Over the years, I have completed several interview assignments while job hunting and have crafted a few exercises myself for my own hiring process.
Assignments as part of the interview process can be valuable. But they are also very easy to get wrong.
This blog post captures my thoughts on interview assignments from both the hiring manager and candidate perspective.
What is an interview assignment?
An interview assignment is simply an exercise or test designed to assess the skills of a candidate in the context of the role for which they are being considered.
The assignment normally occurs around the middle-late stage of the recruiting process, as a further practical assessment.
It starts with a problem brief and description of the expected output from the candidate (usually a presentation or word document) to demonstrate their knowledge or approach.
Why are interview assignments useful and why are they so popular in tech?
The purpose of the interview assignment is obviously to filter for the best talent for a role.
Ultimately, the hiring manager wants the best candidate, with the right skills and motivations, to take the role.
The exercise is a way to demonstrate the candidate’s fit, in practice. Having said that, work examples similar to design portfolios also work well for this purpose.
Comparing to other industries, the interview assignment is particularly popular in tech, because:
- It is a standard process for software engineering recruitment. Similar practices have translated to other functions such as marketing and operation roles.
- In tech, particularly startups, people value effort. The homework assignment is a good way for candidates to show their interest in the role (willing to put in the work).
- Tech companies, especially those at startup phase, operate in new markets. In environments without known playbooks, how a candidate approaches a problem and how they think is often more important than their track record since they are likely to be tackling new challenges and problems.
- In fast growing and fast moving companies, the risk of making a bad hire is high.
How should hiring managers craft an interview assignment?
In my experience, a well-designed interview is a mutually valuable exercise for both parties. For the interviewer, for the reasons described above. For the candidate, the assignment provides a glimpse or practical insight into the role itself.
When crafting the assignment, hiring managers have the opportunity to get a better grasp into the candidate’s qualities, beyond hard skills. For example, their communication, analytical, and presentation skills.
Hiring managers should also ensure the exercise is highly relevant to the role. For instance, if you expect the candidate to spend most of their time running SQL queries once in the role, you should really consider giving out a data exercise.
A few other considerations:
- Time expected – you should not expect the candidate to spend more than 2-3 hours to complete the exercise. Motivated candidates tend to bias toward investing a lot of time to complete assignments. Be explicit about expectations in the brief.
- Level of details – in addition to being explicit on time invested, you should also make clear that you are not expecting the perfect, intricately detailed, correct answer. Make explicit that what you are looking for is something structured and well-communicated; an insight into how they approach the problem. Ask them to make explicit assumptions made or missing information. The prompt should be broad enough to give candidates space to tackle the problem in the way they want, but just specific enough to give you what you want to assess.
- Company/data example used – do not use your current company in the assignment. PERIOD. Otherwise, it can be seen as just mining ideas / tactics for your business. For data, generate a sample randomized data set.
- Feedback – Regardless of the quality of the output, you should spend some time going through the outcome with the candidate to understand his/her logic and rationale and provide feedback. This is critical and only fair to the candidate given their time invested, no matter whether you decide to progress the candidate.
For candidates, how to prepare for interview assignments?
For candidates, view the interview assignment as an opportunity to show your skills and knowledge, how you could fit into the role, and how you stand out against the competition.
Besides answering the prompt directly, you should consider which of your qualities you want to highlight. That could include call-outs from the job description, experiences in industry, your tech stack, and/or analytical and communication skills.
Some other considerations:
- Problem-solving: this is the most important trait, in my opinion. The ability to share your thinking process and how you break down a big problem statement into smaller questions or workstreams is critical, in any role.
- Communication: Your verbal communication has passed the hiring manager by the time you have been given the interview assignment. The written piece should be focused on communication effectiveness – how you translate strategy into execution, how concise your writing is, and how well you present.
- Clearly state your assumptions upfront and ask questions: The problem you are solving is likely a real problem within the business. Therefore, there is likely a lot of context and nuance that you will be missing. With your limited information, there are no right or wrong answers. If you are not clear on the assignment, ask questions to clarify. (Even if think you are clear, you may want to ask anyway! It gives the hiring manager a sense of your working together which may set you apart from other candidates). Hiring managers don’t mind a few questions to signal your desire for clarity and curiosity. Remember, how you solve this problem today gives signals to the interview panel on how you will problem solve in the role.
There’s no one-size-fits all approach to interview assignments. Other formats could also include a working session or going through a candidate’s work samples/portfolios.
Assignments do take time, significantly more so on the candidates. Assignments are also not always suitable for people managers, as you are hiring them for their ability to manage a team, rather than their individual contributions.
However, when done right, assignments can be a valuable experience for both parties.
For hiring managers, do you use interview assignments in your recruiting process? I have a few samples for digital marketing – happy to share them if you reach out on Linkedin!