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A humble alternative to technical interviews (zachwf.com)
118 points by realbarack 32 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 124 comments

"It could also sew some bitterness within the engineering team: it might be seen as unfair that some people can get hired through the nepotistic route, while others have to do the tech loop."

More importantly, it will reinforce your organization's demographics. If your trusted referrers are white and male, their networks will be overwhelmingly white and male and it's just putting up another block toward those not already in the system. If that happens in one company, it's likely not a big deal. If it happens systemically, you'll see a bigger problem.

(People build networks in college, with people of the same demographics -> people use those networks to get people in with a lower bar of entry while those without the benefit of the network will face a barrier that the people that were hired might not have been able to clear.)

The problem is that we don't have a better solution to the technical interview.

You're fetishizing "demographics".

It's unfortunately that people don't get their fair chance period. That at times this is evidenced by things that are more visible (black versus white, female versus male) rather than more invisible (extroverted rather than introverted, smiling versus shifty-doesn't-look-you-in-the-eyes) is both unfortunate (there should be no racism!) but also symptomatic of which things we care about and which things we don't.

People discriminated for reasons we don't care about (introverted, can't make eye contact) are at the bottom of the pyramid then. We've decided they don't have "demographics" and don't matter.

You're probably getting downvoted for the first line in your comment, but I think you're making an excellent point here.

Of key importance here is that race, gender, etc. are federally protected classes, while introversion is not. Thus, businesses have way more incentives to curtail discrimination against the former than the latter.

I know you probably didn't mean to imply otherwise, but it's worth saying out loud: that it's not illegal to discriminate against people with poor social skills does not at all make it ok. The context was ethics, not law, as I read it.

Software development is a team activity, thus social skills are important. I don't know if companies are "discriminating" in this area so much as they are simply trying to find people with the right skills for the job.

There is several contradicting data points for what is an optimal hiring strategy for a company. We have the old strategy of making members of a team feel like then are kin, a.k.a band of brothers. The military use/used this a lot and the underlying biological theory is that people will sacrifice self-interest for individuals which is perceived as kin, or as the quote goes a person will sacrifice themselves for either two siblings or eight cousins.

The opposite strategy is diversity with the ability for better adaptation. A team with multiple perspectives is said to better anticipate the need of a diverse customer base.

A third strategy is to look at specific risk. If for example theft by employees are a high risk issue then rejecting applicants with correlating traits with high risk for theft would be beneficial, which would be low social economic status, but those correlate to race and ethnic class.

If we look at the issue from the perspective of what benefit a company the most we end up in many cases with massive discrimination. Thus for social reasons we address the issue as an ethical question.

It isn't illegal, but I wouldn't want to work with someone who has poor social skills. Programming within a team and business is a highly social activity. I would much rather work with someone who can read a room than one who is smart at programming but is completely dense socially or can't communicate well at all.

There's a lot to unpack there, but people in the autism spectrum who can't look at you in the eyes are not necessarily bad at workplace communication (they may fail to realize workplace flirting, but that's a plus, not a minus).

Then there's the whole "benefits of diversity stuff". My team currently has too many generalists/big picture/would-do-well-as-ethnologists-if-not-math-oriented thinkers. Narrower, more focused cognitive styles would do us some good.

But how do you even detect if big picture thinkers and hyperfocused specialists are getting fair chances? The whole interviewing process is stacked against people who can't demonstrate a "wide personality", even for non-leadership roles.

Demographic is a broad enough word to encompass both race and personality.

Communication skills are actually part of the job description. This analogy falls apart in light of that.

You assume too much.

People who can't look you in the eyes might be sufficiently adept at workplace technical communication. It's a skill that can be learned.

Maybe someone is less able to read moods like sadness because someone's cat's gone missing. But a colleague can always help with that. "Reasonable accommodations" is enshrined in disability law in every modern "welfare state" society.

I'll give you that someone with such limitations may not be the best leadership material. But then, people in wheelchairs are not the best astronaut material.

And that's okay. But in an ethical framework where discrimination is to be frowned upon, we need to give everyone the opportunity to live to their fullest potential. This is after all the promise of "diversity": those who are different may have something different to add.

You're judged on all the skills you have and show you could learn. This is the same for verbal and technical. It's really not equivalent to judging someone's skin color at all.

This is whataboutism. We have data showing that referrals disproportionately benefit white men [1]. But what about introverts, you say? Don't we care about them?

Sure? But what about introverts? Nothing about their unfair treatment entails that adopting a policy that disproportionately benefits white men is good for introverts or diversity.

[1] https://www.payscale.com/data/job-referrals

A survey of 53,000 employees.

> Referrals benefit white men more than any other demographic group. Our research shows that, holding all else constant, female and minority applicants are much less likely to receive referrals than their white male counterparts: white women are 12 percent less likely; men of color are 26 percent less likely and women of color are 35 percent less likely to receive a referral.

You can't dismiss claims that the structural problem is wider/you fail to see the forest for the trees with "whataboutism". Whataboutism is a magic trick -- look at the hand doing crazy stuff with a bowling pin while the other retrieves a card from the sleeve.

At any rate, it's ironic that you would try to disrupt a plea for those that are underprivileged for invisible or overlooked reasons with "what about black women". Yeah man, we know about black women - it's a core theme of progressive culture.

The data that looks at gender and race disparities will only give evidence about gender and race disparities. This is the proverbial drunkard looking for his keys near the lamppost because, well, you can't see elsewhere.

If there's an ethical program to fix discrimination - specially discrimination that happens as a systemic, involuntary kind like what the OP proposes, we have to look at discrimination itself.


A great success case is making orchestral auditions take place behind a curtain. If I remember the data correctly that vastly improved the participation of women, including in protagonist roles. But it's also an inclusive policy for the elderly, autistics, unattractive people (specially people with very awkward deformities like face muscle overgrowth), etc. People in that situation are judged for the music they make.

("But the mentally ill will need more time off." And women get pregnant. We have to give people the opportunity to prove themselves.)


Bonus "SJW" literature: https://www.disabled-world.com/disability/types/invisible/

> If your trusted referrers are white and male, their networks will be overwhelmingly white and male

I don't think this makes sense.

People will recommend from their previous jobs, which will on average have the same demographics as the industry in general. The only way to avoid that is to recruit people from outside the industry.

I'm white and male, but like anyone else in Silicon Valley, most of my ex coworkers are not.

The percentage that is straight, white, male and US born in my personal ex coworker network is probably around 20%.

Yup. I'm tired of hearing that a) everybody in software looks like me, and b) what we look like is somehow important. Both of these statements are false.

>The percentage that is straight, white, male and US born in my personal ex coworker network is probably around 20%.

If true, you have to realize you're an outlier. Statistically the industry is still predominately white and male even in silicon valley.

Well, I've been around a long time and worked at a lot of places. Still far from a scientific sample, of course.

Do you have any statistics to show? Honest question!

You're of course right that the industry is predominately male. 80/20 is about what I've seen.

As for white, maybe, but the proportion is definitely lower than the ~75% white proportion of the US population, which I suppose makes whites underrepresented, unless I've misunderstood that concept? And many of those whites are, like myself, immigrants.

Well for starters you're using statistics on the US as a whole and not, say, urban or California statistics which is where most of the tech is represented.

I think you may have just moved the argument goalposts :)

But, yeah, the question of which population the SV workforce "should" be measured against is hopelessly confused.

The local population is in large part imported by SV, so that definition feels circular. US CS graduates? To some extent SV recruits from the whole planet, so world wide CS graduates?

I could go on. One thing is clear: There is a ton of possible definitions to choose from to cherry pick support for any point you may want to make.

To me, the important measure is if a competent person can get a good job and career in the industry. I'm not sure how to measure that, but I'm convinced we to better than most!

People keep replying to this post saying, "nah, that doesn't jibe with my personal experience/intuition," but there is solid data supporting the claim that referral programs disproportionately benefit white men.

For example, PayScale published a report last year surveying 53,000 employees. Here's what they found.

> Referrals benefit white men more than any other demographic group. Our research shows that, holding all else constant, female and minority applicants are much less likely to receive referrals than their white male counterparts: white women are 12 percent less likely; men of color are 26 percent less likely and women of color are 35 percent less likely to receive a referral.


Do you think that it would make sense to have that waiver for candidates who are part of a minority group in the current population, and include some test —possibly lighter— for other candidates?

I’ve had very convincing interviews with great (senior) candidates where the setup was: Here is our problem, what would you do with it? And have an hour-long planning session with them. Same for junior candidates around: this is what I was working on this morning, I’m stuck here because of that error message; what would you do?

That can easily be perceived as minority candidates being given preferential treatment, which is also bad.

This was my first reaction as well.

Granted, the author doesn't seem to consider this aspect, simply whether the process is efficient in the short term.

Tangentially, I'm not sure why everyone is trying to "solve" technical interviewing. It's a painful process, but so is any kind of hiring. In the long run people seem pretty good at sorting themselves irrespective of the process.

> More importantly, it will reinforce your organization's demographics. If your trusted referrers are white and male, their networks will be overwhelmingly white and male and it's just putting up another block toward those not already in the system.

I'm not entirely convinced of this in the general case. I'm white and male, but probably a minority of the people I would recommend (in the sense of personally vouching for their technical ability) are also white and male.

It is a widely and repeatedly observed fact in social sciences that one's friend group is on average biased towards demographics similar to their own. This is true along a wide array of protected demographics relevant to hiring including age, race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. For some simple examples, a randomly selected gay person tends to have a significantly higher percentage of gay friends than a randomly selected straight person. Similarly, while 12% of the country is black, a randomly selected black person has way more than 12% black friends, whereas people of other ethnic groups on average have less than 12% black friends. It goes on and on.

People cluster by demographics. Good on you for being an exception, but the rule holds in general.

I'm not talking about friends, and the article isn't talking about friends, either. What's being discussed is people that a referrer has worked with and whose qualifications can be vouched for.

People tend to refer their friends. Even if you're not friends outside of work, you're more likely to refer people you were friendly with at work.

Sure. And most of that happens in the context of "refer anyone and we will vet them with our hiring process". If you change that to "only refer people whom you personally vouch for because we will trust your judgment to replace parts of the hiring process", there will (or can) be incentives to refer people who are really good, not just people you personally like and would like to help out. If you combine that with hiring people who've worked in diverse environments, that might counteract the natural referral biases.

That's a good point, the demographics of my coworkers are nothing like the demographics of my friends. Most people are probably more likely to refer people who are both friends and coworkers though.

But a monetary incentive based on performance might be able to change that.

Slightly unrelated, but I recently received a survey from my high school asking if I would recommend an African American high school graduate pursue college/university at an HBCU(Historically Black University or College) or a PWI(Predominately White Institution).

How would you answer this question?

(Not a loaded question by the way, I know tone is hard to convey on the internet but you seem informed on this subject and I’m genuinely curious as to your opinion, if you have one.)


I'm definitely not qualified to answer this question as I didn't go to an HBCU and I'm not black. Sorry.

On a related note, black enrollment at my alma mater is plummeting in recent years (in favor of HBCUs), so going to an HBCU is a decision increasingly being made by black college-goers. https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/education/higher-...

Isn't that trend a bit worrying? I'm not an American but it reminded me of (the little I know about) the segregationist policies before the Civil rights movement.

Yes, it's very worrying. Racists are increasingly being emboldened in the current political climate, and minorities are withdrawing further into their own groups for protection in response.

Yes, I was thinking it also on the other side? Why are minorities withdrawing (pretty much the opposite attitude they took in the 60's no?)?

Gotcha. Thanks for the information. I also went to UMD and was not aware of this trend.

Yeah, it's bad for everyone involved.

How do you know this?

I would say you are a relatively rare case though. Most people I've seen primarity socialize with people of the same race. Not strictly, obviously, but in general. Like in tech circles in the Bay Area, you have the white, indian, east asian groups and they, in general, tend to hang out with the same races. And by this I mean most of the friend groups I see are typically mostly of one race.

It doesn't really matter who I socialize with--it matters who I've worked with and whose skills I can vouch for.

There is a tendency that this will lead the demographics of a field to pretty much stay the same over time. If you work in a field that is 90% men, only 10% of the people you have worked with are women, which means in the long run only 10% of people you'd end up referring would be women. This is definitely true in my case--the number of women whose technical skills I can vouch for went up considerably once I started working with more women.

That said, the Bay Area is weird and I've never lived there.

Also, admittedly, specifying "white males" was a misstep on ebiester's part. Whatever narrative there is about diversity in tech breaks down unless you stipulate that South and East Asians don't count as underrepresented minorities.

I guess you're getting downvoted because this is anecdotal evidence? But honestly this is my (admittedly anecdotal) experience as well.

Or perhaps those doing the voting simply don't share that experience?

Race is so strongly correlated among friends (in the US, anyway) that it's unbelievable that people won't have observed this.[0] Average demographics:

* White Americans: 91% of social network are white; 8% black.

* Black Americans: 83% of social network are black; 1% white.

[0] https://www.prri.org/research/poll-race-religion-politics-am...

Some of that is normal population percentages - expected with random friends. Self-reported 'black' citizens are around 1-in-10 across the US.

And in Silicon Valley its different - the mix of international people of high education and achievement make it a skewed sample.

The vast majority of programming jobs in the US are not in Silicon Valley, though. It's a lot more homogenous outside the major cosmopolitan cities.

Not everyone visiting HN is from the USA.

You're right I should have alluded to that as well. But my point was maybe it wasn't worthy of a downvote is all.

I tend to look at a candidate's work history.

If they've worked at least 10 years, as a coder - it's VERY unlikely that they're a complete liar. Especially if you can call former co-workers, or look at code samples they have online on a personal github, or look at their post history on stackoverflow, or things like that.

Even a technical description of prior projects - is a really good indicator of whether they're competent.

Puzzle solving - on the other hand, bears little resemblance to actual job requirements in the real world. It's honestly a dumb way to vet candidates. Would I like to see if a candidate, out of a pack of 5 or so potentially equal candidates, has a better approach to creative problem solving? You bet. But I'm more interested in their inter-personal skills, communication skills, and their instincts towards the ethical challenges we face as engineers. (like: when things go south - and blame starts flying). Who do I want on my team? That's the most important question.

One time I sat down with a potential hire and went over a trivial PR. Nothing hard just some code to look at on GitHub to provide a familiar environment.

Why? To use it as a way to just look at our tech, get completely off track, and go down the tech rabbit hole. Good devs get really excited and talk about what they're using, what libraries they like, what they'd like to work with, etc.

Best hire I've ever made.

"Puzzle solving" is a nice way to dumb down the importance of good software engineering vs good coding skills. This is especially important at the big 4 or 5. They don't really, truly care what languages you know or what stack you know. They will give you the environment to use whatever you want.

What they need is someone who is good at solving problems, which ties into your comment about dealing with bad situations. This is something startups eventually adopt once they mature past needing a web developer to just throw together a website for them, and on to someone who is more flexible and loyal.

So please don't reduce the importance of good engineering down to "puzzles". They are a good indicator of someone who has all those qualities you describe.

And i wouldn't limit anyone to the big 5. If you believe Google's interview is pure memorisation and no problem solving, don't interview with them. My point is a good interview knows the importance of problem solving, whether solved correctly or not, is about how you solve the problem, and so they design their interviews thusly. That's my point which is contrary to the common sentiment here that "puzzle" interviews are a waste of time..

This is especially true when really wealthy companies will teach you the technologies you need to learn. You simply can't teach a good problem solving skillset, though.

Good engineering is important. But solving a problem on a whiteboard isn't "good engineering". The ability to solve whiteboard puzzles in a time boxed adversarial setting, is nothing at all like solving large complex engineering problems through "good engineering" practices.

I know plenty of capital E Engineers. None of them have whiteboard interviews. They are expected to solve problems, but none of them are expected to draw schematics for a bridge while someone watches over their shoulders.

No other non-performance based industry has this kind of weird hazing ritual. Whiteboard interviews are nothing more than the current fad--they definitely aren't necessary requirements to hire "good engineers".

^this. Somehow companies got confused into thinking that something between an algorithms test and an ICPC contest on a whiteboard was a sensible way to interview people. Google takes a similar approach with Code Jam (a recruiter contacted me because of it apparently.) At least they don't make you do Rubik's cubes anymore.

Do you think the school system also isn't a good way to vet people, then? Since exams are basically just "whiteboard interviews".

1. Unless you are in a performing arts program, exams aren't really anything like whiteboard interviews. They are much more limited in scope. You generally have more time. There's no one watching your every step. You don't have to talk while solving a problem. They tend to be written by people with at least some formal training in pedagogy. They don't tend to be written and administered by 24 year olds who are trying to prove how smart they are. Your job while in school is to study for exams, so you tend to have more time to do so.

2. This part is more important. School is about a lot more than exams. Projects were usually about 50% of the grade in CS classes.

If you made it through 4 years of the CS program I went through, you know how to program, or you paid someone to go for you for all 4 years.

So yeah I'd take a B average from my school as proof that you know how to program.

But I wouldn't make it a requirement.

I grew up poor, and out of (mechanical) engineering college new a grand total of zero engineers. I would still be unemployed to this day if this type of hiring were the norm (although it is not entirely uncommon). I can also say, that the engineers that we have had come through our organization based on referrals have not been the best quality. They tend to be engineers that are generally likeable, but not very good. Referrals are probably the way with the least friction to hire someone, so any time the way with the least friction is not being used as much, you have to wonder why.

> out of (mechanical) engineering college new a grand total of zero engineers

How did you manage to do an engineering degree and not get to know any other engineers?

I made friends in college by sharing a dorm and by hanging out on campus. Later I made friends through friends, but those were the essential starting points.

If you're poor, there's a good chance you're not staying in the (often very expensive) dorms, and that you don't have much time to hang out on campus because you have a job. I can imagine this kind of thing making it much harder to make friends.

Bingo. I made exactly zero connections while at university. Why? I had a kid young. We both worked to make things float. I did not go to school events, study groups, etc. Once, to finish a group project, we went to a kid's room in a dorm. Literally the only time I was ever in a dorm. My very limited social time was spent with existing friends.

It happens all the time. Most students make friends with students in their own year. This doesn’t help when looking for jobs.

I’d wager that most students don’t really network.

Not OP...but I had plenty of group assignments. The ones I liked, I maintained as friends. I'd imagine if someone graduated without knowing other engineers, the school didn't value group assignments, their teammates all stunk and weren't worth keeping, or they were the one no one else wanted to keep in touch with.

My university also had plenty of student organizations that were engineering related where you can find people of common interest, if you wanted to. ACM, Top Coder, Society of Women Engineer, Society of Automotive Engineers, Robotics (my school participated in DARPA challenges, FIRST robotics mentoring...) etc...If you wanted to be around similar peers, you could chose to. Or, you could chose not to and be the typical geek that goes to class, not talk to anyone, go back home and stare at your computer.

I was fortunate to also join non-engineering organizations, with whom the majority of my friends are today. I'm glad I didn't, because that expose me to a lot of different types of people, values, etc.

Anyways - I am not sure the value of networking with other college students from a professional stand point anyways. Having been in industry for 10 years, with each of my company having hired college grads...if a new college hire on my team says 'hey, this person is good'...I'd interview them, and still give the standard interview. If a colleague with many years of experience says 'this person is good', I would trust their professional judgement more and would maybe interview more on behavioral.

The simple answer for me is that at my university (and most others), dormitory assignments aren't done by major. So all of my good friends ended up having essentially random majors. None were in my CS program. This was probably for the best anyway, as CS was obnoxiously male-dominated and if most of my friends had come from my major it'd just end up being a bunch of dudes.

But you must have gone to lectures, labs, seminars, tutor sessions, project groups, etc with your peers? How did you not form any connections outside of where you lived?

You aren't really talking with fellow students during class. You have to go out of your way to meet them. And project groups were relatively rare in the classes I was taking. I went to all my classes, etc., but I just didn't end up making friends with fellow CS people. I don't know what to tell you, but this isn't exactly a rare occurrence. Cohabitating with people and spending leisure hours together is a much better way to make friends.

Anyway, to use an analogy, plenty of people don't make friends at work; they have entirely separate friend groups of people they know socially. This is widespread and there's nothing wrong with it. The same kind of logic applies there too.

I have nothing to add except that this was my experience too. Of the hundred or so people in my year of my course, i am still in touch with (1) the guy who also joined the science fiction society when i did, (2) the girl who ended up doing a PhD at the same institute as me after we graduated, and (3) the girl i dated after we got chatting after practical sessions.

I'm still in touch with a couple of dozen people from the science fiction society, though!

But the question wasn't about making friends even - it was just knowing acquaintances.

I guess my uni experience must have been different to other people's then if we can't relate to each other's experiences.

We were in four-person tutor groups in the first year, then each year we did a four-person project with a different set of people, I knew tens of people from working in the lab, and when you add up all these people's internships that's a lot of companies you know can ask for a direct contact to ask about hiring instead of sending your resume into the anonymous website process.

The only people I've kept in touch with since college are my friends. I'm 11 years out now and I don't even remember the vast majority of the names of the other people. Maybe a year out of college I could've still found a way to connect with some of those people, but it's long gone now. I don't remember the vast majority of them and I'm sure it's mutual.

I did have a four year long multidisciplinary research project that consisted of nine people. I saw them on at least a weekly basis for four years. I only kept in touch with one of them post-graduation (we became friends for a bit), but even that has since faded away.

I just don't see much value in having acquaintances that you aren't actually friends with. I hate it when people that I'm otherwise not in contact with reach out to me out of the blue because they need something from me, like a referral. I'm not willing to offer a good referral to anyone that I haven't worked closely with, or that I'm at least friendly enough to know their work ethic. And because I hate it when people do this to me, I also don't turn around and do it to them.

Why should a referral from some random acquaintance count so highly, anyway? I'd much sooner trust an interview loop than "Oh, I went to school with them a decade ago; beyond that I couldn't tell you much of anything about them."

Anyway, I didn't apply to my current job and I didn't reach out through friends; they recruited me.

>"Oh, I went to school with them a decade ago; beyond that I couldn't tell you much of anything about them."

Why would you be relying on referrals from people you went to school with 10 years ago instead of more recent coworkers? (Unless you haven't worked for 10 years.)

>I did have a four year long multidisciplinary research project that consisted of nine people. I saw them on at least a weekly basis for four years.

Sounds like any one of those 8 people would have been in a great position to vouch for you 11 years ago.

The context of this discussion was making connections in university. I have made way more connections through industry than I did at school, but that's a different situation entirely.

I realize that. My point still stands. Whether you made connections or not during college, you shouldn't be asking for or giving referrals to people you knew in school 10 years ago but don't know very much about.

Yeah, and I'm not.

But you're using that example as a straw man to attack the article's concept.

>Why should a referral from some random acquaintance count so highly, anyway? I'd much sooner trust an interview loop than "Oh, I went to school with them a decade ago; beyond that I couldn't tell you much of anything about them."

That's an intentionally weak example. You shouldn't trust that referral, and no one would argue that you should.

I don’t even want the ability to refer someone into my company. That’s very risky and puts pressure on me to be right, when I might be wrong. I have referred friends who’ve been rejected, and I’m glad because that’s better than hiring my friend and having them not fit in. Then it’s my fault.

I’ve interviewed and referred many people and made a lot of hiring decisions, I would rather have everyone agree, I don’t think the ability for a single person to refer someone past the interview process is a good idea at all.

None of the risks listed even compare to the risk of hiring someone who isn’t actually very good or doesn’t get along with the team.... and despite thorough interviews that still happens all the time. If the candidate is worth referring, then the interviews will not likely be a problem. Things do go wrong occasionally, but not very often.

Edit: I also meant to add that I think referrals are already weighed very heavily in interviews in my experience. Sometimes even too much. Interviews are already easier for candidates when someone who’s respected makes the referral, so to some degree the proposal here already reflects reality.

I don’t refer friends, I refer former coworkers that I would like to work with again.

Problem is I don’t have the same diversity in my referral pool as I’d like to see at work. Last couple of places have been pretty homogenous and I’m less keen on referring people I last worked with ten years ago.

Of course. My coworkers are also my friends. By “friend” I mean people I know that I’ve worked with before and that I like and would vouch for because they’re good, as opposed to people I’ve worked with that I don’t like, or social acquaintances.

I’m with you on diversity too, these days I prefer interviewing people I don’t know and people with very different backgrounds than mine.

The solution to the fear of being at fault is to ask the person making the referral a question like:

    [ ] I have first-hand experience of the candidate's technical skills
    [ ] I have first-hand experience of the candidate's character
    [ ] Neither apply
I've worked at several places with versions of this; they want referrals in the pipeline to avoid having to pay recruiters, there's no skipping interviews.

Recruiters are expensive, but good ones are worth it. I like having a mix of recruits and referrals.

I could have answered that in the affirmative, but I suspect it wouldn’t help, for several reasons:

If I get someone hired who doesn’t work out, it would still be my fault, and everyone would know it, even if I did double-vouch for them, or disclaim it, either way.

When someone doesn’t fit in, in my experience, it’s usually due to people’s agendas and desires, and not usually because their technical skills or character is questionable.

One friend I referred recently had moved and just needed a job. He was interested in checking out the place I worked. At the time I had switched from embedded development to web, and he was considering a similar move. He bombed the interviews even though I know he’s both technically competent and of high character. He wasn’t as interested in web as he made it sound, he just didn’t want to hurt his chances. I was worried he’d be upset with me, but he called me after he got rejected and apologized, then told me he was glad it didn’t work out because it didn’t seem like his cup of tea. I’m glad I had the safety net of the interviews, because it would have been bad if he’d been hired. I would totally still refer the same guy again, because I know he’s a good hire.

I use interviews to evaluate a whole lot more than just hire/no-hire.

I'm looking to understand what role someone is going to play in the organization, and to help understand which team a person we're likely going to hire will be a best match for.

We organize our interview loops around this, and a critical part of the conversation in the debrief is role and team matching - not just a hire/no-hire decision. Plus, we use this time to provide feedback to whoever the hiring manager is about the candidate and potential future team member, which streamlines more than just headcount.

Finally, the interview loop is an opportunity to manage cronyism. While we've got a lot of people I trust to refer exclusively strong candidates, I don't trust a single one to make fiat decisions. There's a human element to giving someone that level of decision making authority, and without sharing gory details - I've benefitted from having committee decisions in this situation.

Managing the feelings of referrer's getting their candidates rejected in a hard problem. I've dealt with that in the past a number of ways but don't have a working theory, other than "it's a job, people make mistakes, and hiring is fit and timing as much as it is about technical prowess".

This is a no go in large companies, because the large company wants to avoid 'cliques of incompetence' and personal fiefdoms developing, not to mention all of the other problems people have mentioned.

In large organizations, there are too many people for execs to know everyone, so a standardized but rigorous process is better from their perspective.

I say tech's process is better than many other industries processes, which is outsourcing evaluation based on credential prestige.

Do it in the same way that ancient empires from the Romans to the Mongols did it- break preexisting relationships with distance. Referrals are posted to "frontier" teams separated sufficiently far away from referrers. Scatter them across the org.

Then they have lunch together and talk about work? They would have to work in unrelated things, which is hard to do when everyone is the same kind of profession.

Hard for them to become someone's fiefdom when they're all on separate teams. We're talking about FAANG-sized companies here.

This is a bad idea and the person proposing it should feel bad. -- Every underrepresented group in tech ever, as well as introverts and junior folks or those switching from other specialities

(Seriously, I get that we have problems with pipelines and tech. interviews can be pretty terrible, but this is worse. Respected people are already in a pretty set demographic that's harder to break into, and anyone they've worked with is going to be similar. )

I totally agree with you, except the part where the person proposing it should feel bad.

Many people don't realize the unfair advantages their demographic gets, and shaming them for not seeing it is not a good way to get them to see the flaw in their world view. Let's educate instead of shame.

Yeah, I wouldn't hold to that feeling bad part. It's a Futurama meme that gets lost in the context of no GIFs. I forget that HN is like the internet of my youth. :)

I 100% agree with the idea of using privilege to promote the unprivileged and educate those in our own demographics.

> The risk that they will be humiliated at some point during the interviews.

As a candidate, this has happened far more often than I care to admit. I don't take it personally: having worked at many corporations, I know that its usually not any kind of personal animosity or judgement, its just work politics. But the fact remains that it does happen.

It happens to me very often but I blame it on circumstances. I typically interview at companies that have started a data science team with one guy fresh out of a Master’s or a PhD, who think that his dissertation topic if the end-all of data science, so they will quiz you insistently on scaling issues of a rare alternative to random forest. “I’m sure that with 20 minutes look at the literature, I could answer your question.” doesn’t cut it. Neither does “I’m happy to talk about the implementation details of my PhD on clustering large scale social graph rapidly.” or “I’m interviewing for a leadership position; I’d love to talk to you about my managerial habits.” It tends to feel like a relief.

How do you feel about questions about principles? They may look like “Are you familiar with regularization in machine learning and why it’s used?”

Oh, by far that’s the more reasonable interview.

That’s actually how I test an audience when I speak in public (I might be a bit more specific, like “should you regularise your data before a PCA?”): I ask the question, those who have an opinion, I brand them as “in the know” and I introduce a gesture towards them; and the others, I say that my talk isn’t technical, but I re-use both gestures when making that distinction again.

A friend of mine had a brilliant equivalent when talking about data engineering, saying “And we never had any problem after that.” https://youtu.be/ZaAbOKNWGA8?t=210 A group at the back burst out laughing and you can see him re-use them later.

It happens and it happens a lot more than it used to.

And at some point it becomes a significant deterrent to the prospect of starting a new job search.

It’s happened to me. I’m terrible at the whiteboard in these situations. I have a severe disdain for whiteboard sessions. I’m an experienced engineer, but I’m likely to fumble at the whiteboard.

When I’ve interviewed candidates I make it a point to talk about something they’ve worked on and drill down into it. If they need the whiteboard to convey something, that’s great. We’re having a conversation and I’m not giving them a test. I’ll ask about potential optimizations and/or improvements, but I try my best not to make things adversarial. This has worked out really well. The best conversations have resulted in great hires in my experience.

I think this is a good point. As someone who also fumbles a bit if you put me at a whiteboard and start asking esoteric algorithm questions.

So when I am hiring someone for my team, I ask them about projects they are familiar with, and drill down into those. Puts them at ease and you pretty quickly get to know if they are talking out of their ass or not. Then after we get through that, if things are going well, I'll bring up the kinds of problems we're working on and see if it piques their interest.

+1, I've been hired like this many times and hired people to my team in exactly the same way - discuss the projects on resume in detail.

The algorithm quizzes that are so popular these days are just dumb.

Strong agreement. There's really no need to make the process anywhere near as adversarial as it usually is (by default) these days. Equivalent (or actually much better, in my subjective view) insights can be gotten by purely collaborative, explorative routes of interaction.

All it takes is a little bit of creativity and empathy.

Not a great way to increase diversity, and totally incompatible with referral bonuses.

A hidden cost here would also be exposing perceived statuses (eg an engineer who isn't as well respected would have their recommendations denied).

>totally incompatible with referral bonuses.

I think it's fair to waive referral bonuses if someone is referred through the "trusted referral" process. If someone is dying for a bonus, they can still steer the candidate towards the company and let them go through the technical loop normally.

Trusted referrals have always been a valid approach to getting candidates in the pipeline, as long as it doesn't privilege those candidates over others who came in through other channels.

However, I don't agree with waiving the technical interview.

Sometimes referrers, though well-meaning, have either an outdated or incomplete idea of the candidate. Assessing a candidate's quality is quite a complicated thing, and not everyone does it well though everyone thinks they do. I say this because I've made erroneous referrals myself.

It's a bias-variance tradeoff. If you trust 1-2 key people, and if they are right about a person, good, but if they are wrong they can be very wrong. Whereas if you collect more data points from independent sources, you mitigate the probability of huge errors in hiring, which can be expensive to fix.

Of course there are exceptions. In a world where if Larry Page wanted to bring Jeff Dean on-board a fledgling Google because he's seen his work elsewhere and decides to waive the technical interview, then it's a different story. But I'm not sure if these exceptions abound...

I suspect this might work better than expected. The fear is that employees will exercise some form of nepotism that would “lower the bar”. That might not happen in practice though. Would love to see an experiment.

Aren't there groups who have exercised some form of nepotism to "raise the bar?" Haven't some early stage startups been able to do this?

So in summary: If your company has a seemingly broken hiring process that weeds out good people, bypass that process for people your people judge as good, and keep it for everyone else.

I suggest that it is better to fix the hiring process in the firsr place and just run everyone through it.

One big issue in hiring is that error exponentially multiply as organization grows. One bad hire would hire two more bad hires and so on. Many would say this is the single most important reason why great companies starts to falter as they grow old - the ratio is no longer the same.

So in this proposed "solution", a misplaced trust will soon cause chain reaction. Many companies place such trust in hiring manager giving them veto power to go ahead even if all interviewers were in disagreement. I have rarely seen this work out well. All good hiring process have checks and balances - implicit infinite trust is never good idea in any system design.

I didn't see any rule that said that anyone the "trusted circle recommends" ends up being in such trust circle, so I don't see how they could be in a position to exponentially multiply.

It doesn't matter. You are putting someone in trusted circle using some heuristics. Most trust relationships eventually forms delegation chain (A trusts B, B trusts C, ...). All such chain degrades exponentially by some factor, however small it may be. This is why organizations with deep management hierarchies are so dysfunctional and inefficient.

Referrals are not trusted automatically, they still need to prove themselves before they can refer other people

A technical interview done well is a good thing. You get to ask the candidate questions and they get to ask you questions. As the candidate, the technical interview is where I can really size up the company. How are coding standards decided? How does the development process work?

This is all interesting stuff to talk about for a candidate.

The closest thing to whiteboard coding I can think of as useful to the employer is data structure and algorithm knowledge at a toolbox level. What data structure would you use to implement a spell checker? A search for restaurants within X km?

Technical interviews are awful. They are grueling and they are prone to major false signals in both directions. However, I'm not sure this is the way to go either.

Personally, I'd love for a "common form" application where you could do a timed take home coding exercise, in absence of that, why not just talk through code with an interviewee. You don't need to watch them code, if you are a good judge of technical skill, you should be able to tell just by the way that a candidate talks you through tradeoffs, refactorings, etc whether than can code or not in a way that nothing else shows.

So you really need someone to write tests for their moon rover they just made you to see that they can actually write unit specs, or would you rather talk through testing tradeoffs, when they use mocks or not, what issues they've encountered with long running test suites or flickering tests, how they test the frontend, what their thoughts are on strict versus loose TDD, etc.

Get your candidate excited and let them ramble and you'll learn far more than any contrived coding exercise, even if it isn't a whiteboard interview.

I wouldn't want to be hired by a company that did this. I want to work with good people. A rigorous hiring process, uniformly applied, will tend to select good people, so it's an attractive feature of a company for me.

Although i have been lucky enough to work with some good people so far, i wouldn't trust any of them to fill a company with equally good people merely by recommendation.

I worked with an intern for 6 months. He was great. Did everything I asked of him and has code still running in production.

He went back to school and then applied for a full time position, so I referred him with a glowing recommendation.

He was rejected because he was quiet and not a good cultural fit.

And that's why I avoid giving recommendations for friends. It's not worth the risk of rejection.

Rather than doing this on the individual company level, which leads to all kinds of problems that many other comments here have noted, it would make sense to do this on an industry-wide level. We should have something like a "Master Engineer" credential that should require another master to vouch for you and some rigorous testing. If implemented correctly then it would become obvious that asking FizzBuzz type questions to master engineers is a waste of everyone's time. If we want to be treated like professionals, we should have professional standards. After all, when doctors go for job interviews nobody asks "what is a cell?"or to diagram the Krebs cycle on a whiteboard.

Of course it's kind of hideous but it's basically what ends up happening a lot of the time, anyway.

Most of the time, it isn't what you know, but who you know. It's unfortunate.

Almost none if the time, it's who you know who also has a special insight into what really makes for a good colleague in a really difficult endeavor in an area people haven't tread before.

My preferred interviews were those with programming tests to do at home with some days before the deadline, allowed me to work like a remote dev would. On-site interviews then included a code review of the test. No white board coding, no timed programming exercise without internet, no asking things as if I could memorize all the docs of all the tools I work with.

I also liked well designed tests because the more I feel actual work skills are checked, the more confident I am that I would have well qualified colleagues to work with and learn from.

With your scenario, I fear in most places it would end up like "we hire all our friends, it's fun". Not even sure it would be legal to discriminate about people you just don't know, however qualified they may be...

This seems like a situation where they came up with the wrong solution to the problem.

The great engineering leader refers people who don't make it through the technical interview. So the supposition is that "The company is missing out on great developers due to filtering in the technical interview, lets get rid of it"

When it should be "Fix the process so it doesn't filter out people while still testing for technical competence"

We just don't do whiteboards, we usually do a take home assignment/test where the candidate can make use of the tooling/environment in which they are comfortable. We feel this is also most similar to how they are going to work any ways so it is a true test of their work output.

This already happens in SF. If you think a CEO or CTO of a startup is letting some technical interview failure stop him from hiring people he already knows work well, you’re off your rocker.

I know one of my best bosses and mentors was hired off a terrible interview and a strong referral. Well, that’s what I expect to happen.

The problem with this approach is that it requires every employee to be referred in. Unfortunately, most people don't know that many people who are looking for jobs, especially people significantly older or younger than them or from different regions.

Such referrals are extremely useful datapoints to refine your technical interview and reduce the false negative rate of the interview process. If your interview process is rejecting a lot of quality people, that should be a sign you need to reform it.

Yeah, absolutely not. If anything, the opposite would be better: No referrals, no friends and family, no cliques.

So the solution is... nepotism?

(Not technically neptosim. But close enough).

The difference is that if you're a trusted referrer and you start referring people who suck, you could easily lose that status.

I think it would be a better idea if such employees were "probationary" and if the referrer would be penalized for making mistakes.

This is basically already the case. If you aren't experiencing it, you're a Ringo. Edit: or you work with a ton of Ringos.

This idea already happens in the industry every day. The last two corporate gigs I received didn't require a technical interview at all and I absolutely refuse to apply to any company that makes me white board or submit anything coding related before they are paying me. I don't mind answering their questions though.

As one of the previous commenters stated already, there is already plenty of evidence as to whether or not somebody can code. If John Skeet applies to my company, I'm an idiot if I ask him any programming questions.

If there isn't sufficient evidence online to showcase their skills, than make them do the stupid coding examples.

In my case, I won't ever work for any company with whiteboard coding exercises. It's the first thing I ask the recruiter and than I politely decline the offer to interview and tell them exactly why. If more people do this, it will catch on.

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