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Taking the Screening Test

Columnist: Michael E. Duffy
August, 2017 Issue

Michael E. Duffy
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Columnist's Blog

Last month, I wrote about Triplebyte, a company that performs initial technical screenings for companies seeking to “hire great engineers.” The idea is to eliminate “bad” candidates before a company spends precious time meeting with them in person. This month I’m sharing my personal experience being screened by Triplebyte for a job. For context, I’ve been programming in a variety of languages for about 40 years.

Triplebyte’s initial programming quiz —“Take our coding quiz, get offers from top companies”— plies applicants with a number of multiple-choice questions in several different programming languages, along with a few that ask how you might approach a problem.

I found the quiz pretty straightforward, and even the questions in languages I’m not familiar with were easy enough—code is code, for the most part. After passing the quiz, I was able to schedule a one-to-two hour technical interview from a number of time slots. The technical interview is done with Google Hangouts, a video call, which also allows the interviewer to watch you coding in your chosen environment (for me, it was Python.). Triplebyte is upfront about its process, and sends a detailed guide to what the interview will cover and ways to prepare for it.

The interviewer was a friendly, bearded fellow in his late 30s who professed to knowing nothing about me. Progressing beyond the interview is based on performance, and not their opinion of your resumé. We did a programming section where the object was to incrementally create a simple text-based game in about 20-30 minutes. I answered some short verbal questions about a hypothetical web application, and then debugged some existing code to fix four failing test cases. Finally, he asked some system design questions, and we talked a bit about what my ideal position might look like, which I think is designed to get a sense of your strengths and weaknesses in an actual interview situation.

There’s no doubt the test is challenging. The interviewer was encouraging, but I knew that I didn’t complete either the coding or debugging sections. (He assured me that wasn’t uncommon). I had no answers to a couple of the non-coding questions, which lay outside my experience, but I survived the full two hours, which I took as a good sign. Most technical interview processes are designed to give the interviewer an early out if the candidate is clearly not a match.

Alas, I flunked. Here’s an excerpt of their rejection letter, which arrived the next day:

This was a tough decision. You talked well about C programming and databases. You write nice, clean code. You designed your validation routine well in the [game] problem. And you were friendly and we enjoyed talking to you.

However, we didn't see the coding fluency that we need to see to work with people. You weren't as productive on the [game] or debugging sections as we wanted. …we needed to see exceptional performance in one area of the interview... While we saw reasonable performance across many of these areas, we couldn't clearly identify one area we could use as the peg to hang our recommendation to companies on.

Ouch. It stung a bit to read that then, and again just now. To their credit, Triplebyte provides suggestions about ways to improve, and you can apply again in four months. And they do acknowledge that no process is perfect: ...again, we know this isn't a perfect process and we'd love to hear your honest feedback on how we might have improved it.

As much as it hurts to admit it, they’re probably right. I’m not a 28-year-old hotshot coder anymore, well-versed in the technology stack of the moment. Looking at open positions at the companies Triplebyte is hiring for, I can see I don’t have all the qualifications they seek. And though I learn fast (and have been successful in three distinct industries), it’s much better in the short term for a company to hire someone that can “hit the ground running.”

For a hiring company, Triplebyte applies a consistent process to all applicants (and presumably tries hard to make sure that variation between human interviewers is minimized by training and standards), gathers statistics to help predict which candidates will get offers, and, most importantly, is actively and continuously trying to improve their hiring process. (Something few companies do at all).

As an executive, I’d certainly consider using Triplebyte to screen candidates if the type of programmer I was looking for was the kind of programmer Triplebyte screens for (primarily full-stack web developers). No effective hiring process is kind, and a false negative (i.e. missing out on a good hire) is not as bad (from the employer’s perspective, at least), as a false positive.

But as a candidate, rejection still sucks, no matter how justified or helpfully delivered.


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