Talent Acquisition

How to Create Technical Tests that keep Software Engineers Engaged

As Gonz Sanchez wrote in his piece ‘The Golden Age of Talent is Over’, we have shifted, overnight,  from a seller’s (candidates) to a buyer’s market (companies). More than ever, as a business that’s lucky enough to be hiring, you really need to nail the assessment process as you’ll have far more candidates to evaluate than ever before.

A solid and thought out technical assessment can:

  • remove bias
  • evaluate the skills you actually need in your team
  • give the candidates a nice little taster for what’s to come and help them make an informed decision on you

Tests can be flexible to suit your tech teams’ needs. Coding challenges, case studies, technical phone calls are all examples, and all give a great understanding of what a developer is actually capable of.

The stats speak for themselves. Studies indicate that hiring managers who utilise skill-based assessments report 36% more satisfaction with hires than those who don’t. You shouldn’t rely on them exclusively, for the simple fact of the matter is that some exceptional candidates don’t test well. They are one part of the hiring process and should be treated as such.

So what things should we consider when putting together technical tests?

1. Establish skills you’re actually looking for, keep it punchy!

Technical tests can be time and work-intensive for your team and the applicant. A robust coding test can take upwards of four hours and even in this market, top engineers still have some options and could bounce out if your test is gonna take the better part of a day. It’s important you don’t waste time with unfocused tests. Come up with options to offer, options that consider the personal circumstances of the developers.

Document what you’re looking for clearly, with an explanation for why the test you’re using will help a developer show it.

  • Having a strong sense of your company values can help to narrow tests down to specific skills.
  • What skills does your team need now? What will they need in the future? Analyse upcoming and completed projects to get an answer. You’ll want to be ahead of the curve, to give new programmers time to be onboarded.
  • Are you scaling up, or are you expanding your range of coding abilities? Do you need more coders of a particular skill set or a new kind of coder?
Women completing technical test

2. Involve your teams early, tech and talent

Your boots on the ground are your most valuable asset. Tech teams tend to have a pretty good understanding of what their team needs to be more effective.

It’s not just about making the tech team feel appreciated. Including your Talent team early in the process is key, they can give you honest feedback on what candidates have said about existing tests, and help ensure any tweaks or new tests are an easier sell to new applicants. Also, it will help Talent gain a greater understanding of the tech stack and challenges that the team face. They can use this to help make connections and tailor messaging to get new candidates genuinely excited to work for your company.

3. It’s not just about technical skills

In addition to tech skills, tests for cognition and problem-solving abilities will help you uncover creative and flexible candidates.

  • ‘Playdates’ where engineers get to meet and interact with their potential future colleagues. Often this involves a couple of hours spent in the developing environment, with the developer asking the team questions, offering insight and generally opening themselves up.
  • Situational/hypothetical scenarios based on possible or past events in the business can uncover logical reasoning and business acumen. These can be weaved into your tasks.
  • N.B. when screening candidates, try to focus on professional experience. Looking at personal projects is overwhelmingly disadvantageous to those with busy family lives and tends to be biased towards younger candidates.

4. Its a two-way street – ‘sell’ as much as you ‘test’

Technical tests can be great for employer branding if you do them right. Developers like being tested for their skills. For a majority of technical candidates, the substance of what they’re doing is key, and being tested on their abilities makes the hiring process feel more robust.

However, good technical tests can take a while, and there are a number of reasons why a perfectly good candidate might screen out during the testing phase. Offer options, such as in-depth technical phone calls, or providing examples of work, and you’ll screen out fewer candidates.

They should not be seen as a way to trick a developer. Let them use their own equipment (but also have something to provide if they don’t have something appropriate), prep them before they begin as to what to expect, without giving too much information away. Make sure they’re comfortable and they’ll be singing your praises.

5. Feedback, feedback, feedback

It’s really disheartening for anyone to get rejected after they’ve spent ages on a test, especially if the business doesn’t offer them much insight afterwards. If you get a reputation for wasting peoples’ time it could be damaging to your employer brand in the long term.

Open lines of communication with candidates to talk to them about what they did well and what they struggled with. Then encourage them to share feedback with you. You may be surprised with both what you learn and how much you learn.

Final thoughts

Assessments are a two-way dance and not a grilling. You need to make them based on real work, make them punchy, make them as sexy as possible and keep the scoring criteria consistent. When all is done, make sure your feedback is actionable, diplomatic, clear and forward-looking.

If you need help devising or optimising your technical tests, you can reach us below. Or, find out how we can help with other areas of your hiring process.

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