Interviewing is just a model of employment

Interviewing is just a model of employment

Etsy has gotten a lot of attention for its efforts to increase the gender diversity of its engineering team in the past year. The short version of the story is, Etsy made a concerted effort to recruit more female engineers, and made some changes to its hiring model that led to positive changes there. For more details, see First Round Capital’s coverage of a talk on how we did it by Kellan Elliot-McCrea, our CTO.

Unsurprisingly, this effort has drawn criticism. The most visible example is a blog post from Meghan Casserly from Forbes, which accuses Etsy of instituting a double standard, undermining female engineers even as it attempts to add more to its staff. Here’s the crux of her post:

In other words, hiring women engineers is hard. Especially if you hire them like men. “Don’t lower standards,” Elliott-McCrea says, but isn’t exempting women from the same brutal challenge-based interviews their male colleagues undergo doing just that? While I applaud Etsy for its single-minded dedication to increasing gender diversity in its ranks, instead of feeling uplifted by Elliott-McCrea’s presentation I find myself stuck on the question: Is hiring women as women just PC pandering?

There’s a lot that’s wrong with this blog post, starting with the assertion that Etsy has exempted women from anything. For example, “brutal challenge-based interviews” were never a standard part of the interviewing process at Etsy.

The post serves to illustrate a larger point that I want to make. The reason companies interview engineers at all is that they need to assess what kind of team member they’ll be. Can they write code? Can they deliver results in a timely fashion? Will they drive everyone nuts? Are they capable of learning? Interviewing is one way to get the answers to those kinds of questions.

The hiring process is about creating a model of a potential employee that the employer hopes accurately represents what kind of employee they will be. These models are not terribly accurate, and there is a huge amount of space within which a company can experiment in order to refine that model.

Nobody has convinced me that stressful “challenge” style interviews accurately model the work of software developers. People who do well at them are not necessarily more qualified than people who do poorly at them. Answering interview questions is itself a skill, and being good at it doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily be good at the job. Etsy is iterating on how it builds a model of software engineers through the hiring process. Every company should be.

Fetishizing interviewing, or a specific style of interviewing, betrays the same sort of lazy thinking that I wrote about the other day. I’ve seen great engineers turned down for jobs due solely to the fact that the entire panel of interviewers all took the same approach. The model was broken, but the interviewers thought that the problem was that the candidate wasn’t up to the challenge. The Forbes blog post falls prey to the same problem.

Lauren Bacon makes a related point in her response to the same Forbes blog post.

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