[Blog] Tech Interviews and Hazing: What's the difference?

Craig Maloney at 2017-09-25T19:00:16Z

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While discussing technical interviews with folks on different social networks I've come to the realization that tech interviews are a lot like my experience with pledging to a fraternity and it's hazing rituals.

While I was at college my friends decided to pledge to a fraternity. Being a smaller school it had its own fraternities so the college had control over all of the fraternities. So pledging to a fraternity at this college wasn't going to involve anything really scary or life-threatening (as some horror-stories of pledging to other fraternities have uncovered). And so I pledged to one of the on-campus fraternities and went through most of the rituals involved. It wasn't too stressful, but as the week of pledging wore on I was looking forward to it being done. I was also taking Calculus II and some other difficult courses and the split attention was starting to get to me.

Then pledge night happened.

Pledge night in this case involved a few rituals and what-not that I won't get into, save for one that ended my pledging to this fraternity.

Picture if you will a line-up of pledges who are in somewhat uncomfortable seating arrangements. They are told to sit stony-faced under penalty of something bad happening to them. All of the current fraternity brothers sit watching the pledges for the slightest infraction, where they can meter out the punishment as swiftly as the infraction took place. No-one is spared, and there is little hope of clemency.

With the pledges all sitting stony-faced and awaiting their fate they proceed with the ordeal.

They proceed to tell jokes.

Now, on the surface this seems somewhat surreal. Here are pledges charged with not showing any emotion being told jokes. On the surface this is not that big of a deal. Why would this be the incident that got me to quit pledging to this fraternity?

If you know me you'll likely know that I have a horrible time hiding emotions with my face. Worse, I have a very long and expressive face so even the slightest twitch shows up rather quickly. Add to that many different folks who are looking for that specific infraction of emotion and upturned lips and you have my downfall.

The sentence? Push ups.

Another thing I should point out is I'm not terribly physical. Sure, I played drums a lot in college but that sort of endurance and exercise is better for the forearms and wrists than it is for the upper-body strength. Add to that my seeming inability to ever do a push-up correctly (much to the dismay and delight of most of my classmates) and you have a task for which I am doomed to fail.

And fail I did. Repeatedly. Often.

One of the underlying pieces of this ordeal was that we were supposed to rely on the rest of the fraternity to pull each other up. We're brothers. We help each other.

I'm an only child. I've never had siblings. The only folks I've had are parents, cousins, aunts and uncles, and grandparents. So I've never had to steel myself for sibling rivalry, or had to ask a sibling for help. I've always had to either rely on myself or ask folks who are in positions of authority to help me. Sure, I get along with others, but when tasked with something that is personally uncomfortable I tend to want to solve it by myself. I got myself into this mess, I'll get myself out of it.

Which is the sort of strategy that is incompatible with a situation where your body is untrained and incapable of handling the task at hand, especially under pressure.

I'm sure it also goes without saying that I wasn't the popular kid at school. So the sorts of mocking and jeering that went on was not fun; it tore into my soul.

This was not a place where I could trust people anymore; this was the playground and every recess. This was the kids at gym wondering why I was struggling. This was the "I tried" and "most improved" trophy at school. This was another instance of everyone seeming to have the advantage and me not measuring up over something silly.

The next day I quit my pledge to the fraternity.

I made up some lame excuse about how it was getting in the way, but later on I also dropped out of Calculus II.

I was still friends with the folks that I knew at the fraternity, but there was this unspoken gap between us. They were able to make it through the ordeal and I couldn't. I had fraternity brothers come up to me and say they were sorry and that I was almost there, but frankly I was done. For the longest time I wondered if it was just my inner weakness or something wrong with me. Maybe. But I also think the whole process was designed to allow a certain person through and I wasn't it.

So, how does this relate to technical interviews?

First, technical interviews don't tend to have candidates sit stony-faced while they tell jokes and then dole out pushups for infractions. But they do tend to be stressful, and they favor a certain candidate. The ones that propose a candidate figure out a number of math problems make the assumption that the candidate is proficient at math. The ones use word problems assume that the candidate is familiar with the terminology and can translate that terminology into a solution. The ones that require a candidate to write some simple code up on a whiteboard assume the candidate is comfortable enough in whatever language to forego such modern conveniences as syntax highlighting, syntax checking, and other IDE aids (not to mention being able to forego keyboard memory and use a dry-erase marker).

In many ways technical interviews are nothing more than ways to put a candidate out of their comfort zone and see how they perform under pressure. Which is great if your job demands it. However I would argue that timed tests, whiteboard challenges, and logic problems don't actually test for how good a programmer is; they only test for how well a programmer has practiced those sorts of challenges.

I once went to a store-front dojo to look at some Karate classes. I was given a tour of the facility by one of the upper-level students and we ended up in the sparring area where folks were hitting bags and each other. During the demonstration of the various pieces of equipment he decided to test my reflexes (or something) by throwing a punch toward my face to see if I would flinch.

I didn't budge.

To be fair I'm not sure if I was just done with this experience or if I just hadn't noticed. But what I mustered was a withering look at him. Seriously? You're going to try to intimidate me and watch me jump. Fuck off! (I think this guy was trying to impress me, but as one of my old friends pointed out "you're stronger than you look", which I took as a compliment.) Also I juggle so having things whiz by my face is not uncommon, so perhaps that was another one of those "it's not going to hit me, so why bother moving for it?" situations.

I'm sure they were trying to impress me with their fast fists and how hard they could hit a bag, but in the end I realized it was all for show. That and my schedule wouldn't have accommodated it.

I came looking for discipline and a good time, and wound up being disillusioned with the whole ordeal.

So does this mean I'm a quitter? Does this mean that I'm just a big baby and need to toughen up a bit?

Hardly.

What I'd rather a technical interview do is show what the company does. Give examples that are close to real work. Rather than displaying a "you must be this clever to enter here" bar why not instead show me the part of your organization that I'm going to work with. Why not show me your hoariest bugs and let me see if I can have a go at them? Why not engage me in technical discussion and see what I am instead of seeing how I'm not like the next person?

I understand there's a sort of algorithmic cleanliness to using online testing to see if folks can make the grade. I understand hiring is difficult and these rubrics have worked for your other employees. But I also think you're making mono-cultures with this sort of testing, and when the real problems hit you'll be less likely to have different opinions.

Sure, shared hiring experiences can be fun to bond over, but wouldn't you rather bond over the difficult problems you've solved instead of that hoary ordeal you all went through to get hired? I know which ones I'd rather have.

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