Using Technical Assessments to Find Top Talent


September 21, 2022


180 Engineering

The race to recruit top tech talent has never been tighter. While news reports continue to focus on layoffs at companies such as Microsoft, Shopify, Amazon, and Tesla, the number of jobs in the tech industry is actually growing. As reported by CEO Magazine, tech occupations across all industries grew by an estimated 239,000 positions and the tech industry gained 12,700 workers in July 2022. The unemployment rate for the tech sector was just 1.7% in the same month.

As the struggle to fill open roles continues, employers need to be savvy during the recruitment and hiring processes to ensure that their top choices don’t slip away. While talent can be lured to apply with the promise of lucrative pay and benefits as well as flexible work arrangements, keeping them invested in the recruitment process is key to a successful hire.

A lengthy hiring process is a big deterrent to many applicants. A study by Robert Half found that:

  • 57% of job seekers lose interest in the job if the hiring process is too long;
  • 23% of candidates will wait for just one week after an interview before resuming their job search; and
  • 39% of candidates think even 7-14 days is too long to wait for a decision.

Yet, in 2021, LinkedIn reported that the average time to hire within the IT sector is 44 days and within the engineering sector, it’s 49 days. Keep in mind, too, that the current struggle to fill open roles is also being experienced within the recruitment industry itself. The shortage of recruiters on both the corporate and agency sides means that the time to hire may be negatively affected.

It’s clear that companies need to streamline and speed up their recruitment process in order to stem the frustration felt by applicants and keep them from securing a position with a competitor while a hiring decision is made. Tech assessments are one way to do that.

What is a Technical Assessment?

Tech assessments are common within both the engineering and IT sectors. They are actual tests that are devised to measure the technical skills of candidates. They can be posed as coding challenges or even as multiple choice tests. The results give employers an overview of each individual applicant’s skill level and provide a way for employers to objectively weigh the aptitudes of the candidate pool. As indicated in a blog piece at Mercer, well-designed technical assessments can measure:

  • Critical thinking skills;
  • Abstract and logical reasoning skills;
  • Spatial and mechanical reasoning ability;
  • Problem-solving skills;
  • Numerical computation and estimation skills;
  • The ability to solve domain-specific technical questions;
  • The ability to understand technical details and nuances;
  • The ability to learn and implement knowledge; and
  • How invested a candidate is in keeping abreast with tech updates and changes.

Tech assessments are critical when it comes to comparing the suitability of different candidates for a role. After all, the educational background and work experience outlined on an applicant’s resume don’t necessarily reflect their expertise. As pointed out in a piece at CoderPad:

Coding, like playing an instrument, is a talent that is sometimes disproportional to one’s level of education – a graduate from a 12-week code boot camp might have more coding skill than a graduate from a four-year university. When properly conducted, the technical skills assessment represents a level playing field where true talent – divorced from one’s background, upbringing, and personal connections – can shine unencumbered.

While a tech assessment shouldn’t be the only criteria by which the successful applicant is chosen, it is the best way to gauge how well each candidate can perform the tech tasks required by the role.

Types of Technical Assessments

There are different types of technical assessments that can be used to streamline the hiring process and help select the best fit for the role. While some employers may choose to use only one type of assessment, it is possible – and even beneficial – to use a combination of different types.

Technical Screening

While tech recruiters may be well-versed in tech jargon, they may not be skilled at actual technical tasks. As a result, they may not have the knowledge to accurately and objectively gauge the hands-on skills of IT and engineering candidates.

Implementing technical screening at the initial stage of the hiring process can help filter out unsuitable candidates, which will ultimately improve your time to hire metric. As well, tech screens are the best way to remove any unconscious biases that a recruiter or hiring manager may have.

The technical screen can be part of the initial 30-60 minute phone screen and, as such, it needs to be short and simple. It’s rare for actual tests to be implemented at this stage of the process. If a coding challenge is provided at this point, it should be one that can be completed within just a few minutes. Instead, more general questions should be posed, such as asking the candidate about projects they’ve worked on or which programming languages they’re proficient with.

Take Home Assessments

If a candidate passes the initial technical screening, the next step may be a take home assessment or a remote coding challenge. These options are usually the intermediate step between the phone screen and the onsite interview. Whichever one is used, it should be developed as an in-depth assessment of those skills that are actually required in the role.

A take home assessment is like homework for the candidate to complete on their own time. It usually involves programming or logic problems, which allows evaluation of a candidate’s existing knowledge and skill set. While these types of assessments are often in-depth (a piece at Atera indicates that a take home assessment may take up to four hours to complete) a long, comprehensive take home assignment may deter some applicants from pursuing the opportunity since it requires a significant chunk of their own time. It’s important to create a take home assessment that nicely balances testing skills with a reasonable time commitment for the candidate.

A big benefit to take home assessments is that they allow candidates to really shine. The pressure is reduced because they’re not being observed, they’re working in a comfortable environment, and they’re using tools that they are familiar with. A secondary benefit is that take home assessments are often easier for non-technical interviewers to manage, since the candidate’s answers can be assessed by software or a third party outside of a company’s human resources department.

Remote Coding Challenges

As we pointed out in a past blog, most companies will choose to implement either a take home assessment or a remote coding challenge at the intermediate stage of the interview process.

Like a take home assessment, a remote coding challenge is rarely timed. But because the candidate will be working on the challenge with an interviewer via an online platform like Zoom or Skype, the coding challenge should be less comprehensive, with a shorter time requirement, than a take home assessment. However, it should be quite specific to the role. If the position will require the use of Python, for instance, then the assessment might test the candidate’s ability to build a user interface using Python.

Remote coding challenges are often highly collaborative and may even be a pair programming interview, where the interviewer and candidate share a coding platform and solve a technical problem together. This gives the candidate a chance to explain his thought processes and ask questions. It gives the interviewer a chance to gauge not just the candidate’s technical skill but also their soft skills, like communication, team work, and the ability to work under pressure. A remote coding challenge is a terrific way to further weed out the candidate pool, so that only a few are invited to the final stage of the interview process. With fewer candidates to assess and deliberate over at the final stage, the time to hire metric should benefit.

Onsite Whiteboard Challenges

When a company chooses whiteboarding as a form of technical assessment, it is usually tied to the final round of interviews. Candidates are asked to attend an in-person interview where they are provided a whiteboard and dry erase markers and given an issue to solve, such as a cyber attack simulation. In some cases, those on the interview team may act in certain roles, such as a developer, stakeholder, or user to interact with candidates.

Whiteboarding is one of the most stressful kinds of technical assessments for candidates and it provides less usable data for the hiring team than other kinds of assessments. The candidate is working in an unfamiliar environment and using a whiteboard and markers to solve problems that they would usually address directly on a computer. One could argue that it gives interviewers a chance to gauge soft skills as well as technical aptitude, but again, it doesn’t replicate the work environment nor provide the candidate with the tools that they would be using in their new role. As a result, their approach to problem solving might be different and their communication might be affected by pressure and stress.

How to Formulate Technical Assessments

If you don’t have a technical background yourself, the idea of assessing someone else’s tech skills might be overwhelming. It’s important that the tests be relevant to the position that that candidate applied for, to minimize candidate frustration. If candidates decide to give up and drop out of the interview process, you may not only lose some top talent from consideration but possibly also valuable time as you seek out more applicants.

As with most things these days, there are tech solutions, including technical skills screening software and coding assessment tools. As pointed out in a piece at CoderPad, it’s ideal to create a library of coding questions and challenges that are specific to your company and the role you are filling. To do that, CoderPad suggests consulting with your in-house developers to create that library and then using the preformulated questions in a testing platform that can be personalized.

But what if you don’t have an inhouse developer? What if you’re hiring someone to help build an e-commerce store because you’re a small entrepreneur without any technical knowledge at all and no existing IT staff? Other tech assessment platforms have more generic questions that you can access from their libraries.

There are pros and cons to the different types of technical assessments. Which one(s) you use and which questions you ask in those assessments should be tailored to your company and the role you are hiring for. As long as candidates aren’t put off by irrelevant tests and drop out of the interview process, technical assessments can provide insight into both an applicant’s technical aptitude and their soft skills. Having that data can help you fill your role from the best top talent available and should also help decrease your time to hire, since decisions can be made more quickly and accurately.