A recruiter’s perspective
Aline Lerner is the founder and CEO of interviewing.io, a free platform for software engineers to practice interviewing anonymously and find jobs independently of who they are or how they look on paper.
What is your background?
I went to MIT for undergrad, then took a few years off to work as a professional cook in New York and San Francisco. Working in kitchens changed how I thought about hiring, which ended up shaping a lot of what I did after that. You don’t go through a standard interview, and people don’t really look at your resume. They have you come in and work for a day, and at the end of the night, if you did a good job, they feed you and make you an offer. That was much more fair than the hiring practices I was used to.
Then I went back to doing what I know, which is software engineering. I started as an individual contributor and became a tech lead. I got more involved in the hiring process because I found that recruitment can become a burden on a team if no one takes ownership of it. I ended up liking that work more than writing code, so I decided I’d switch over to recruiting. I ran recruitment at TrialPay and Udacity, then started my own recruiting firm and worked for startups in the Bay Area.
What is interviewing.io?
Any software engineer can participate in free, anonymous mock interviews on our platform. You can practice interviewing and you can mess up without any negative repercussions. If you do well in a practice pool, you can book an interview with any number of top companies. That interview is still anonymous, and if you do well on that interview you go on site.
Our candidates pass at a 75% rate, and 40% of those candidates do not look good on paper and were previously rejected by top companies when they went through resume screening. Only when they came through us were they hired, which of course causes internal conversations within those companies about why they rejected that candidate before.
Do you think that women face any unique barriers in tech?
There’s been an influx of women in recent years who have taken an interest in coding and getting jobs as software engineers. I think a lot of them have had a rude awakening. This field is unfriendly, not just to women but to any outsider. I don’t think it’s because of malice. It’s the fact that the interview process itself is not perfect.
One issue is how companies screen resumes. They often will not talk to candidates unless they went to one of a few schools or have previously worked at one of a few companies. This is a problem because, in absolute terms, the number of women who graduate from top-tier computer science programs is growing, but it’s not growing fast enough to keep up with demand. It is mathematically impossible to hit gender parity in software engineering if you hire the same way you’ve always hired, because there’s just not enough women in those programs right now.
The other issue is with technical interviewing, which is not necessarily indicative of whether you’re going to be good at a job. You’re not doing the kind of work during an interview that you would be doing on the job itself. People who are used to the process understand that it’s a numbers game, that they just have to practice a certain type of problem over and over and eventually they’ll get a job at a good company.
If you’re not aware of that, you might go into a technical interview, mess it up and decide software engineering is not for you, because you had faith in the process and the process rejected you.
This contributes to gender disparity in the industry, and we’ve seen the data on our platform. A few years ago, women were performing on average significantly worse than men in technical interviews, so we tried to figure out why. As it turned out, women were quitting the platform after one bad interview seven times more often than men, but once we corrected for people who quit after one bad performance, the gender disparity went away entirely.
How can companies be more inclusive in the hiring process?
Step one is to de-emphasize the resume and emphasize ability and skill, because traditional credentials don’t tell you very much about a candidate. The best thing one can do at the top of the funnel is to broaden your criteria and not filter on where people have gone to school or where they’ve worked in the past. Find ways to vet people based on skill.
Step two is once you get a smart person in the door to actually give them a chance to shine. Interviews could be way more inclusive by improving the kinds of questions asked, and improving how they are asked. A lot of organizations still rely heavily on questions that have some “gotcha” to it. Either you get it or you don’t. People might not get it one day, and they might get it another day. That has absolutely no bearing on how people will actually do at work.
We encourage companies to ask questions that try to get at how candidates think, rather than questions to which specific answers are expected. Be abstract when you need to be, but not needlessly abstract; pose more real-world problems. It will make it much easier for people who don’t have a formal education in tech to break into the industry and do the great kind of work their counterparts who do pass those interviews can do.
What pitfalls would you warn companies about?
One mistake I’ve seen companies get into is going after low-hanging fruit when it comes to diversity and inclusion practices. If you want to effect change, you can’t just push your numbers around. You actually have to change your processes and your culture. I would advise companies to take it slow and to stop trying to get a few quick wins by stacking the deck with women, and instead to think about whether their interview process is repeatable, whether their interview process is fair, and whether, once they actually get a candidate from a non-traditional background through the door, there are incentives for those people to stay. It’s not about vanity metrics. It’s about making a fundamental change in how you hire.
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