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Take-home interviews

By Ammon Bartram on Jul 29, 2015

Take-home interviews

Today we're announcing our second experiment, take-home projects. We're going to try a new way of assessing programming ability by having programmers work on a project on their own time instead of coding during an interview. We know there are benefits and drawbacks to this approach, I'll go into more detail into our thinking behind this below.

Anyone who passes our take-home project assessment will get exactly the same service from us as people who do the regular interviews. We'll work hard to find several YC startups they'd be a great fit for, fast track them through the hiring processes, and handle all logistics of flights/accommodations/scheduling.

The Problem

Several weeks ago, we interviewed a recent college grad. He'd done well on our quiz, had great personal projects, and I was excited to talk to him. As soon as the interview started, however, I could tell that something was wrong. I gave him a programming problem, but he could not get started. He'd start to write one thing, mutter that it was a bad place to start, and go back to something else. He switched languages. His breathing accelerated. He started to shake.

Programming interviews are stressful. Fundamentally, the applicant is being judged. They have to understand the question, produce a working solution in limited time, while explaining everything they are doing with no time to stop and gather their thoughts. At its worst it's adversarial.

Some programmers find that this stress pushes them to do their best in interviews. Others find it debilitating. There are programmers with track records of solving hard problems who simply freeze when subjected to the stress of an interview. They babble. They become unable to program.

This does not mean that they are bad programmers[1]. I gave the fellow in our interview a much harder problem to do on his own time. I assumed that he'd never get back to us. The project was a lot of work. Three days later, however, I had a complete solution in my inbox. We got him back on the phone, and he was able to talk in depth about what he had done, about the underlying algorithms, and about the design trade-offs he'd made. The code was clean. He was clearly a skilled programmer.

The Solution

To solve the problem of interview anxiety, we're adding a second track to our interview process at Triplebyte. Applicants, if they choose, will be able go through our process by completing programming projects on their own time. They'll still do interviews with us, but rather than doing interview problems, they will just talk about the project they already completed. Those who do well will be matched with Y Combinator companies, just like programmers who go through our regular interview.

The project-based track will require a larger time commitment (and we expect lots of people to stick with the standard track for this reason). However, doing a larger project is almost certainly a better measure of actual ability to do a job then a traditional interview is.

Here's how our process works:

  1. When a candidate books a 45-minute interview, they can indicate that they want to do a project.
  2. Three days before the interview, we'll send them a list of projects, and they'll pick one and start to work on it. We expect them to spend about 3 hours on the project (or as long as they want to spend to show us that they're a good programmer).
  3. During the interview, we'll talk about what they've programmed, go over design choices and give feedback.

People who pass the 45-min interview will go though the same process in the 2-hour final interview. Rather than pick a new project, however, they'll take the same project further, incorporating feedback from the 1st interview. Those who pass the 2-hour will talk to Harj, get intro-ed to YC companies, and start new jobs!

I'm particularly excited being able to see iterative improvements to the project between the two interviews (an important part of doing an actual job). It's an experiment, and I have no idea how it will turn out, but giving people the option to do larger projects and avoid stressful interviews just seems like a good idea. In a few months, after we've done a meaningful number of these interviews, I'll write about how their results compare to our other interviews.

1. The stress of interviewing seems to be different than the stress of performing a job. None of the people we've spoken to who do poorly in interviews report problems performing under deadlines at work, or when a website is down and there's pressure to get it back up.

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