Yes, Virtual Code Reviews Can Be Just as Effective as In-Person Interviews

June 25, 2020

When interviewing engineering candidates, resumes give hiring managers a solid idea of someone’s job experience, education history and technical skills.

But engineering managers aren’t just looking for a list of coding languages; they want to see thought process and problem-solving skills in action. Processes like whiteboarding and code reviews shed light on whether the potential candidate would be a good fit for the company and the team. 

The coronavirus has forced many growing tech teams to rethink coding interviews, however.

According to Quinn Baetz, founding engineer of roadside assistance company Agero + Swoop, virtual coding interviews are a great substitute for in-person meetings because they typically place candidates in a more relaxed environment, like a home office. Sending interviewees questions and instructions ahead of time allows them to prepare and get comfortable with the material.

While interviews can be intimidating, a couple of engineering managers we spoke with recommended opening and closing with casual conversation. Light banter allows both the hiring manager and interviewee to get a sense for how they’d interact in the office as teammates. 

 

Bill Hicks
Manager, Engineering

Bill Hicks, an engineering manager at travel company Expedia, doesn’t rely on shared whiteboards for virtual interviews. Instead, conversations about how the candidate thinks and works through complex problems help him determine whether they’d be a collaborative teammate.

 

What tools or technology do you use to conduct code review and whiteboarding interviews virtually, and why?

I don’t rely on interviewing tech like shared whiteboards, proctored questionnaires, or shared docs or IDEs for programming to do virtual interviews. I am far more interested in using conversation to explore the thinking and problem-solving process than whether the candidate can recite the right syntax of some programming language.  

In a virtual interview, the candidate can have any number of cheat sheets, off-screen aides, Stack Overflow or other search sites available during the interview. Personally, I feel that if I do hire someone, I will expect them to make use of as many sources of information and help as they can to do their jobs efficiently, so I encourage that sort of thing. It’s not whether the information resides in their brain or on the internet, but rather how they understand and apply it. If they can quickly understand the problem and formulate a search that helps them solve it, then that gets the job done.

Real-life software development is not the same as solving puzzles on a whiteboard.

 

How do you adapt the format or content of these types of interviews when conducting them virtually?

We’ve been conducting virtual interviews for quite a while, so we haven’t had to modify our process for the current situation. There are sophisticated tools that can be used for coding interviews, such as Quora, but I usually just use a video chat app like BlueJeans or Zoom, which allows for screen-sharing and text chat. The screen share can be used to present a UI challenge, problem statement or flowchart to the candidate, and then the text chat can be used to allow sharing of code, or pseudo-code, that might solve the problem.  

It’s important to carry on a conversation with the candidate to assess their decision choices and reasoning. Taking an interactive approach puts the candidate at ease, as well as allows them to elaborate on their choices, which can reveal creativity that would never show up in a programming quiz. Real-life software development is not the same as solving puzzles on a whiteboard, and programmers should be allowed to draw on a wide range of resources, including the interviewer in the role as a peer programmer.

 

What’s your single best piece of advice for engineering leaders who are now tasked with handling technical interviews virtually, and why? 

The problem with conducting interviews remotely is you don’t get the normal body language feedback you would in person. You can’t necessarily catch the nuance of facial expression, breathing or body motions. These are all subtle cues that people normally get from each other when engaged in an in-person conversation, which tell a lot about the meaning behind the words. 

As an interviewer, you should put yourself in the position of a team member who is peer programming with the candidate because that’s how the team will have to work together for many months to come. The most important skill of a new employee, besides having basic domain knowledge and the willingness to learn, is their ability to work with the rest of the team.  

The worst new hire is the one that disrupts the social interaction of the team, drives down morale and antagonizes other members of the team. A genius new hire to a team of 10 might raise the productivity by 20 percent, but if they don’t fit in with the team, you might have a team of one a few months from now. So, as an interviewer conducting a virtual interview, pay less attention to the score on a standardized test and more attention to how much you want to work with this person.

 

Quinn Baetz
Founding Engineer

Founding engineer of roadside assistance company Agero + Swoop Quinn Baetz said he appreciates virtual interviews because candidates are naturally more relaxed sitting in a familiar environment. Prior to the interview, he gives candidates instructions so they have a chance to prepare. Sidebars over Slack let employers communicate if they need more time during virtual whiteboarding. 

 

What tools or technology do you use to conduct code review and whiteboarding interviews virtually, and why?

We use Zoom for conducting virtual interviews. One of the benefits of a virtual interview is the candidate is using a machine they are comfortable with, so we don’t need to do whiteboarding. This means we can have the candidate code a solution to a problem through screen sharing using the tools they are most comfortable with to better emulate a real working environment. When they aren’t bogged down trying to write legible, clean code with markers on a whiteboard and instead are using familiar tools, we get a better sense of who the candidate is, their style and their work process.

 

How do you adapt the format or content of these types of interviews when conducting them virtually?

I’ve noticed candidates are more relaxed during virtual interviews; they are already in a familiar environment including both their home and their development environment. It’s vital to ensure set-up instructions are clear ahead of the session so time isn’t wasted working through technical problems and the candidate can come prepared. The interviewers have a sidebar Slack conversation allowing them to let the next interviewer know if more or less time is needed, and pass on any critical information that's needed.

Approach technical virtual interviews as an opportunity to improve the interviewing process.

What’s your single best piece of advice for engineering leaders who are now tasked with handling technical interviews virtually, and why?

Approach technical virtual interviews as an opportunity to improve the interviewing process. If the interview is redesigned to fit the new medium, you might find they go smoother and are better at assessing a candidate’s true abilities.  

 

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