I was thinking about this today, and reminiscing on my many interviews over the past 4 months. While I have recently landed a new job, and am VERY excited for it, I figured I would share an interesting observation during my time looking for a job in COVID.

fuckcovUnfortunately as some know, I was laid off due to COVID. I very much loved the company I worked for, and I understand it was far from an easy decision to lay people off. I harbor no resentment towards them, and I honestly wish them the best and hope they pull through COVID. I have many friends who still work there, and admittedly I think anyone is going to feel a bit hurt at first, but you realize it's a decision to keep the business afloat. I hope everyone there succeeds and it becomes a thriving business again.

One of my very first interviews I landed during COVID was so incredibly exciting. They had a very interesting interview process I will never forget, and a team that still to this day sticks in my mind. Their manager who was going to extend an offer, but the same day the CTO put a hiring freeze on due to COVID, had some interesting things to say. I remember asking him if he had any concerns with my ability to do the job as I'm a transparent person, and anything he wanted me to concentrate on. He said, "let me answer your question with a question. How long did it take you to pick up a technology you didn't know at your last job?"

I wasn't entirely sure what he was getting at but I gave him an example and said, "Well, this technology here took me about this long, it wasn't too bad." and he replied with, "Ok great, I could have probably taught you that, but you learned it just fine. But that's a skill. I can teach anyone a skill, but what I can't teach is talent. We hire talent, not skills."

It resonated with me and he went on to explain that in the age of tech and in this industry, one of the hardest things to find can be someone who is willing to adapt, learn new things, take the initiative, and latch onto opportunities to keep yourself relevant. Their tech exercise, in my opinion, was brilliant. They had an active lab, took a day with the team and put you in a slack channel, and then gave you an assignment. The objective? Write a function that does what they wanted, something you'd likely be doing at your job. Now, sure, one could simply read this and go, "Ah, I'll just go build that." I remembered my days though of trying to hit the ground running without clarification. So I asked questions, "What language? Is there an existing pattern I should follow? What about these considerations?"

We got to talking and the team was working together, we communicated well and within the time frame I had created the end result of what they were after. They were kind enough to offer feedback but really loved the stuff I had put together. I went the extra mile even to send them architecture diagrams so they could see not only my thought process on how I approached it, but how it worked. I was admittedly pretty bummed they had to put a freeze on it. It's ok though, I learned a lot, and his words stuck with me. "Talent, not skills." The exercise was so much fun, and so engaging, I was AMPED to take part in it. I found out later that's what they were looking for, to see if someone communicated, to see if they could figure out a problem, to see how they approached it and worked with others and could work under the pressure. I gotta say, what a fantastic way to approach it.

This brings me into an observation with so many interviews these days which don't seem to necessarily touch base on that. I see it particularly with VERY big companies. I would get into an interview and then would be sent assessments on things ranging from basic mathematics, to trig, and complex math problems, it honestly felt like I was taking a college class and I thought, "How is this testing my ability to do hands on work? I won't be doing any of these things. Trig? Really? Am I supposed to find the equal length of all edges of a terraform plan? The square root of a build server? I'm confused." I could see how maybe there could be some data science stuff behind these if I was doing data analytics as a data engineer, but that wasn't the position I was aiming at.

fucktpsI had one company that sent me so many assessments (no joke, 15 different assessments), and then said after they scored all the candidates they'd get back to us. I just thought, "This isn't even worth it." It was like someone dropped an overwhelming stack of papers on my desk and was like, "Ok do this on the weekend, see you on monday." I thought immediately, "Yeah, if this is the hiring process, no way I want to work here."

Another interview I remember pretty vividly was a set of questions around knowledge of languages. "What do you call this in Python? What do you call that in linux? What does this command do?" While some of those questions touched things that were useful, not all of them were. As we got into the tech screen, it became a flurry of weird lab exercises. "Ok here's some Python. What's the name of each of these acronyms and what are these for." I looked at the code, and of course I was put on the spot so I was thinking, "Well that's a tuple, that's a loop, that's an if statement..." and then we went on, "Ok how do you rate your linux knowledge?" I had to follow up with, "Well, what distro?" and got, "oh doesn't matter. give me a 1 to 10." Well, of course it matters. If you're 100% on Ubuntu I'm going to approach it differently, my comfort level is in Redhat Distros. CentOS for instance.  

I had to take a step back and ask myself, not only, "Are these all relevant directly to my working situation?" but also, "If these are the only things they use to screen stuff, are they just hiring people with skills? And if this is the case, will I be approaching an environment with people who are going to be put into a silo'd corner of expertise? What will this mean for me? How are people viewed in their sets of knowledge on things? This doesn't seem entirely relevant."

In the growing world of IT it can be very hard to to sift through lots of people, but I think when push comes to shove and if you want to very seriously consider if that person will be a good fit, then what other fantastic way to do it than approach your technical screen than including them in the team and seeing how that person will work with them. You can actually see if you're hiring talent vs skills.

There's some caveats to this though. If you are a very busy team, it can be time consuming to include an entire team on an interview process like this. It can take time away from projects, so if you're aggressively hiring a lot of people, that's downtime for the team, and I get that, it's tough. It can also require a lot of sorting schedules with your team which means people already have to manage their time well, and on large teams this can also be a challenge with so many things going on.

I think tech screening questions can touch many of these things, and it may be better to approach your technical screens in a way that both probes that knowledge base, how they think, how they communicate and approach situations, than be concerned with acronyms, terminology and stuff you pull out of a glossary. Many of us are self taught, and we're happy to dive in and learn and pick things up, but we probably didn't spend time in class learning those acronyms and terminology. You may end up coming across a unicorn that's self taught who's been coding for 10 years, and you may accidentally "weed them out" with questions about that stuff, instead of testing them on their proper fit.

Again, just observations during my COVID time that I felt may be an interesting share. It's certainly a pattern I see across the board in a lot of companies, and I think some companies could be missing out on some incredible candidates over their tech screens.

(TPS Image used under Creative Commons Share-alike Attribution 3.0.)