tech interviews assess performance anxiety instead of coding skills

new study conducted by Microsoft and North Carolina State University (NCSU) reports that the current technical interview process is more focused on evaluating the job candidate’s performance anxiety rather than actual coding skills.

Traditionally in a technical interview for software engineering positions, candidates are given a problem to solve. They are asked to write a solution in code on a whiteboard while explaining each step of the solution to an interviewer. The study suggests that several well-qualified job candidates with good coding skills get rejected in such interviews because they’re not used to working on a whiteboard in front of an audience.

Chris Parnin, co-author of the paper who is also an assistant professor of computer science at NCSU says“technical interviews are feared and hated in the industry, and it turns out that these interview techniques may also be hurting the industry’s ability to find and hire skilled software engineers.”

The Study

To reach this conclusion, the researchers conducted technical interviews of 48 computer science students that included both undergraduates and graduates. 24 participants were given conventional tech interviews where an interviewer observed and listened to them explaining their code.

The other 24 participants were asked to solve their problem on a whiteboard in a private room. The candidates in private rooms weren’t required to explain their solutions out loud, and there were no interviewers either.

Researchers measured each study participant’s interview performance by assessing the accuracy and efficiency of each solution. In other words, they wanted to know whether the code they wrote would work, and the amount of computing resources needed to run it.


Elimination of good candidates

It was observed that candidates taking traditional interviews “performed half as well” as people who took their interviews in private. “The findings suggest that companies are missing out on really good programmers because those programmers aren’t good at writing on a whiteboard and explaining their work out loud while coding,” says Parnin.

Exclusion of a certain class of candidates

Another shocking finding from the study was that such interviews might also be used to “exclude or favor certain job candidates.”

For instance, interviewers may “give easier problems to candidates they prefer” at times. The format may also “serve as a barrier to entire classes of candidates.” For instance, in this particular study, all the female candidates who took the public interview failed, whereas those females who took the private interview passed.

Unfair advantage to some candidates

Mahnaz Behroozi, another co-author of the paper and a Ph.D. student at NCSU, says that “the technical interview process gives people with industry connections an advantage.” According to her, traditional tech interviews can give a large advantage to those who can afford to take the time to focus only on preparing for the interview process, which has very little to do with the actual nature of the work itself.

However, it is to be noted that this study was limited, and larger sample size is required to get more concrete conclusions. Nevertheless, the idea that the traditional tech interview process can exclude an entire group of job candidates is quite troubling.

An Editor and a Tech Journalist with a software development background. I am a big fan of technology and memes. At Fossbytes, I cover all aspects of tech but my specific area of interest is Programming and Development. Drop an email if you have any software/hardware/research to share or tech-related queries!