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"I've had to relearn coding to get through the new interviews"

I'm not a graduate looking for a first job. I've spent 15 years working as a developer and a strategist at leading investment banks and I'm looking for a new role. 

It's a nightmare.

In the past few years, companies hiring developers have espoused all manner of testing processes as way of covering their backs before making recruitment decisions. It's not enough that someone has a proven track record: they also need to complete a Hackerrank test or something similar. This has become common in banking, but tech firms are at it too: Facebook has a 45-minute on the spot technical video interview instead of an actual coding test for their potential hires.

I've therefore spent the past few months revising how to code in Python, C++, and SQL. I've learned C#/dot net from scratch and I've revisited college mathematics. My technical skills were already very strong. Now they are considerably stronger.

All of this, however, takes time and I'm not convinced that it's time well spent. All I have done is to learn how to solve a certain set of problems (if you stay on Hackerrank for long enough, the same ones keep coming up). With luck this will get me a job, but if I am hired on this basis I feel it will be for the wrong reasons.

In the past, when I was interviewing myself, I would come across large numbers of really smart candidates all the time. Once in a while, though, I'd find someone exceptional who could approach problems differently, and those people would always turn out to be the best hires. They would have been filtered out by these systems.

My technical skills have definitely sharpened up by practicing Hackerrank-style questions, but I believe the companies using these tests are creating a bias in favor of candidates who a) have time to practice and b) who've recently graduated and are familiar with the format. It's very hard to prepare for these tests if you're working full time and have a young family.  It's also an opportunity to excuse ageism. In an assessment the other day I was asked to code something that I hadn't covered for 30 years. If I'd had the opportunity to read-up on it, I would have been fine.

Young people aren't benefiting from these tests either. To succeed in the testing process, you need to code defensively against edge-case problems. First you have to figure out how to solve the problem and then you need to get a working solution, but to get the very best result your solution needs to execute efficiently and to produce the right answer in all edge cases (eg. empty parameters, repeated or negative numbers, massive sets of data); they generally have hidden tests that they will run to check this. The tests are therefore all about excluding candidates rather than identifying brilliant young mavericks with potential.

It would be nice if the tests were scrapped. This is unlikely to happen. For the moment, then, experience seems to count for nothing: it's all about how much time you can spend on Leetcode. 

Thomas Jackson is a pseudonym.

 

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AUTHORThomas Jackson Insider Comment
  • De
    Devon McCormick
    7 December 2020

    These test are a symptom of a larger problem of tech tunnel-vision. As a philosophy major with over 40 years of practical coding experience, my resume will be overlooked in favor of any recent graduate with a "technical" degree.

    I have worked with a lot of people during my career and have encountered any number of techs whose narrowness is astounding but they will be ahead of me on most HR checklists.

    Not to mention the controversial but likely idea that liberal arts majors make the best techies: https://www.breakinto.tech/....

  • in
    inadequate_counter_space
    7 December 2020

    They're also heavily biased towards people that do well under an unrepresentatively high amount of pressure.

  • Si
    Simon Shine
    4 December 2020

    Coding tests make me nervous for some reason. I leave excellent impressions during interviews all the way until the take-home test or algorithms quiz, which I usually botch. If it feels like an exam, I’m probably not going to get the job.

    I’ve landed some pretty excellent jobs in the past. So as long as I eventually have success, I see these tests as an exercise in humility. I will not tell myself there is inherently something wrong with me, or that I cannot perform work. These tests are for other people’s assessments of me, not for my own.

  • Sv
    Svyerkh
    4 December 2020

    I have long been of the opinion that companies are too focused on technical skill set instead of qualities like adaptability, teachability, "teamability", etc. Here is an incomplete list of skills that I picked up on the job:
    * 8086 Assembly (yes I'm old)
    * C++
    * SQL (both MS and Oracle)
    * T/SQL and PL/SQL
    * HTML
    * JavaScript
    * VBA (and all its painful quirks)
    * Java (ick)

    Is there Python in that list? Why would you think that I could not get up to speed on Python in a month or two? Why would you not consider hiring at a lower rate to see how well I fit into the team, and let me learn about Python on the way? I can see that you might want to have your hires hit the ground running, but the other attributes of your employees count waaaay more than the skill set.

    Too often management looks at "bottom line" costs, like headcount or salary, and let the "most expensive" people go, rather than realizing that the quality employees are what make the business work, not the lowest spending.

    Edit: sometimes platform knowledge is important, I am not discounting that. But refusing to hire someone just because they don't know some tool skill (as opposed to a target platform skill like NetSuite) could be letting some of your best hires pass you by.

  • ts
    tsimmi
    4 December 2020

    I'm going through the exact same thing!
    12+ years of experience and keep being thrown 'technical tests' that basically expect you to know by heart the 'trick' to solve it efficiently.

    I guess it's a sign that the job market is now flooded with devs of all experience levels and the easiest (and dumbest) way to sort them is through these algorithmic tests.

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