by Sharon Florentine

How blind skills challenges can close the skills gap

Sep 21, 2016
CareersDeveloperIT Jobs

Blind skills challenges are one way to remove both overt and unconscious bias from the technical hiring process.

Jessica Janiuk didn’t set out to have a career in IT. After earning a degree in communications with a minor in web development, Janiuk started working as a video producer, but quickly found that wasn’t the right fit. When offered the opportunity to work on software, Janiuk jumped at the chance, found a professional calling and has thrived in the IT industry for the last few years. But as a trans-woman, Janiuk has experienced more than the usual biases women in tech are subjected to on the journey to her current position as a front-end software engineer for global data protection firm Datto.

Though Silicon Valley firms and more progressive, organizations globally are employing a number of methods to increase diversity in their talent pipelines and remove biases in their recruiting and hiring processes, it’s still an uphill battle for women, the LGBTQ community and other underrepresented minorities trying to break into the IT field. One way to ensure bias isn’t impacting the hiring process is through blind coding challenges to screen and qualify technical talent.

“The business case for diversity is well-known at this point. We’re well beyond the ‘why should we do this?’ question in the IT world and even in traditional companies. But now we’re at the level where you’re dealing with the biases – both overt and subconscious, and HR, recruiters, hiring managers aren’t equipped to handle these issues,” says Karla Monterroso, vice president of programs at non-profit CODE2040, which creates awareness and opportunities in technology for Black and Latino/a engineering talent.

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Skills still matter

The good news is that companies are leveraging technology to anonymize résumés and make screening and hiring decisions based in part on candidates’ technical ability. Platforms like HackerRank and CodeFights – through which Janiuk landed her current role – are seeing companies line up in an effort to help make their hiring processes more fair and their workforces more diverse.

“We know there are unconscious biases – if you send an identical résumé but one’s from Rhonda and the other’s from Robert, the chances of Robert getting an interview are much higher. So what we’re trying to do is help companies behave fairly towards all candidates, and completely eliminate those unconscious biases. They’re looking at the pure results of a technical coding challenge and making a decision based on ability, rather than on data they weren’t even aware they were assimilating,” says Rhonda Larsen, vice president of business operations at HackerRank.

It’s not just about race, or gender, either, Larsen says. One of HackerRank’s clients ultimately hired a candidate who was working as a dishwasher, because he successfully passed the coding challenges.

Janiuk never expected to land a job through CodeFights. Rather her intent was to sharpen her coding skills to be better prepared for a job search. CodeFights pits programmers against corporate bots, debugging tests and logic problems to test their abilities and technical savvy. But it turns out, her skills placed her in an elite group – only 5 percent of users who’d successfully beaten the bots — and before she knew it, fielded requests for four interviews.

“I didn’t actually know I could get a job through the platform. I’d gone in just to make sure I was staying current on my skills. I got an email after I finished the challenges saying only 5 percent of users had done what I did – beaten the corporate bots. The best thing is its skills first; you go in, code, beat the challenges and that’s the first thing companies see. It really boosted my confidence and certainty that I’d chosen the right direction for myself,” Janiuk says.

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Biases don’t go away on Day 1

While blind skills challenges are one way to remove overt and unconscious biases from the screening and hiring process, they’re just the tip of the iceberg. Biases and discrimination don’t stop once a candidate is hired, so while it’s laudable that companies are taking this step, there’s more to be done, says CODE2040’s Monterroso.

“Technical competencies and behavioral competencies are related. Even if you believe you’re screening solely for tech skills, you have to understand how you see candidates. If there’s a person with whom you have a social connection or are in the same racial, gender or economic group, you’re giving off ‘signals’ that lead you to give them the benefit of the doubt when it comes to solving these problems; if they don’t have that social ‘in’ with you, you’re going to have broad skepticism as to whether or not they can do the work,” Monterroso says.

For companies to overcome this, it’ll take more than just blind hiring challenges, but it’s a good first step, she says. “If you can educate your HR and hiring teams to understand at the top of the funnel what you’re looking for, and that tech competencies and behavioral competencies are totally related, then you can better address the technical requirements you need. It all comes down to educating your workforce on the issues at hand,” says Monterroso.

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