Test Driven Hiring: How to find and hire the people you want

I’ll be honest, I briefly considered going full click bait and starting this article with “Is your coding challenge so poorly written that it is turning away the people you want to hire?” Or, “Is your whiteboard test setting people up to fail, and then adding insult to injury by labeling them ‘too junior’ or ‘not technical enough’?” But, there is more than enough written about how “tech hiring is broken” — Instead, here are some guiding questions to get you thinking about how to make hiring better.

So, let’s get right to it! You’ve got to hire someone, and it’s up to you to figure out how to find the right person. There are best practices for writing unit tests, and there are best practices for writing people tests.

1. Establish your own goals first: What is the big picture of the role you’re hiring for? How does this new role fit into your new organization? What are your needs?

2. What competencies are you searching for? Fill in the blanks about the understandings and skills the role requires and be as specific as you can:

  • “The applicant should be able to….”
  • “The applicant will understand the concepts of…”
  • “The applicant should be able to create a …”
  • “The applicant should be able to think through a …”
  • etc…

3. Come up with the task:
Connect an activity to the competencies you want demonstrated. What authentic performance tasks will enable applicants to demonstrate the desired understandings and abilities?

For example, want to see how an applicant thinks through an approach to architecting something? Go for a whiteboard, prepare some guiding questions, and talk it through. If you want to see how they would go about refactoring something messy into clean code, a sample project with clear instructions is an appropriate choice. Whatever you do, make sure you do not start planning their activity before you can name the skills you are measuring for.

4. Evaluate accurately by creating a rubric 
You know that list of your expectations you wrote at the very beginning? Turn those into a chart — otherwise known as a grading rubric. List out each criteria you are measuring for on the left, and depending on how they perform on their test, record your observations for each criteria under the headings of: Needs improvement, Minor improvement, Acceptable, or Target. Quantify and document!

You’ll save time and add structure to your process. Plus, this is a great way to get your team on the same page when evaluating candidates and create a format for providing your applicant with helpful feedback.

5. Communicating the challenge to your applicant:
Speaking of feedback, the hiring process should be one of clear and open communication throughout the entire process.

Make sure your applicant is aware of the things you’ve already outlined, plus:

  • What competencies and understandings you are looking for (not just the tasks that need to be completed)
  • The assessment they will be completing to demonstrate these competencies
  • How much time they have to complete the assessment
  • How you will be reviewing and evaluating the assessment
  • Who to follow up with if they have any questions
  • What opportunity (if any) you will provide for feedback

Why this is important — unintended consequences and red flags:
Your test says a whole lot about you to your applicant. Consider the following:

  • Does your test create unnecessary stress and feature a lot of trick questions that might make someone feel foolish in front of everyone?
  • Does your test focus on memorization and syntax versus flexibility and the ability to think through a problem?
  • Does your test force the applicant to simply execute a series of steps and exclude all opportunities to express an opinion?
  • Does your test expect the applicant to do an unreasonably large amount of work in a way that makes them feel like you don’t value their time?
  • Does your test use ‘cookie cutter’ questions that are unrelated to the work your company does and whose answers are compromised because they are easily found online?
  • Does your test turn away people with time constraints, diverse backgrounds, or alternate career paths because it asks for competencies or prior knowledge unrelated to being successful at the position you are hiring for?

And so on.

Pay the same care and attention to your hiring tests as you do to your unit tests, and you’ll be amazed by how much better the experience can be for everyone involved.

That’s it for now. Next time, I’ll want to write about the different ways we measure talent and intelligence, and how we can use that information to write better tests to assess so much more than an applicant’s coding knowledge. Did you know there are ways to creativity and aptitude? Yup, and I think it’s a whole lot more useful than seeing if you’d be a good ping pong partner or ‘culture fit’ — whatever that even means.

I have actually been talking about the same thing for years — how to grow talent, and how to encourage people. Thanks for listening!

Note —This is just one of the many models for structuring an approach to creating an assessment, and is by no means THE approach. My entire goal is to help people and to share the skills I learned both in my own classroom and in graduate school. I loved teaching, and I don’t think I can ever stop :)

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