Maryna Cherniavska in Berlin: Why the software giants’ interview process is anything but inclusive

Photo credit: ciphr via Flickr

(Editor’s note: This post about the tech interview process is part of our Tech Tuesday series.)

It’s autumn, the season of recruiters. Or so it would seem. They’e been on summer holiday, but now they’re back in full force and making rounds.

© Photo from the author’s archive.

I was recently contacted by a Google recruiter, and it wasn’t just me. At approximately the same time, my sister, also a software engineer, was also contacted by a software recruiter from Google. And same as me, they suggested she speak with a team member before interviewing – to understand the culture, ask questions and get a general feel of what it’s like to work for such a company.

They also sent something called “interview prep advice,” tips on preparing for the interview. This advice included a blog post written by a software engineer who prepared for the interview in four weeks and successfully passed.

My sister and I were always in awe of the FAANG and the Big Tech companies in general. As long as I can remember, we wanted to work for Google, Amazon or Facebook. I tried to get into Amazon three times. Amazon conducted hiring events in Ukraine before the Russian-Ukrainian war started and put an end to such opportunities. I failed three times. I also failed once with Google, not even making it through the phone screen stage. It was such an epic fail that I haven’t tried since, even though Google recruiters pinged me a few times after that.

But the article above gives you the steps to succeed, right?

Let’s see what these steps are:

  • The preparation took six to 12 (!) hours every day for four weeks with no days off.
  • It included reading four books on algorithms and data structures and two books about technical interviews.
  • It also included solving programming problems every minute the author wasn’t reading or making notes.
  • All the problem solving was done on paper or the whiteboard.
Photo by Kaleidico on Unsplash

The last item on the list is important enough to highlight. Google insists on writing code in a Google Docs document. At least that was the requirement in the past, and it seems that apart from a few exceptions, it is still the requirement. And, of course, coding in a Google Docs isn’t something one does every day because it’s inconvenient as hell, despite all the advice you can find online. In fact, the only reason one might do this is for interview preparation. One reason for this requirement might be that modern IDEs give a developer a lot of help. And perhaps the hiring company might think it’s too much, that a developer might get too comfortable.

And we can’t have that, right? A candidate shouldn’t be comfortable. We want to see how they perform under duress. We want them to be scared and miserable.

This doesn’t make sense, of course. It’s just a feeble attempt at irony. Usually, a company wants to see how you perform under normal conditions. It means you’re performing in approximately the same conditions you have every day. Otherwise, how can anyone know what you are like day by day? This is why the Google Docs requirement doesn’t really make sense to me. The only possible reason for it is “because we can.”

We are the great Google. When we say jump, you ask how high.

It sounds bitter, but in fact, it’s just confusing the hell out of me. So, let’s just move on.

The document I used to exercise this “skill” at the time I tried to get in. © Photo from the author’s archive.

Imagine you have a full-time job, a family and children. And someone tells you, “OK, you will have your dream job and it’ll pay you good money but in return, you’ll have to cram for the interviews for one to two months for a minimum of six hours each day, forsaking your partner and your kids and put all your responsibilities on hold.” Because obviously, your work isn’t going anywhere. You do that, and if the stars align, you get in. And if you’re lucky and don’t burn out and keep up the good work, you’re going to be well provided for – as long as you keep performing.

Some people will still jump at the chance, of course. But many will not.

“I’m too old for this,” my sister said.

But the thing is, she really isn’t.

However, she’s also not a fresh graduate with starry eyes, full of enthusiasm and happily free from any family obligations.

And those are exactly whom the interview process favors.

It makes sense, of course. Who doesn’t want young, fresh, enthusiastic employees?

But if you do, don’t say you want diversity. Don’t say you want to be inclusive.

Because you really don’t.

The problem with this approach is Google is missing out too. They are missing out on mature, experienced candidates who already are in a good place … but that place isn’t Google. It’s somewhere less ambitious with lower pay and, in general, not so shiny and glamorous. And it’s not because these candidates don’t like shiny. It’s because at this point, they prioritize other things.

Decorating the nursery in my free time © Photo from the author’s archive.

In that article I keep mentioning, the author specifically says he had full support from his wife. She helped him keep a healthy schedule, provided food and supposedly did all the other household chores. The article doesn’t mention children, so I don’t know if she also was parenting alone during that time. If she was, it would be a heavier burden for her. But there’s a very important distinction there: the author is male.

According to the book by Caroline Criado-Perez, “Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men“:

Globally, 75 percent of unpaid work is done by women who spend between three and six hours per day on it, compared to men’s average of thirty minutes to two hours. This imbalance starts early (girls as young as five do significantly more chores than their brothers) and increases as they get older.

And on the same page of the book:

An Australian study found that even in wealthier couples who pay for domestic help, the remaining unpaid work is still distributed at the same male-to-female ratio, with women still doing the majority of what’s left. And as women have increasingly joined the paid labour force men have not matched this shift with a comparative increase in their unpaid work: women have simply increased their total work time, with numerous studies over the past twenty years finding that women do the majority of unpaid work irrespective of the proportion of household income they bring in.

Unpaid work is not only chores. It’s also childcare and caring for the elderly, which is around the clock in some cases. It’s all those things people think of as “someone has to do it,” and for some unfathomable (well, very fathomable, actually) reason that someone is most often female.

Big tech companies are complaining their candidate pool is not diverse. Well, I’d say here’s at least one reason why, and it’s staring everyone right in the face.

Photo by Josh Appel on Unsplash

If the big tech companies really want mature candidates or female candidates, they need to make the interview process more inclusive.

Some options for that might be:

• Give the candidates free use of tools they actually use at work; and yes, even Stack Overflow might be fair game.

• Have take-home tasks that one can do on one’s own schedule; have fewer theoretical problems which favour recent graduates and more real-life ones.

• Instead of the 5 on-site interviews, which are usually grueling and scary, split the last step into several takes, and make them virtual or offline. Or at least decrease their number.

• Use pairing-style interviews where the interviewer codes with the candidate instead of the usual approach.

• Alternatively, the company might forgo the on-site step at all, and rely on the probation period, where someone not fitting in might be detected.

• Or have internships which are convertible into full-time jobs if the person is a good fit.

The possibilities are endless. But they don’t do it.

People already dream about working for them, right? So, why fix something that isn’t broken?

The answer is, because it is.

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Maryna is a software developer from Ukraine who now lives in Germany. Maryna also writes a programming blog to share her knowledge. She sometimes speaks at conferences, though being an introvert, writing comes more naturally. She says she’s not a professional writer but writing is something she likes, “and I think I can do it pretty well.”

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