Detrimental Effects of “Best in Show” Hiring Processes in Tech

There’s plenty of evidence that the competitive, “best in show” approach used in interviewing extends into the core of tech culture itself.

by Nikki Brown on November 15th, 2016

The future of work is a question that looms larger every day. Will self-driving cars eliminate the need for millions of truckers, bus drivers, and other transportation workers? Will artificial intelligence replace the roles of millions of customer service agents working in hospitality and retail?

While many Americans ponder how technology will affect their livelihoods, the tech industry is growing faster than ever. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of software engineering jobs is expected to grow 18.8% by 2024. That’s nearly triple the overall job growth rate. Silicon Valley has already transformed the nature of work and is setting new standards for the future American economy: other industries are looking to tech as an example for how to build companies, create productive workplaces, and grow teams. If all major companies constructed state of the art facilities, offered progressive benefits, and provided gourmet office snacks, the future of work may start to look a little rosier. Unfortunately, a future based on the present tech industry trends would be far from utopian, as the workforce would mostly be comprised of young, white males. Current tech hiring processes disenfranchise women, people of color, candidates with more experience, introverted personality types and more.

The Interview of Attrition

Dragonfly alight on a rope, as if balancing on a tightrope.

Photo CC-BY Takashi .M.

The hiring process at tech start-ups has become akin to a talent show: If you’re looking to apply to a tech job, be prepared to jump through hoops, walk a tightrope, and tame lions. A recent report by Glassdoor Economic Research found that tech jobs have a much longer interview process than most industries: The interview process for software engineering roles takes about 35 days. App developers and product engineers are not much better off at 28 days. The hiring process often begins with an initial phone screening, followed by multiple conference calls, assignments, online tests, and finally, if an applicant is so fortunate, an on-site meeting.

While it’s true that competitive, performance-based interviews may result in hiring top talent, this process may disenfranchise people who are equally talented but who have a harder time showcasing their skillset in a best-in-show atmosphere. Those most hurt by the big top-style hiring process include virtually anyone outside the young, white male demographic that pervades the tech industry.

The drawn-out interview process presents a particular challenge for people who have existing obligations, such as people in later stages of their careers, working mothers, and people from low-income backgrounds. An article in Forbes on “How to Ace Your Technical Interview” recommends beginning preparation as soon as possible – at least two weeks ahead – to work through a prep book of algorithms and technical knowledge. This level of time commitment is simply not feasible for many candidates, especially applicants who are unable to quit their current jobs in order to prepare. In particular, people from non-privileged socioeconomic backgrounds cannot afford to invest an entire month’s worth of time preparing for interviews and participating in an unpaid process that may not result in a moneymaking position. Individuals with family obligations, such as working mothers and new parents, face a similar issue. And not only is there an implicit bias against older applicants – Mark Zuckerberg once stated that “Young people are just smarter” – but more experienced candidates often cannot afford to invest 30 days in applying for a position they likely will not be hired for due to age discrimination.

Fighting Implicit Bias

Three women of color collaborating on a couch, each with laptops adorned with stickers.

Photo CC-BY WOCinTech Chat.

Contrary to popular belief, studies have found that the low percentages of women and people of color in tech is not a pipeline issue. Equal numbers of men and women are going into technical fields of study, and Black and Latinx students are graduating with technical degrees at twice the rate that they are being hired. Part of the problem is that the tech interview process is itself a site of discrimination: researchers at Yale conducted a study where reviewers were presented with applications randomly assigned to “female” and “male” names. The applications with “female” names received significantly lower scores for hireability than the applications with “male” names. Other studies have found similar results for applications with Black or Latinx-sounding names. One woman applying to software engineering jobs describes how her (often) white male interviewers frequently questioned the validity of her responses even when she gave correct answers. Women across industries already deal with the double-edged sword of having to be aggressive but not be perceived as unfeminine or “difficult;” this is especially true for women of color, particularly Black women. Employers’ expectations that all applicants be jocular and have “big personalities” contrast directly with society’s misogynist and racist expectations of how women should behave. To meet each party’s demands is impossible.

The social nature of technical interviews also inherently disenfranchises introverts, people with anxiety disorders, and people with imposter syndrome. Susan Cain brought attention to the plight of introverts in her groundbreaking book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Cain speaks about how the West overwhelmingly favors extroverted behaviors over introverted ones and we have wrongly internalized the notion that there is something wrong with being introverted. Requiring applicants to code in front of a panel of judges can be particularly intimidating for introverts, and not the best way to showcase their abilities. These interview techniques are also detrimental to people with imposter syndrome; in particular, research by Georgia State University found that imposter syndrome is common among high-achieving women, and that many of such women suffer from a belief that they are incompetent compared to their peers despite having an impressive resume of accomplishments. High-pressure interview situations – like the technical interview where applicants are judged by a panel of “experts” – tend to amplify these fears.

Everyone Loses

Close-up of the red asphalt of a race track.

Photo CC-BY Dean Hochman.

There’s plenty of evidence that the competitive, “best in show” approach used in interviewing extends into the core of tech culture itself. Recent reporting by The New York Times sheds light on the overly competitive atmosphere at Amazon: In the vein of a Survivor-esque TV show, workers were expected to evaluate and offer harsh critiques on their colleagues’ performances. Those with the lowest scores were fired. Their ideal employee is like an athlete who is driven to compete; this doesn’t create a lot of space for individuals who are empathetic, relationship-focused, and more encouraging than agitating. Many women at Amazon attributed the large gender gap to the antagonistic culture.

Meanwhile, it is well known that diverse teams are better problem solvers and more creative than homogeneous ones. As leaders in the US economy, tech employers have an opportunity to be more inclusive in their hiring process and set a better example for all industries. A more balanced hiring process could include altering the interview process to be less biased and emphasize relationship-focused core values in the workplace. As one example, we used to believe that there were no women in major orchestras because women didn’t like classical music. When the orchestra started using blind auditions in the 1970s, we had to throw this unfounded notion out the window. Blind interviews can mitigate the effects of implicit bias against minorities in tech as well. Companies can use software that removes names and other identifying details on a resume or cover letter that could clue an interviewer into an applicant’s gender or race. As one example, Gap Jumpers is a startup that helps companies vet applicants by implementing blind interviews.

Restructuring interviews so that all applicants are asked the same non-subjective questions can also be helpful. Interviewers at the progressive company ThoughtWorks engage in post-interview discussions to identify moments where implicit bias may have seeped into their judgments of applicants. Comments like ‘she talked way too much,’ or ‘they just didn’t seem like a fit’ are disregarded if not backed up with facts. Another way to encourage more marginalized candidates to apply is to alter the wording of job descriptions. Phrases like “fast-paced,” and “work hard, play hard,” tend to appeal to males and discourage women. CEO of Unitive Laura Mather recommends changing job descriptions to include words like “support” and “teamwork.” Many companies would also benefit from altering their mission statement and core values to reflect a more inclusive outlook.

But perhaps the most effective tool we have in making tech more inclusive is for underrepresented individuals to continue applying for tech jobs and start their own companies and initiatives. By the time we are being driven by autonomous cars, we may be looking at a very different economy, and hopefully a more diverse tech industry and inclusive America.