Tech recruiters are ruining Silicon Valley

The dreaded whiteboard interview.
The dreaded whiteboard interview.
Image: Reuters / Brian Snyder
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I regularly receive emails from recruiters at Google, Amazon, Facebook, and smaller Silicon Valley startups. They always find me somehow, most likely through my blog, my books, or my GitHub account. And they always start with “We’re so impressed by your profile” and finish with “Let’s schedule an interview.” I reply to each request for an interview with the same message, and the recruiters always disappear, only to resurface in a few months with a new offer.

And yes, I do realize that these are multi-billion-dollar companies—the best in the industry—and that I’m nothing compared to them. I do realize that their recruiters don’t care about my answers—they simply click “delete” and move on. I also realize that they will never see this post, and this article probably won’t change anything for them. But I’m hoping that once I explain my message and my reasoning behind it, some of you begin to adopt it as well, and together we may be able to change the industry from our end.

When I receive these standard recruitment emails, this is what I send back:

Thanks for your email. I’m very interested indeed. I have nothing against an interview. However, there is one condition: I have to be interviewed by the person I will be working for. By my future direct manager.

The recruiter who gets this reply never gets back to me.

The difference between useful interviews and wastes of time

I learned my lesson two years ago, when Amazon tried to recruit me. I got an email from the company that said they were so impressed by my profile and couldn’t wait to start working with me. They needed me, nobody else. I was naïve, and the message flattered me. They paid for my ticket to fly out to their head office in Seattle and to stay at a 5-star hotel. I was impressed. They definitely were interested. So was I.

What happened at the interview was, most probably, very close to what Max Howell experienced with Google: Some programmers who didn’t know a thing about my profile asked me to invent some algorithms on a white board for almost four hours. Did I manage? I don’t think so. Did they make me an offer? No.

What did I learn?

That it was a waste of time. For both of us.

Their bureaucratic machine is designed to process hundreds of candidates a month. In order to fish and attract them, there is an army of recruiters sending warm emails to people like me. They have to screen candidates somehow, and they are too lazy to make this process effective and creative. So they end up sending candidates to random interviewers who are supposed to ask the same generalized, complex technical questions, regardless of their applicability to the candidates’ history or desired position.

I’m not saying that people who pass their tests are not good programmers. I’m also not saying that I’m a good programmer—let’s face it, I didn’t pass the test. I do believe that, in a way, this filtering system works well. My point is that it contradicts the original email I got from the recruiter.

Be straightforward

If she would have started her email with “We’re looking for an algorithm expert,” we would never have gotten any further and would not have wasted our time. Clearly, I’m not an expert in algorithms. There is no point in giving me binary-tree-traversing questions; I don’t know those answers and will never be interested in learning them. I’m trying to be an expert in something else—like object-oriented design, for example.

There was a clear mismatch between my profile and the expectations of the interviewers. I don’t blame them, and I don’t blame her. They all were just employees. I blame myself for not setting this all straight at the very beginning.

I should have told her that I didn’t want to be interviewed by some programmers, because I would most certainly fail. There was no need to try. I wanted to be interviewed by the person who really needed me: my future boss. That person will understand my profile and won’t ask pointless questions about algorithms, simply because he or she will know what my duties will be and what kind of problems I will be capable of solving, if they hired me.

Unfortunately, as I keep observing from two years of bouncing such emails back to recruiters, they can’t change anything. They have to provide formal and standard screening for everybody, beginning with those same warm and flattering initial promises.

I’m sorry, recruiters—no more standard interviews for me.

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