Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login

Again: this is true of "work sample" tests in their mainstream implementation in our industry (spend 6 hours jumping through a hoop for the privilege of running a standard, nondeterministic interview gauntlet), and those hiring processes are a scourge.

But there's a right way to do it: give work sample challenges and then, at least for the most part, end the technical qualification part of your process there. You spend 4-6 hours at home instead of spending 4-6 hours in front of a whiteboard doing dumb coding challenges.

If I was looking for a job right now, I'd probably refuse to interview anywhere that gave me take-home problems that couldn't promise that a strong result on those problems would take me all the way through technical qualification. But a company that could offer me take-home problems and conclusively make the technical part of the decision on whether to hire me based on those problem would be a strong prospect.




We subscribe to the work sample test as your best option for technical validation, but we also limit ourselves to a small window of time, on site. We pick something we recently worked on, distill it down to something we can knock out in 15 minutes, and give the candidate about 45 minutes to work through the distilled problem and then we explore for about 15 minutes their solution and how they would make it production ready (as a conversation). We then have another 45 minutes of designing a solution to something more complex we recently had to work on, again distilled down. It involves a white board and boxes and arrows. The last 15 minutes is time for them to ask whatever they want of us. We have two interviewers on this technical portion to level out false reads by the other interviewer (I thought this part was a poor answer, but the other interviewer has a different view of it).

I really like it so far. The part I'm battling on it is if the current coding part selects against Java developers. Part of the code we want right now requires a unit test with dependency injection to match an interface. So many of our Java candidates simply can't set up a running unit test. They are used to layers of framework already set up in the IDE and just clicking on stuff. They have full access to Google. Maybe it is good we are filtering out these candidates, but I'm not sure. Still thinking on it.


> The part I'm battling on it is if the current coding part selects against Java developers.

Yes, it does. And let me put it this way: I've used C# and Java at most of my jobs, those theoretically would be my comfort languages, yes?

I do not use those languages on interviews. I often just use C++ (!), or Rust (free unit tests!) if the company tools allow for it, or worst case I'd learn some Python basics. C#/Java are very awkward and boilerplatey in such a small time frame as 45 minutes.


Interesting. To clarify, you are saying that these boiler-platey languages, it is not fair to write a unit test in a 45 minute time block with access to Google? I'm not a Java guy. All the languages I've used, this would not be an issue. Again, I'm wrestling with it because it I feel it should be easy but like 80% of our candidates who chose Java struggle with it.


It sounds like this is a pick-your-own-language type test. I'd suggest scoping down to one, or at most, two, simple allowable options that your team is already pretty comfortable handling.

I've been on the reviewer side of a handful of "choose your own language"-style take-homes recently and found that it's really not good for the candidate if they actually end up using something that wouldn't have been the interview committee's first or second choice. There have been cases where choosing a less-trendy-but-still-totally-viable toolkit has effectively disqualified a candidate, with several committee members not even considering it necessary to look at the code. This is very unfair and lame but an unfortunate reality. I asked that the test be changed to constrain the options at least to a list that wouldn't be immediately disqualifying.

You could advise the candidate ahead of the interview something along the lines of "you'll be asked to write a code sample in either Ruby or Python -- you'll have full access to Google, but you may want to brush up on the basics of these languages if you haven't used them recently".

This does two things: first, it prevents the issue you have, where you're essentially not sure if you're correctly scoring the samples produced. Secondly, it really requires you to constrain the problem to things that someone who has barely used language X or Y can do within 45 minutes.


The theory with pick your own language is they should be able to feel fully comfortable (interviews are already stressful enough). If they picked Rust, Scala, or a lisp dialect, (or anything the interviewers are unfamiliar with), it can even be a better interview because we get more insight on how the candidate communicates and their ability to walk someone else through their solution. A potential other bonus is less biases leak through from an interviewer on "that is a strange way to do that in language X."


> The theory with pick your own language is they should be able to feel fully comfortable (interviews are already stressful enough).

Ah, but there's the rub. Candidates are trying to please the interview panel. If you don't provide guidance, the odds that they'll just use whatever they think the interviewers most prefer are just as good, if not better, than the odds that they'll actually use whatever makes them most comfortable.

You said yourself that since some candidates pick a language that you don't know well, you can't really tell if the failure of a large number of those candidates is reflective of a bad test or just a mismatched candidate pool. IMO, if you're going to stick to the "pick any language" thing, you should at least find out and ensure that any language the candidate picks will have a fair shot.

> it can even be a better interview because we get more insight on how the candidate communicates and their ability to walk someone else through their solution.

You can still get the candidate to communicate and explain his choices if you give an option: "either Ruby or Python" or "either JavaScript or Visual Basic", etc. The problem with having this happen in a language that the interviewers don't know reasonably well is that they are much more vulnerable to the smooth talker who can present incorrect information confidently, and they won't have enough background/anchoring in the subject matter to know the difference.

> A potential other bonus is less biases leak through from an interviewer on "that is a strange way to do that in language X."

I would say that if you're worried that interviewers will load in biases toward their preferred shortcuts etc in a specific language, that you should be equally worried that some good candidates are being excluded for choosing the "wrong" language in an any-language-goes test.

Above, you mentioned that there'd be a positive response if a candidate used "Rust, Scala, or a lisp dialect" -- these are all relatively trendy. What if the candidate used nim, Pony, or some other language that hasn't pulled in to the hype superstation yet? What if the candidate used a language that's not-so-trendy anymore, like Visual Basic, Cobol, or bash? What if the candidate used a programming language of their own design, and brought a copy of the compiler with them on a flash drive?

I'm asking because I've seen this in practice. Candidates for a devops position who chose to use bash to implement the very simple take-home task they were given were laughed off by several other members of the interview committee, despite being potentially high-value senior people -- they were at least senior enough that they're more comfortable performing sysadmin-style tasks in a shell, rather than using a massive CM framework or an awkward amalgamation of Python scripts running os.spawn.

It feels like this type of thing happens a lot, in the same sense that very often, "unlimited PTO" just means "guess whatever amount of PTO is acceptable around here and hope you get it right".


I guess it depends how far back you're starting from. I suspect most Java developers don't spend that much time creating projects from scratch (I do, but the work environments I'm used to suggest I'm an outlier).

I tend to give candidates a simple project already to go, with junit and hamcrest, possibly mockito already available, and ask them to go from there using a provided IDE (which I attempt to get set up as near as they prefer to work as I can). This generally works out fine. I certainly don't feel the boiler-platiness of the language gets in the way, mostly because the IDE is generally capable of doing most of the lifting with that respect anyway, but also because over the timescale of an interview question, we're generally only talking about a couple of classes at most.


It starts from scratch. Familiarity with one's tooling is important. Setting up a project seems like it should be part of the basics. Would it not be unfair to others who choose a different language if Java gets hand holding in terms of initial classes?

For 20% of Java candidates, they do it just fine. Heck, a few echew the IDE and are fine working completely from the terminal (these tend to be particularly very solid at coding). Still wrestling with the idea.

The folks that already work with us (who wrote Java in a former role) see no problem with setting up a project nor do the folks that we hired recently (seeing as they likely passed that technical interview). But that all could be bias.

Maybe you are right. Maybe the next candidate or five in Java will get a base project and we can see how it goes.


Do you give them "their" tooling? I can set up a project of the type you describe in about five seconds, because I have a template for it in my IDE. The best defaults for this that I've seen are provided by IntelliJ (do you provide this in interviews? It seems legally challenging to do) and would probably take me 5-10 minutes to navigate.

I think Java depends much more heavily on powerful tooling to do the heavy lifting, and my experience of using that tooling when I haven't had a chance to configure it in advance has been pretty miserable.


If they're coming in, I'll hand them a laptop with the project set up and ready to go, with IntelliJ running. If they're normally an Eclipse user I'll swap to Eclipse shortcuts and help them manage the IDE as we go.

If it's remote, I'll ask them to share their screen with me with a project set up and ready to go, having emailed them a copy of the interface we're going to implement about 30 minutes before the interview.


Fair enough, seems like you're giving them a fair shake.


It depends on context as well. Where I currently work, they wouldn't have a chance. The corporate firewall will prevent them talking to Nexus, for example. It just wouldn't be fair to expect them to navigate that sort of thing in an interview.

In general, if I'm asking them to code on my (or the company's) hardware, I'd start from an existing project, if only because I wouldn't expect them to be familiar with the installed tools (oh, you use maven? I'm a gradle user ... etc.) On their own laptop, I'd expect them to be more comfortable.

I'm doing a remote interview on Wednesday. That'll be on the candidates machine (because screen-sharing is easy, getting them inside the corporate network, not happening), and they've been told they'll need an IDE ready to go. I'll expect a project set up and ready to go before the call even starts.


What happens if they can't work from home? They're expected to take time off, AND prepare beforehand?

What round is this?


On your own hardware, I'd expect you to be able to have a blank project up in minutes, so yes, I expect somebody who's not travelling to our site to be able to take 5 minutes out of their busy day to create a blank project.


> Familiarity with one's tooling is important. Setting up a project seems like it should be part of the basics. Would it not be unfair to others who choose a different language if Java gets hand holding in terms of initial classes?

Also, how much of their day-to-day work is going to be setting up new projects? I sometimes feel a better test is to be thrown into an existing code base and asked to make a change. It's far more indicative of the sort of work somebody is likely to actually be doing.


>Part of the code we want right now requires a unit test with dependency injection to match an interface.

What exactly do you mean by this?


We ask that the code they write have a unit test. The nature of that unit test is that it has a dependency. They can mock however they like, but passing in an object that represents the dependency (dependency injection) is the easiest and most straight forward way to do that. That object should have a method on it (a know method, with a known signature, also known in some circles as matching an interface).


You ever see or suspect fraud in a take home? I can't imagine it doesn't happen giving that cheating is so prevalent in colleges.


If I was doing this at Google, I would spend a lot of time thinking about test fraud. At a 40-50 person company? Not so much. We do simple follow-up things that raise the amount of effort you'd have to put in to fraudulently submitting work sample tests, and we know pretty exactly how we'd randomize our work sample tests to make it hard to cheat (at least, hard to cheat without doing something we'd be interested in anyways) --- but it's just not worth it right now.

Work sample test fraud is one of those things that sounds like a huge deal on message boards, but when you game through what would be involved in doing it in real life, it makes very little sense.


To my mind, the simplest and most straightforward way to combat any fraud is also beneficial because it gives you even more information about the candidate:

Talk to them about the code they wrote.

Have a conversation, as if they were already your co-worker, with the exercise as the subject. Go through it, ask them -- non-adversarially -- why they did X, what they thought about requirement 2, how they could get better test coverage for Z. If you see something that seems to be a mistake, talk about it. If you see something awesome, discuss it. I can't imagine someone incompetent being able to bullshit their way through detailed discussion of code they were supposed to have written.

And this provides valuable info about how this person thinks and communicates about the work you want them to do.


That seems like a good idea, but does somewhat detract from the notion that once a candidate does the work-sample he is done with the technical part of the process.


True, it deviates from tptacek's recommendations; about scoring and identical questions for everyone as well.


A nice approach I liked (back when I was interviewed by Thoughtworks years ago) was that one of the interview stages was to take the assignment you'd done and apply some new requirements to the story. It rapidly makes it clear if the candidate actually did the assignment or not.


How can I sign up to take these tests for people? Sounds INCREDIBLY lucrative.


Are yo saying most of candidates commit fraud? Do you have any data on it or just following common sense nonsense?


> Are yo saying most of candidates commit fraud?

Nope.


If majority doesn’t, why create a process that punishes everyone? People are lying on the resumes is a very common argument made by creators of insane interview processes. It feels weird to start a relationship with a company with assumption that I’m a cheater.


Who said anything about punishing anyone? 1) tptacek advocated for a specific kind of interviewing, 2) I asked him if he had ever seen a problem that I thought might be an issue with that method, 3) he explained that he wasn't worried about it because of X, Y, Z but acknowledged that for other companies it could be a problem, 4) I thought his answer was very reasonable. Also wool_gather and swish_bob added some useful ideas.

I'm not sure why you felt the need to come out guns blazing.


I agree with that. Sounds like a good process. Although, I am too cynical to believe any company that tells me this will be the only technical part. Too often do recruiters lie/misrepresent the recruitment process. Some seem to operate on the sunk cost fallacy, where you just see it through because what's one more round after already doing several?


I understand your cynicism but: who's got two thumbs and can offer an existence proof that there are companies that really do hire this way? :)

My best guess is that there aren't going to be many companies that will give you definitive statements about what their process will be after challenges who are lying about how they digest work-sample responses. But I don't know and am prepared to be wrong about that.


I've only had one take home assignment task that really worked like that. I did pretty good at it and the interview.

I was co-owner of a startup at the time, the guy I interviewed called me up and said you did really good but I think you really don't want to work here - my wife said 'Wow, that guy was really smart' considering how some things went later it might have been better if I'd said no I really really do


The extremely obvious problem with this is that there's no way of preventing someone from completely blowing a hole in your interview process by simply paying for or hiring another developer to do the take-home problem for them. At that point they've gotten past the technical requirements and now only need the soft skills to execute on it once the rest of the interview process continues.

This is why take-home problems are almost completely irrelevant except for filtering out good candidates. Eventually those problems optimize for perfection which help out those who 'cheat' at the process and people that otherwise put in earnest efforts are rewarded with denials. This is something I've experienced before in my job search where I would put in an honest effort and get 90% of the problem solved, but get denied because my solution wasn't flawless.

So allow me to call bullshit on your own claims that this is the right way of determining technical qualifications.


> get denied because my solution wasn't flawless.

Not all companies handle it like this. I had a take-home exercise as part of an interview last year. I hit a real snag on a fairly small part, I couldn't figure it out, and I ended up leaving a bug in my submission because I simply ran out of time. Very frustrating.

It was raised at the interview; I admitted that I knew it was there, and that I hadn't been able to figure it out. We discussed possible causes: it actually turned into a pretty interesting, though minor, technical conversation. The interviewer eventually told me that he had figured it out after a little investigation (and I expressed my gratitude for the explanation!)

I ended up getting an enthusiastic offer from them.


I'd couple the take-home with a substantive discussion following submission. Harder for a fraudster to talk about how they came up with or tested their solution and how they'd improve it in a real production version.


> I would put in an honest effort and get 90% of the problem solved, but get denied because my solution wasn't flawless

It's possible that the company stated the take-home work in terms of non-negotiable deliverables, and their baseline for allowing a candidate to move forward is 100% of those, and they prioritize candidates who take initiative and do more work beyond the base requirements.

... not that I would agree with such a process (it biases towards people with more free time, like people with fewer dependents and people who are currently out of a job / underemployed), but it's very possible that this is what you faced.




Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact

Search: