded group of people since the ’80s – a much-needed breath of fresh air.
But only if the establishment will let them get past the front door. Diversity in approach, in talents, in technical knowledge, and ,yes, even in years of training, will only accelerate the modern development team’s productivity and effectiveness when tackling tough problems.
So then, how do we evolve?
The self-taught, garage startup may be a bit of a myth in 2016, but so is the idea that software development should only be taught by studying theoretical computer science, and that solving logic puzzles is the best way to gauge a developer’s ability to thrive in a corporate team setting.
Recruiters could augment, or better yet, replace their current whiteboard interview with something like a pair programming exercise to create a more realistic work environment in which to judge candidates.
Because most companies require candidates to sign non-disclosure agreements before they even start the interview process, it would be possible to bring candidates “into the fold” and let them try to solve an actual coding problem the development team has faced or is currently encountering.
Imagine a candidate sitting in the development area at a pairing station with another developer to work on a task together so that the recruiter can gain deeper understanding of a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses.
Changing the game
Diversity can be a cornerstone for innovation, but it has to be driven by teams who understand that when you sit a group of people down who all have similar life experiences and training, eventually their ideas will become dangerously similar as well.
I hope to see the industry shift to a direction of real inclusion as it continues to grow, for the sake of its companies, employees, and products. Diversity and preparedness for real-life situations in the workplace will lead to healthy sustainable work environments and superior products.
Besides, the ’90s called. It wants its interview process back.
Ksenia Burlachenko is a software developer at Perforce.