Tech Tests: The Impact on Candidate Journey

Last week I reached out to my network after having quite a few struggles with great software developers dropping out of the hiring process when companies were asking them to complete tech tests at the first stage. This made sense to me for the most part. They’d had little interaction with the company and hiring manager, and therefore didn’t feel invested enough to complete a test. However, when I reached out to my LinkedIn network about this, I was initially really surprised with the outcome.

I posted a poll asking at what stage Developers would be most willing to complete a tech test, or which stage they would prefer, and the most popular individual response was that candidates would prefer to have the tech test at the first stage (44.1%). This was out of the options of “first stage (before interview”, “second stage - after interview” (32.4%)), or “final stage” (23.5%). I didn’t include a ‘never’ option, purely because I wanted to test the preference for clients and companies who have tech tests as a set part of the process. My first thought was that the emerging attitude from developers completely contrasted my own experience, expectations, and previous research.

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At the end of last year, I worked on a report with a client who did tests first. Of the 16 candidates spoken to on the active market for this client, 8 didn’t want to complete a tech test before speaking to the client, and 2 candidates who initially were happy to go forward and get the test set up, pulled out due to lack of client interaction. We have found a similar situation in the past with multiple major clients who had a similar process for a number of years. However, the retention rates of candidates for these clients significantly increased once they started conducting 10–15-minute chats with candidates to introduce the company before having them complete the tech test. One client hired 2 developers within a space of 2 weeks since changing process!

With this in mind, I decided to reach out to some of my respondents to get more information around their preferences and this is where some of the reasoning became more apparent. One individual who was looking to break into the development space suggested that they would rather complete the tech test first to avoid wasting time preparing for interviews when they aren’t technically good enough for the role anyway. They’d much rather be filtered out instantly to save time for other pursuits. This is a logical approach, especially for more junior, or even graduate, developers who have less self-confidence and awareness of their strengths, less experience with specific tech stacks, and who are potentially more likely to prioritise getting a job over finding a good cultural fit.

A second respondent aligned with this, by suggesting that conducting the tech test at the first stage immediately indicated to both the client and candidate whether they want to continue, therefore acting as an initial filter.

Upon further inspection, many respondents who preferred first stage tech tests also seemed to be more senior and in decision making roles, indicating that they’re likely to be hiring rather than being hired. I’ve heard from a number of decision makers that having first stage tech tests can be an efficient, objective method of filtering out unsuitable candidates to speed up the hiring process. Whilst also saving time in their diaries to avoid speaking to candidates who might not be technically up to scratch. Additionally, they give quantifiable insights, which offer a more measurable and standardised comparison of candidates. Naturally, having first stage tech test interviews, reduces unconscious bias (as long as considerations are made for aspects such as disability and access to required tech), and the tech tests should be based strictly on job related criteria. From this perspective, I can see the benefits to the employer.

It wasn’t until I segmented the data slightly differently though, that things started correlating with my previous experiences and with conversations I have had with developers.

Out of all the respondents, 60 people voted for first stage tech interviews which, yes, was the highest individual response portion out of the three categories, but it wasn’t a majority. 44 people voted for second stage (after interview) tech tests, and 32 voted for final stage tech tests. Therefore 76 people still prefer having some form of interaction with the hiring company before investing time and effort into what can sometimes be time consuming and challenging tech tests, compared to the 60 people who prefer first stage tech tests. One Polyglot Developer, Phil, stated that he would never do a tech test and certainly not before having a conversation with the company, asking “why would I take a test before I've had a conversation with someone about the role and even made a decision if it's of interest or not? If I came across a business that wanted a test done first, then I'd simply say no and move onto the next prospect.”

Nigel, a Software Developer wasn’t as against technical tests, but agreed that having a conversation first was much better and suggests “The best recruitment I've recently come across involved a 1-hour interview with managers and HR, then immediately a 2-hour tech test, and then they offered the role during the same day. I definitely feel that there should be time for a get to know each other before any tech tests, but there is no need to have a long recruitment process.”

From Nigel’s comment, and countless conversations I have had previously, I can deduce that lengthy interview processes are a big turn-off for candidates in process. But as demonstrated above, including tech tests in the interview process doesn’t have to make it lengthy. Careful planning and keeping tech tests to a reasonable length of time (less than two hours) can be a good compromise.

Other drawbacks that became apparent with technical testing was that they are absolute. You either pass or fail on the day. There’s no consideration beyond this, especially when there is a lack of quality feedback on where candidates potentially have fallen down. From speaking to candidates, this is often a reason for them not wanting to do tests, as they often don’t receive constructive feedback which is worth them taking 1-2 hours out of their day.

Additionally, tech tests don’t give a completely accurate representation of a candidate’s ability and often fail to demonstrate soft skills and character, which are also important aspects of hiring the right employees. This, I suppose depends on what businesses prioritise: hard skills or soft skills and whether they are willing to offer training to candidates who show promise. Philip, a Head of Security, stated that he doesn’t use technical tests, instead preferring to ask a set of technical questions in an interview which will allow the candidate to demonstrate their knowledge and ability, as well as their problem solving, reasoning, and logic.

In conclusion whilst the initial statistics shocked me due to the alarmingly high number of people preferring first stage tech tests, upon further analysis, I realised that the majority of respondents still preferred having at least a ten-minute conversation with the hiring company before investing time into a technical test (55.9%). Whilst technical testing might benefit companies who are trying to speed up the hiring process by introducing an objective, standardised form of first stage rejection, the lack of communication and sometimes unrealistic expectations of candidates are damaging the candidate experience.

I’ve had countless great developers drop out of interview processes due to first stage tech tests in favour of other opportunities where tech tests are later in the process, if included at all. And this poll highlighted a majority preference for tech tests after a first stage interview or conversation. Several respondents even went as far to say that they would immediately turn down any interview offers that involved tech testing.

Whilst I can’t ignore the benefits, I would urge hiring companies to really consider how necessary the tech test is, how long it really needs to be, and most importantly at what stage the tech test should be (if at all). Based on recent conversations, and the response to this poll, I’d suggest hiring managers sparing at least 10-15 minutes before a tech test to establish a relationship with the candidate and get them invested in the company. Gone are the days when we can get away with the attitude of “well, the developer should want to work for this company”. That’s simply not the case anymore, you need to sell your business to the candidate as well, and communication and a great candidate journey is so important to this.

Attracting, retaining, and hiring top developers is much more challenging now that software developers have so much choice as to what company to work for. Companies need to provide an exceptional candidate journey and stand out from other businesses. If you’d like more information on how I have helped other businesses adapt their hiring processes to identify, engage, and retain top developer talent, even in a virtual space, please get in touch