I’ve realized something about my situation. I work for myself, building businesses and still, occasionally, consulting at times. But of course that’s not news to me. Nor is the fact that I’ve moved out to a quiet, remote place where I wear T-shirts exclusively, fish a lot, work when I feel like it from a room in my house, and often cook dinners over a fire in my backyard. The realization came from marinating in that lifesyle for a while, and then noticing that I have absolutely no reason to pull any punches with my opinions. No affiliations, no politics, no optics to manage. So why not have some fun expressing those opinions, provocative or not, as DaedTech posts?
Today, I’d like to take on the subject of tech interviews. Of course, talking about the deeply flawed hiring process isn’t new for this blog. But I’m going to take it a step further by suggesting how we, as individuals, can try to fight back against Big Tech Interview.
The seed for this came from an idle internet clicking sequence that brought me to a blog. The company to whom the blog belongs, Byte by Byte, offers the motto, “your one stop shop for acing your coding interview.” Below that, it says, “master the coding interview game” (emphasis mine). It struck me then. Yes, of course. It really, truly is a game, and a stupid one at that. But let me come back to the cottage industry of Princeton Review for tech companies later.
The History of the Job Interview
For this history, I’ll offer an excerpt from my book, Developer Hegemony, describing the history of the job interview in general.
In 1921, tired of hiring college graduates that didn’t know as much as he did, Thomas Edison made up a giant trivia questionnaire to administer to inbound applicants. According to Mental Floss, questions included “Who invented logarithms?” and “Why is cast iron called Pig Iron?” If you look at the sorts of questions that modern day tech companies seem to think they’re cute for asking, courtesy of cio.com, they include such profundities as “Why is the Earth round?” and “How much do you charge to wash every window in Seattle?” If you mixed Edison’s and tech companies’ questions together, you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference.
To summarize, almost 100 years ago, an aging, eccentric, and incredibly brilliant inventor decided one day that he didn’t like hiring kids that weren’t his equals in knowledge. He devised a scheme off the cuff to indulge his preference and we’re still doing that exact thing about a century later. But was it at least effective in Edison’s day? Evidently not. According to the Albert Einstein archives, Albert Einstein would not have made the cut. So the biggest, trendiest, most forward thinking tech companies are using a scheme that was dreamed up on a whim and was dead on arrival in terms of effectiveness.
But surely it’s evolved somehow. Right? Well, no, at least not in any meaningful way. In this piece from Business Insider about the “evolution” of the job interview, we can see that what’s actually changed is the media for asking dumb trivia questions. In Edison’s day, interviewers had to get cute face to face. Now they can do it over the phone, through a computer screen or even via a mobile app. Who knows what the future will hold for the job interview; they may be able to beam the stupid directly into your cerebral cortex!
Google Looks Critically at Tech Interviews
In the book, I cover a lot more ground than I can or will here. I lay out a case for how uniquely pernicious this interview process is for tech. It artificially depresses software developers’ wages and manufactures job scarcity in a market where demand for our labor is absolutely incredible. But let’s seize on a different point for this particular post.
I have specific styles of modern tech interviews in my sights as worse than others. Specifically, the whiteboard interview, the trivia/brain-teaser interview, and the “Knuth Fanatic,” algorithm-obsessed interview. These serve mainly to make the interviewer feel smart, rather than to reveal anything about candidates. But don’t take it from me. Laszlo Bock, former head of Google HR, said this:
On the hiring side, we found that brainteasers are a complete waste of time. How many golf balls can you fit into an airplane? How many gas stations in Manhattan? A complete waste of time. They don’t predict anything. They serve primarily to make the interviewer feel smart.
And also this:
Years ago, we did a study to determine whether anyone at Google is particularly good at hiring. We looked at tens of thousands of interviews, and everyone who had done the interviews and what they scored the candidate, and how that person ultimately performed in their job. We found zero relationship. It’s a complete random mess.