Lesser Known Origins of the Technical Interview

The questionable widespread technical interview process has it’s roots in a cold war era approach that was pioneered by a public proponent of eugenics. Minorities suffer the most from the industry continuing to use this long disproved ritual of conformity.William Shockley who won a Nobel Prize for his invention of the transistor in the early 1950s was a well known racist who came up with the early forms of useless trick trivia “I looked up the answer ahead of time” questions for technical interviewing. If we know anything about Shockley it was that he had a reputation for not being able to work collaboratively(Fairchild Semiconductor was formed and Silicon Valley came to be in part because he was such a horrible person to work with) and often used these “hazing” cult-like interviewing techniques to paint his potential colleagues as incompetent and not being able to meet his own highly subjective and prejudiced “technical bar”. For him, it was really just about being in control. This all sounds familiar doesn’t it ?Fast forward to today and this same dynamic plays out in the software industry on a much larger scale. The “live coding audition” is used every day by similar personality types to justify their biases and feed their egos under the guise of objectivity at the expense of the interviewees who often have to spend double digit hours(sometimes far more) for each company. Most companies have little regard for this high cost to candidates and ignore the fact that this part of the interview delivers almost no value in terms of assessing a candidate’s ability to do the job. Besides most hard problems in the software industry are not technical. They are cultural, moral, trust and communication based. These are much more critical to seeing any success. The insecure interviewers that focus on programming problems primarily, trivialize the difficulty of the field.Companies smaller than Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Google etc. (which is most) follow this approach much like a cargo-cult expecting similar results regardless of the damage to their reputation, the high collateral damage to minorities which are the most vulnerable because they have the least experience playing this corrupt game. The moral conflict can no longer be ignored : companies, hiring managers and software engineers can’t claim to care about diversity in the tech industry and continue this archaic and prejudiced practice as part of the technical interview. With all of the problems of this interviewing approach : damage to a company’s reputation, the candidate’s self confidence, the highly biased subjective nature and time wasted aside, why aren’t these companies questioning the morality of such a process with it’s roots in racism, bigotry and misanthropy ? It’s because it gives them a legal way out to reject candidates under the guise of technical legitimacy when they are really testing for candidates that are willing to comply and jump through their hoops. If our industry is serious about fixing the lack of diversity then this would be the number one lowest-effort but highest-impact action of all to take right away.

Alternative solutions are simple but will likely never happen on a wide enough scale.

  • Do a trial of a few weeks or months (remotely if needed) if a company thinks someone might really work. Compensate them.
  • As an even shorther alternative some high-quality companies are already paying thousands of dollars to developers to do a small 1 day project and then have them present it to their team. That fee is nothing for them compared with the total cost of interviewing and hiring.

This is THE best way to determine fit without wasting the company’s and the candidates time. It’s also simple and honest.Most important is that leaving this approach behind forever is simply the right thing to do …