September 28, 2020

The Best Methods For Assessing Programming Skills For Remote Work

By Wes Winham

For startups, especially those that are ramping up or just got funded, one of the most crucial parts of the job is hiring developers. It’s true. Unless you’ve got a huge recruiting budget, startups can’t afford to mishire. In fact, knowing how to assess developer and programming skills, whether front end, back end, or full-stack, is fundamental to any successful IT recruitment process.

So how can startups test a candidate? It’s more complex than just looking at a programmer’s resume or CV. One’s resume may fail to make an impact, let alone create an impression in the minds of the recruiters, or worse, it may be flawed with falsehood and misleading facts. Applicants may run the risk of being overlooked due to inherent biases of the human mind.


In today’s landscape where remote work is getting to be more essential than previously thought, some new challenges need to be addressed.


First is that, due to COVID-19, there must be less personal interaction. There’s going to be fewer interviews and more online processing. The good thing is that most companies who are opening to a mostly remote working arrangement, there is a bigger pond to fish from -so to speak. Some go as far as other states and some are even out of the country. And because it’s mainly online, a special focus needs to be on the optimal setup, namely remote or online coding tests for developers and engineers or take-home assessments.


In this context, we’re going to review how to assess programming skills using different assessment methods. Industry standards are technical screens, whiteboard interviews, or take home assessments.


Standard Assessment Methods For Developers

Whiteboard interviews are cheap and they give you an instant read on your candidate’s technical skills. They are usually done face to face. Unfortunately, it’s well known that they are biased and can cause performance anxiety. They are not usually indicative of on-the-job performance. Whiteboard interviews also have an opportunity cost… if we wait until the in-person interview to do a technical assessment, we may miss great candidates. After all, plenty of great engineers may not have the perfect resume. Many of us struggle with “culling the herd.” We get a ton of applicants for a given role, but just have a list of past employers to help us narrow the field. If we want to sort candidates by aptitude, we can use a technical screening tool at the beginning of this process. There’s also code quizzes which are also somewhat cheap. The problem with code quizzes is that they don’t go beyond. The feedback is fast/fail and does not test other engineering skills.

If you have a big enough company, you can assess candidates by using technical recruiters. They save time and there’s low effort required. But they’re expensive to maintain and are not an option for most startups and small to medium businesses.

Which finally brings us to Take Home Assessments. They’re one of the better ways to assess your candidates. It provides a more accurate work sample than whiteboard interviews or timed challenges. It removes the stress that whiteboard interviews or code quizzes induce. Their cons are that they are very time-consuming.  Our data at Woven shows that it takes an average of 86 candidates and 15 onsite interviews to get one accepted offer for a mid-level software engineering role.

If you have two additional engineers (plus yourself) in a two-hour in-person interview, that means you’re committing a minimum of 90 hours to hire one role. Put another way, every time you repeat this hiring process, it’s like one of your teammates is going on a two-week vacation. If you’re hiring six engineers, it’s the equivalent of a 3-month sabbatical. It’s simply not scalable.

Here’s what we learned on the market while talking to our clients though. One is that you can’t skip a good technical assessment. Programming exercises are essential to hiring success. Several engineering leaders use their exercise as a way to gauge interest in the role – not just technical ability. Second is that the best technical interviews look like actual work. This is the main criticism for both the whiteboard and code quizzes. They don’t incorporate real work.

So what’s the solution then? Recruiters might still prefer services like HackerRank for code quizzes but after knowing the alternatives, engineering leaders might prefer to sit down and develop a combination of home-grown assessments like a take-home exercise, whiteboarding, or pair programming. If you’re a startup needing to maintain a high engineering bar, save engineering time, and get more qualified candidates, one alternative is the Woven engineering hiring platform. It’s designed for remote. Woven has online simulations that use real job work to assess skills like debugging, architecture, and communication alongside technical skills. It’s a combination of automated simulations and real engineers who do real human feedback and analysis of assessments. They would not be as cheap as code quizzes but are cheaper than technical recruiters.

Woven tests engineers with real work simulations so that companies can build high performing remote teams. As an engineering hiring platform, it assesses technical and other essential job skills with an emphasis on remote work. This includes communication, teamwork, and problem solving, which would never show up on a typical code quiz. This results in not only great technical hires but cohesive teams so that you can maintain a high engineering bar. This is particularly crucial for scaling startups, who can’t afford to mishire, and where communication and team skills are more important.