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How to avoid those coding challenge blues

A new approach to coding challenges promises to spice up the developer recruitment process. Computer Weekly investigates

In mid-November 2017, a new company launched a social platform for developer recruitment in a bid to use the power of social networks to identify the best developers.

The idea of going digital, being multi-platform and customer-centric are among the technology-powered trends driving business, which often require new applications to be developed.

In recent years, there has been a shift in business to create in-house expertise around core technologies such as cloud computing, mobile, analytics and social software, but demand for these skills is exceeding supply.

A study conducted in 2017 for recruitment firm Mortimer Spinks revealed that 66% of business leaders had chosen cloud technology as their top area for investment in the next 12 months.

This was followed closely by security (63%), which was named as a high priority by organisations of all sizes across all industries.

However, 54% of business leaders said they outsourced technology because of a lack of access to talent or skills, either in the UK or within their own business.

Hiring the best developers relies on testing prospective candidates using automated coding tools, which some industry-watchers say can be too simplistic and may deter the very best candidates.

London startup Geektastic believes it has the answer with a new technology platform supported by a global community of skilled software engineers.

The engineers offer peer-reviewed coding challenges to evaluate developers as an alternative to more traditional, automated coding challenges.

Robin Beattie, a director at IT recruitment firm Mortimer Spinks, said: “Coding challenges have been around for quite some time. Now in almost every tech position a developer has to do some level of coding challenge. The problem is that it isn’t as simplistic as this. Recruitment is complicated and time-consuming.

“Predominantly, we find companies use an automated testing tool or their own bespoke challenges. Both have different concerns.”

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In some cases, an automated coding test can see the candidate get a fail very quickly, said Beattie: “The computer says no.”

The tests are largely algorithmic in nature, designed to test competency in Java, .net or Scala. “Full stack developers say it is really hard to create a full stack challenge,” he said.

Separate language tests are also needed for object-oriented programming languages, said Beattie. “It’s a candidate-driven market right now and people are put off by companies that put them through lengthy coding challenges. This delays the hiring process. Companies need to take a different approach to hiring tech talent and improve the candidate experience.”

Automated testing can limit the pool of people a business can interview when looking to hire developers, he pointed out.

Mortimer Spinks has been looking at Geektastic’s alternative approach to the coding challenge. Beattie said: “Candidates are much more responsive to taking part in peer-reviewed assessments, rather than automated tests, and our clients value the depth and insight the assessments provide. By getting greater engagement from both candidates and clients, the platform is actively helping us make more successful placements – and that’s great for the software developer, our clients and, of course, us.”

The Rank Group is one of the companies that has been looking at Geektastic to help simplify developer recruiting. The gaming company, which owns Mecca Bingo, needs more developers to build new customer experiences.

Nick Boothroyd, director of talent acquisition at Rank Group, told Computer Weekly: “If you look at our business, we run casinos and need everyone from kitchen assistants to croupiers to heads of finance, project managers, corporate roles and developers.”

Tech-focused roles

While aligned to the business, developer roles tend to be more tech-focused, said Boothroyd. “You can teach someone how to make a cocktail, but you don’t have the time to train a developer in Java,” he added.

Rank is in the market for strong developers to make its customer experience as exciting as possible, he said. “We are looking at front-end and full-stack developers.”

But the challenge is in trying to identify the best developers, said Boothroyd. “It is archaic to test developers. You want an engaging process, which is better than two people facing each other in a room.

“Geektastic is enabling us to spot real potential in someone who we may not have been initially interested in.”

Given that the market for developers is candidate-driven, some potential recruits may not be particularly responsive to coding tests, each of which may take a few hours to complete.

Boothroyd said Geektastic also offers feedback to developers. “If required, developers get line-by-line feedback of code,” he said.

Then, from a candidate interviewer perspective, “you can focus on the fit with the team and can see how well the candidate fits in with the business”, he added.

Although it is still early days for Geektastic, the people Computer Weekly spoke to feel the startup’s approach with peer-review code challenges offers a more people-focused alternative to automated tests.

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