Please please please: Enough with the enormous tech tests

First of all, this isn’t a criticism of testing, or being thorough in interviews. At all. Whatsoever. We really get it, you only want the best for your team…why wouldn’t you? There’s a LOT of talent out there, and you need to be sure that the person who joins you, really gets who you are, what you’re all about, and ensure they can hit the ground running ASAP, right? Of course. 

But, take it from us, you absolutely do not need an enormous tech test to do that. Really you don’t.

I’d like to lift the lid and tell you a couple of reasons why tech tests should soon become a thing of the past. Then also give you a few things that you can do instead that might actually benefit, rather than hinder your recruitment process. Yes, some of what I say will be controversial, and some of it may not apply to your organisation but after 15 years of running recruitment processes, I’m pretty confident that I can speak for a large proportion of the people who are applying for your jobs… 

1) Time

A “4 hour tech test”, when someone is keen to impress actually means 16 hours. That’s 2 working days. Done outside of standard work hours. Whilst many are home schooling, and already running an incredibly busy schedule. It’s at best impractical, and at worst impossible.

Let me ask you: How long would it take you to dedicate 16 hours to something that you already didn’t have time for? 

2 weeks – if you’re lucky. A lot can happen in 2 weeks to derail a process…which brings me onto my next point. 

2) Momentum

This isn’t about recruiters being pushy, a huge part of searching for a job is done on emotion and momentum. How does it ‘feel’ when you’re there? Can you see yourself working there? Does it flow naturally? Are you enthusiastic about moving forward. Big tech tests stop momentum. If you go to view a new house or test drive a car, and you find one that you love, then you don’t view or see it again for weeks, are you still as keen when you return to it? Of course not. Yes, the enthusiasm may remain in part, but the momentum and excitement, most of the time is gone. 

3) Interpretation

Whilst in practice, a tech test is a great idea, over the years I’ve seen hundreds of candidates sent away because the tech test was unclear, or even worse, they pass but “we don’t do it that way here”. These tests are enormously subjective, when we look at many industries and technologies, what is good for one is not good for another, and it’s SUCH a waste of great matches. In actual fact, if knowledge was shared, rather than graded, both parties would learn a lot more. 

4) They’re impersonal 

You have a great connection with a company, you align with their goals, values and dreams, the interview has gone as well as it could have possibly have gone and you’re super excited about the next chapter. “Okay, so our next stage is this 16 hour technical test, and if you get through that, we’ll move forward, but if not, the process ends here.” All of that positivity…gone. What happened to that great connection? I don’t really need to say any more than that. 

5) Your future employees don’t like them 

There are exceptions to this rule. Some candidates love flexing their muscles to show what they can do, but many don’t. They have very limited knowledge of what you actually need to see in the test, and it’s very easy for them to go off in the wrong direction. Adding to that, they have 2 jobs now, and their second job is to impress a hiring manager enough to get a job that they’re not sure they want yet. Oh, and by the way, you’re not getting paid for this, it will bear no relevance when you start, you can only do it in your spare time, and often that will end your contact with your dream job, despite that great first interview you had. Brilliant. 

6) The way they’re graded is flawed 

This is a shame, but it’s a fact. As humans, in this situation, we innately look for what a potential candidate hasn’t done and can’t do, rather than what they have and can. Almost without exception. We look for flaws instead of positives and reasons to reject rather than accept. I’ve seen so many phenomenal candidates turned away from dream jobs because they didn’t do a single line of the test as the development team would, it’s such a waste. And it hurts. 

7) Time – again

Even when tests are submitted, in many cases, the reason that you’re hiring is because you’re so busy that your dev team doesn’t have time to think, let alone review code from tech tests that have nothing to do with their work day-to-day. So that’s 2 weeks to do the test with 1 week for feedback – it’s nobody’s fault, but your dream candidate has got 4 other offers from your competitors by now, and their test was brilliant. Dammit.

So, what can we do instead? 

Put simply, and I’m happy to discuss any ideas around these…

  • Keep them short – 2 hours max. Plan something that is realistically achievable in that time and specify that they shouldn’t spend any longer than that.
  • Test principles over specifics – specifics can be discussed at interview. 
  • Consider peer / pair programming and live coding exercises instead, so that answers can be explained. Yes, your Lead Engineer probably doesn’t have time to do that with every candidate, but they got this far, right? And they might just learn something too. 
  • Invite them into your office to see how the team works on a live project, and gets to see what life is like when you work there.
  • Communicate verbally. Talk about the reason they chose to do the tests the way that they did. Look at approaches and summarise with live challenges. It’s honestly so much better / quicker / cheaper / more effective.
  • Explain specifically what you’re asking them to do in a test. Tell them the languages and technologies to use. Don’t leave it up to them. You’re only looking for one way really, and the chances of them picking that are next to none.
  • Look for alternative testing methods. Maybe a competency based skills matrix. There are loads of them out there, they last 45 minutes and the analysis is done for you. 

Before someone suggests it, I have in no way written this to make the life of a recruiter easier. Believe it or not, we absolutely want the best people for you and your team, and to help our candidates into their dream jobs. But, and please trust me on this, overly elaborate, long, unspecific tech tests cause more to fall through the net than you catch, and we see thousands of brilliant ones get away. Facepalm emoji.

When testing is done well, it’s brilliant and will improve the quality and time to hire in your organisation. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true.

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Chris Stringer

5th February