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Beyond the Resume

Coding competitions can help companies find talented software engineers and programmers who would otherwise be screened out by the traditional hiring process.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017
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While working as a software engineer at Amazon, Vivek Ravisankar found himself growing frustrated at the sheer amount of time and effort it typically took to hire just one engineer -- time that could be better spent on building great products, he says.

"I used to have to go through 10 or 12 interviews just to get one person for an on-site interview, and then go through at least three on-site interviews in order to make one job offer," says Ravisankar. "It added up to 30 interviews to fill one position."

An additional frustration was that there was no easy way to quantify, or "score," candidates, says Ravisankar.

His experiences eventually led him to co-found HackerRank in 2012, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based firm that uses coding challenges to help aspiring programmers and software engineers break into the IT field. It's one of a number of vendors that offer employers an alternative to finding IT talent via the traditional resume-based hiring process  --  a process Ravisankar and others say is inefficient and has led to an artificial IT talent shortage because it puts too much emphasis on schools attended and work history rather than candidates' actual skills.

Most programmers are self-taught, says Ravisankar. A recent survey by Stack Overflow, an online community of 6.5 million programmers, supports this: 69 percent of all developers report that they are at least partly self-taught, while 13 percent say they are entirely self-taught. Only 43 percent of developers say they have a bachelor's degree in computer science or a related field.

Many programmers and software engineers can be found outside of traditional sources, says Ravisankar, citing a dishwasher who's now working as a software developer after being discovered on HackerRank.

Part of the problem is that the resume-screening approach to IT talent acquisition is extremely flawed, says entrepreneur Harj Taggar: it's expensive, time-consuming and biased against candidates who haven't gone to well-known schools or worked at high-profile companies.

"Right now companies are guessing whether a candidate would pass their on-site interview based on what's on their resume -- where they worked, schools attended," says Taggar, a former partner at Silicon Valley start-up incubator Y Combinator and CEO/co-founder of Triplebyte, a company that uses a credential-blind approach for matching software engineers with jobs. "Credential-based filtering through resumes is the easiest approach for companies that can't hire enough engineers because there's a talent shortage."

However, many companies -- particularly in Silicon Valley -- have inadvertently created this "shortage" themselves by focusing too much of their attention on candidates who graduated from Stanford or MIT or worked at Google, he says. This results in a bidding war for a relatively small pool of candidates, while otherwise-qualified applicants are screened out.

"We know there are great people whose resumes are just sitting in a big pile somewhere because recruiters and hiring managers assume their lack of a fancy degree or nontraditional background means they won't pass an on-site interview," says Taggar.

HackerRank has raised a total of $28 million in funding so far, according to Bloomberg LLP, and has a roster of clients that includes JPMorganChase, Goldman Sachs, VMWare, Twitter and Yelp. In addition to HackerRank, other firms that offer coding challenges include TopCoder, Codility and CodeFights, which recently raised $10 million to expand its platform for testing the coding skills of potential hires. That company's clients include Dropbox, Uber and Quora.

"People like to believe we live in a meritocracy, where individuals are valued based on their skills and abilities and not their titles, but the truth is, we do not," said CodeFights founder and CEO Tigran Sloyan in a statement. 

On CodeFights, coders can compete against each other or against bots via a gamification platform in which players score points the faster they solve a particular problem or submit a solution. High-scoring players can be matched with companies that are seeking to fill IT jobs. Approximately 200 companies use CodeFights to find new recruits, Sloyan told CNNMoney.

With HackerRank's platform, recruiters can search for potential candidates to fill a given position via tests chosen from a library of programming challenges or they can create their own programming challenge that's tailored to a specific job. Potential candidates who score highly on the challenges are forwarded to the recruiter for further evaluation. HackerRank's offerings include an enterprise product, which clients can use to find programmers, and a community of 1 million developers from 300 countries who solve challenges for fun and whom HackerRank can connect directly to companies looking for IT talent.

By showing recruiters what they can actually do, candidates without traditional IT backgrounds have a much better chance of breaking into a well-paying job in the field, while companies can get better insight not only as to whether candidates can do the work but whether they can do it well, says Ravisankar. The result is a more efficient recruiting process that can save companies time and money, he says.

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Coding competitions are also used by companies such as Indeed, the world's largest job site, to help companies find IT talent through its Indeed Prime service, a specialty job site for technical talent that launched in 2015.

"We do put a lot of emphasis on coding challenges," says Wu Shu, director of product development for Indeed Prime. "We believe there are a lot of good candidates who don't have traditional degrees, but if they can tackle our coding challenges, then it's a good way for us to discover these hidden gems."

Coders who score in the top 10 percent of Indeed Prime's rankings for a coding challenge are highlighted to employers, says Wu. "Some employers have the same kind of meritocracy -- they prefer these candidates to those who have traditional degrees," he says.

Not everyone is a fan of using coding competitions to find talent. Although firms such as HackerRank let clients create their own coding challenges for specific jobs, other competitions involve solving problems that may be unrelated to the issues facing many companies, says Taggar. This can make it difficult to assess whether people who score well on them would make good candidates, he says.

"A lot of these programming competitions are optimized for things the engineers are interested in doing during their spare time," he says. "But many companies are working on practical problems -- a programming challenge about solving something esoteric would not be particularly interesting for them."

As for coders themselves, they should look at the competitions as just a starting point for a career in IT, says P.K. Agarwal, CEO and regional dean at Northeastern University's Silicon Valley campus.

"I agree they give coders the chance to break into the market," he says. "But don't think of the competition as an end point. Think of it as, you've broken into the exciting world of IT, but across the board it's better to have some insurance of some sort, such as a certificate in machine learning or a master's degree, something that will continue to take you down the learning path."

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