A discussion on free time and hiring and employment practices

I’ve storified a long twitter discussion I had about this yesterday. Left here without further comment.

(I’ve not embedded it because it’s long and storify’s infinite scrolling is annoyingly blog breaking)

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9 thoughts on “A discussion on free time and hiring and employment practices

  1. Tim Chevalier

    I love the flavor of tech naïvete that implies that labor unions are ludicrous. I wonder if that will change at all once the myth that programming is hard dies down a bit and knowing how to program (while also coming from a moderately-privileged background) becomes less of an automatic meal ticket.

    1. david Post author

      Is it going to become less of an automatic meal ticket? I’m kinda assuming the benefits of being in dev are here to stay, what will change is the ability threshold for getting in the door (as we realise that the pool of people to draw from is dramatically larger than the one we’re currently drawing from and some of those other people are really smart).

      I’m in too privileged a position to have a useful personal opinion on the value of unions I’m afraid. I think they would probably be a good idea, I just haven’t thought about it in detail.

  2. Ivo Wever

    You ran a 6-part hiring process, despite being afraid it would scare people of, because you thought it was necessary to obtain sufficient information about the candidate to be able to come to a decision. Is a 13-interview process so different that you can honestly complain of that ‘excluding people’, implying your 6-part process didn’t? How many interviews are reasonable?

    The arguments in the discussion are on a slippery slope to the situation where you cannot request any personal information, and thus cannot require any experience or relevant education, because that could be grounds for discrimination. I’m sure nobody wants to end up there. When did what someone did in their spare time become irrelevant for how someone can function in their job?

    1. david Post author

      First off, the “6-part” kinda depends on how you break it down, and we only required people face to face once. The parts were:

      1. Small set of screening questions by email, expected to take no more than half an hour
      2. Coding test by email, expected to take no more than an hour or two
      3. Half hour phone interview
      4. One face to face interview in 3 parts, one of which required preparation. This took about 2-3 hours

      So even though “6 parts” looks like it’s nearly half of “13 parts”, our 6 parts were a hell of a lot more flexible, the total time taken was probably under a third of what’s being described and about half of that was not face to face.

      I’m not at all sure this was too long a process, but if we’re starting to get worried at this point then I think it’s legitimate to object to something as long as described.

      Secondly, the problem with slippery slope arguments is that once you consider them admissible you open yourself up to allowing all sorts of other logical fallacies.

      There is not a clear dividing line. I acknowledge that. This does not impair our ability to point at extreme behaviour and say “This is clearly not OK”, it just means that there’s a large fuzzy area where we’re not quite sure whether it’s OK. In general I would rather err on the side of treating people decently.

      Finally, what someone does in their spare time is irrelevant to their job. It may be a useful signal, but what is relevant to your ability to do your job is your ability to do the job. Free time is not part of that ability because it is, by definition, not part of your work. If the information is a useful signal that the candidate wants you to take into account, they can and should volunteer that information. If it’s not, there may be very valid reasons why you shouldn’t ask about it.

      1. Ivo Wever

        I see, the flexibility of when the time is spent makes a lot of difference. Would you also consider it reasonable if the coding test was more elaborate, taking perhaps up to 8 hours?

        As for the spare time: I’m sure you can come up with examples of cases where what someone does in their spare time is very relevant to their job, because there isn’t a clear dividing line between work and spare time. You may not want a CEO that practices free climbing, because it suggests an appetite for risky behavior (and you cannot infer from past job performance whether that behavior was exhibited, for a lack of statistical significance) and it certainly imposes an increased risk of your CEO being suddenly incapacitated. Should you not be allowed to hold that against a candidate and should you be required to judge his ability to do his job, until he does damage?

      2. david Post author

        No, I really wouldn’t be OK with an 8 hour coding tests. There’s a big qualitative difference between 8 and 2 hours: 2 hours is “You can take an evening after work to do this” (this still may be onerous for some people, but I think it’s an OK trade off) whileas 8 hours is “You need to basically take a day off to do this” (which is likely impossible for some people).

        I also, and I admit I haven’t tested this thoroughly, was really impressed with what a good indicator of ability our 2 hour coding test was, so I’d be reluctant to make it longer at least partly because I’m not sure it would add all that much.

        RE CEOs and risky hobbies: I’ve actually seen this in practice. My current CEO has a thing for racing, which he’s had to curtail on the insistence of our investors.

        I’m not sure what I think about it. My general feeling is that companies in which any one person is essential are badly designed, and your CEO might kill himself climbing but he might also get hit by a bus or have a heart attack. People are very bad at estimating risks, and dangerous hobbies are I think overstated as risks. However this isn’t a very well thought out opinion yet.

        I also think this is a bit of a red herring. most jobs are not critical in this way, and most hobbies the worst case scenario is they’ll put you out of action for a few days, which you can also get from a bout of norovirus.

      3. Ivo Wever

        There’s no ‘reply’ button on your last post, so this one will end up on the same level as my last response.

        The reason that our coding tests that may take up to 8 hours (as reported by the candidates), is that the coding test usually contains something a relatively inexperienced candidate is unfamiliar with, and needs some time to deal with, like Ruby, Linux terminal IO, a graph data structure, or all of them. An experienced candidate can probably do it in two hours, so perhaps we are talking about the same number of lines of code? The advantage of a somewhat larger project is that it requires some design decisions and code structuring, which makes for a basis for a great interview.

        As an aside, one interesting suggestion in the storified twitter discussion was the idea to pay people for their time. Would paying say $100 for taking the test change things?

        As for the relevance of private life: what I mainly wanted to do is suggest we can probably come up with examples where we feel what someone does outside of the 5×8 will influence your idea of their abilities, relative to an otherwise equally qualified candidate. I am wondering whether we wouldn’t be throwing out the baby with the bathwater by not asking about someone’s private life. It was suggested that someone could always bring up their hobbies if they feel they added to their chances. If one candidate brings up he play a lot of chess in his spare time, while another tells you nothing, is that worse than asking about it and have the first tell the same, while the second explains he likes chess, but only rarely plays, because he just doesn’t have the time because of … ? Or more generally, suppose he explains he sometimes does X, but doesn’t have much time for that, because of … . There’s usually a way in which both X and … can positively influence your view of the candidates abilities.

        You always have to be on guard for your prejudices. Silence or the absence of information is as much subject to prejudicial conclusions as the presence thereof. If someone likes knitting, but is the single parent of two children and doesn’t have much time for it, then I can think he is boring and will be unexpectedly away often, or I can think he is patient and must be very organised. Can I ask about private life if I promise to try to interpret the answers as positively as I can in the light of the remainder of the interview? A CEO that does free climbing can easily be viewed as someone that releases stress and seeks thrills through his sport, making him a very stable colleague by doing neither through his job.

      4. david Post author

        Yeah, the reply thing is (I think) a WordPress default. It’s a little irksome, but I think the idea is to stop the comments getting too deeply nested, which I approve of so I’ve never bothered to look into it further.

        So the reason our coding test doesn’t take eight hours is that it doesn’t test for knowledge of any specific or complicated subjects. It’s designed to test something fundamental, and it does a very good job of that.

        What does it test for? It tests for ability to correctly implement a spec. We give them a problem specification which is of the form “Write a program which reads this data from STDIN, performs this process on it and then writes this data to STDOUT”. The spec is not long, but it typically contains a number of edge cases which are clearly described but no great attention is called to them. The result of the test is then a correct implementation of this spec. If it passes our test suite, you’ve passed the test. If it doesn’t pass our test suite we might give you a chance to fix it if we think you’re borderline (I don’t think we ended up hiring anyone who we did this to – everyone we hired who took this test submitted a perfect solution).

        Why do we do it this way? We do it this way because programming is easy and software development is hard. This tests the candidate’s ability to read thoroughly, think clearly about what they have read and then implement the result. If they can do that then we trust them to learn the specific details we need.

        (Side note: If someone submitted a perfect solution that was disastrously awful spaghetti code we would probably turn them down. This never happened. There was a very strong correlation between quality of code and quality of result)

        Additionally we don’t really reference it during the interview. We’ve had bad experience with chaining interview questions – it makes it hard for someone who does badly on one question to redeem themselves later.

        Back on the hobbies question:

        What I suggested RE outside time was not that it was OK to bring up hobbies in interviews (I mean I suppose there’s nothing really wrong with it, but I wish people wouldn’t). It’s specific things like outside open source work, useful side projects, etc. Stuff where it really looks very like the work you’re doing. Yes, it gives you an advantage over candidates with less free time, but that’s because you actually have an advantage (more experience) rather than because they’re being selected against.

        In general though I’m not saying that hobbies are never good evidence of someone’s ability to do a job. What I’m saying is that they’re evidence which is differently good for different candidates, and that that difference unfairly selects against some people – tests which are effective can still be prejudicial.

        (And the “I will interpret the answer positively” thing doesn’t help, because it just means that you’re giving a leg up to people who meet the gatekeeping test rather than penalizing people who don’t. Here comes the new test, same as the old test)

        Edit: On payment: No, not really. The problem is that this is usually a situation where time is not really exchangeable for money, because the candidate is in a situation where time is an incredibly constrained resource because they’re having to work it into holidays, or around their existing jobs, etc. and you’re one amongst many companies interviewing.

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