Why Tech Interview Are Broken, An Hypothesis

There is no shortage of complains abut modern tech interviews. There is no shortage of people trying to blame it on an alleged inherent bias of whatever form suits them. But I wonder if there isa more rational basis for it.

As someone who has been on both sides of the interview, it sucks for both. I can not get a solid enough, I feel, understanding of whether someone is a good fit for the role in an hour. Nor can I get, I feel, a solid enough understanding of what I may be walking into. But, I’ve also been on both sides of this table in the service industry.

I’m not the first to note the difference between interviewing someone for a job as “burger flipper” versus “person to write code to run a company on”. But what I want to consider is the difference in the cost between those two.

Say you run a burger joint and hire someone who seemed decent but turns out to be a slacker. What does it take to replace them? Not a whole lot, really. There is quite the pool of candidates, in most places anyway. The cost to replace someone making minimum wage is pretty low. The cost of hiring someone who isn’t good at mopping the floor or serving customers is pretty low — extremes notwithstanding.

But the cost of hiring someone to manage the infrastructure, that is a horse of a different technicolor. The cost of getting someone who is a terrible fit is high, as is the cost to replace them. Now we, the interviews, are not pressured on this — we don’t need to be. We know very personally what happens when the person we expect to handle that three in the morning alert can’t do it. We don’t necessarily think about that in the interview, but we know it is there.

I suspect this puts extra importance on the selection of the right person. This concept is neither new nor limited to hiring. When I need to see someone about a cold, I invest a lot less time and effort finding the right doctor than when, say, I am getting my eyes lasered.

But the other side of the coin is also important: what happens when you discover you got someone who can’t do the job? The harder it is let the employee go, the mor elikely you are to be “stuck” with them. This, also, places more pressure on the selection process. For this analogy, think of dating.

Let us say you get one date with someone before deciding to accept them as a significant other/roommate, and that sad date lasts only an hour, maybe two. If you accept them, you can’t date anyone else and have to live with this person for at least a year. How likely are you to be more scrutinizing? How likely are you to ask questions in that first date only Ted from How I Met Your Mother would ask in a first date? I’d say much more likely.

Yes, the analogy is a tad strained, but that is the life of an analogy. The point is the harder it is to separate, combined with the higher cost of a bad choice, is very likely to increase the pressure of the interview/date process and make it less useful to treat the same way.

No, I don’t have a magic solution here. There is a reason, a good one, for putting more emphasis on the selection process. But recognizing that is, in my view, just as important. Think of all the things you have to do when you hire someone, all the benefits you have to provide, and all the paperwork that goes with it. If you can come up with a way to decrease that cost and thus that pressure, you’ll find a way to get to better tech interviews. At least, that is how I am thinking about it tonight.

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