Coming Soon: Video Technical Interviews

Yahoo’s purchase last week of San Francisco startup Distill was about its team’s background in mobile advertising. To us, though, what’s interesting is the company’s most recent effort: a new online approach to technical interviews.

Video InterviewDistill, which is being shut down by Yahoo, was working on tools to combine video conferencing with coding challenges. Essentially, a manager could conduct a video interview and assign coding problems at the same time, watching and collaborating with the candidate as they worked through the problem. “Distill’s product paired the basic features of a video chat service like Skype, and put them alongside a text editor and file upload space so that an interviewer could walk a candidate through a collaborative coding session,” explains TechCrunch. The service was in private beta.

It does seem like such an approach would streamline the process of conducting these interviews, if only because they’d be easier to set up. With Distill’s approach, the key components of a technical interview remain in place — the ability of the manager to see how a candidate thinks things through, and the back and forth that goes on along the way.

Of course, it wouldn’t eliminate the downside of technical interviews: Some companies emphasize them over things like references, cultural fit, experience and the like. And some perfectly qualified people just don’t perform well on this kind of thing.

We should note that this approach differs from online technical assessments, which offer standardized or semi-customized multiple-choice tests. Hiring managers usually prefer to pose complex problems that need context and can show them how you interact and think. That can’t be conveyed through a canned test, which again argues to the value of a Distill-like approach.

This is one of those things that passes the logic test: It provides employers with a tool that can strengthen their recruitment process by allowing managers to conduct technical interviews more efficiently. It can also afford them an economical way to meet with candidates in remote locations. Even though Distill is going away, don’t expect the idea to die with it.

3 Responses to “Coming Soon: Video Technical Interviews”

  1. This concept is already here. I’ve done several such interviews in the past year. I’m not a fan of doing “collaborative coding sessions” in an interview because I am uncomfortable working with an audience. There’s a reason I’m an engineer and not an actor or salesperson.

    Not everyone works in the same way and this new emphasis on having developers code stuff while being ogled doesn’t necessarily showcase the best of a developer’s skills. Some of us focus better without external distractions or being put on the spot. It doesn’t make us less capable, just different. That’s what happens when you have people who are comfortable in the spotlight designing interviews. They think the same things work for everyone, but we’re not in a one-size-fits-all industry.

    The fad of collaborative workspaces is driven by marketing types for whom such things probably work quite well. But with developers whose tasks require a lot of thought and analysis, such distracting environments are not necessarily the best approach.

    Perhaps this is just my personal preferences, but from discussing with my colleagues, I know I’m not alone in this. I even turned down an interview recently when I learned the company was into pair programming. I know such a development methodology won’t work for me, since I seem to turn into a blithering idiot when trying to code while being watched. I just wish those making the hiring decisions would consider this instead of jumping on the latest management fad-of-the-month.

  2. Tula brings up a great point on the predisposition of many developers to work through problems independently. It bears noting, however, that the requirements of the new “hybrid IT” roles dictate some comfort level with collaborative coding, data analysis, etc.

    Of course, the change is also a by-product of the virtual world. My consultants (I’m a technology recruiter) are collaborating with SMEs, project managers and technical leads via video conference, who are themselves working remotely. So, yes, there are efficiency and budgetary advantages – as Feffer noted – but often these video interviews allow hiring teams to measure the vital chemistry factor. Candidates, too, are getting critical information on the team dynamics that will inform their decision in this demand market.

    Love them or hate them, these tools are becoming the “new normal.”