ThoughtWorks is not proud to be the toughest company to interview

ThoughtWorks was recently named as the second toughest company to land a job at according to Glassdoor.com.

While many businesses celebrate topping the league table, ThoughtWorks feels that tough is not the right word to describe their hiring process.

In this interview, ThoughtWorks’ Global Head of Recruiting, Suzi Edwards-Alexander explains the reasoning behind their thought-provoking hiring process.

Can you briefly describe your interview process?

Our process is designed to show us what you can do, rather than tell us, so we’ve always concentrated on quite practical interviews. For example, all potential developers, even the architects, have to write code for us before they come into the office, and then when they meet us, they pair with one of our consultants to add some extra functionality to it, and to explain their design decisions. We find that this doesn’t just help us understand someone’s current capabilities, but we can see how they problem solve, how comfortable they are pairing and how quickly they can pick up new concepts and ideas. What’s telling is the number of people who aren’t comfortable doing this, or who aren’t happy being interviewed by someone that they view as less experienced than they are. Even something as simple as a hands-on coding interview tells us a lot about whether or not someone’s going to be a good cultural fit.

What we’ve noticed as we’ve matured as a business, especially as we’ve had to adapt our process in countries like Brazil, South Africa and India, is that what we evaluate in candidates has changed. The process that got us here, a process with a really heavy bias towards technical evaluation, needs to change. We don’t just want to hire from the middle classes, from the educated elite, so we’ve had to spend more time looking at cultural alignment and hiring for potential. Making sure that someone is aligned to our social mission and values is as important as assessing their technical chops!

What sort of questions are you likely to ask candidates and why?

We’re looking for what we call “meta-cognition”. We’ve had a thread on our intranet recently sharing our favorite interview questions. One of my colleagues asks towards the end of the interview “Tell me one specific question you wish I’d asked you in the past 45 minutes. Please note I’m not looking for the answer - just tell me the question.”

“Which brings me to my last question: <insert the candidate’s question here>.”

I like this question because it tests self-awareness - what about them have we not explored yet? What do they think is important about us evaluating them? What do they think we ought to value? It’s different from having them ask questions of us—it lets them ask themselves a question.

That’s a very ThoughtWorks way of interviewing. And I believe it means we get to know much more about someone than trotting out the “how many tea cups in China?” style questions that everyone’s heard a thousand times.

Are you surprised that candidates find your interview process challenging? Or is that part of the plan?

Well, it’s designed to be thought provoking. Life at ThoughtWorks, doing the kind of work that we do, having the kind of openness and transparency and our lack of hierarchy, means that our hiring process is really meant to be a microcosm of life here. We expect principal consultants with over 20 years of experience to respect opinions and thoughts from employees who just joined the organisation as grads. And they probably will challenge them in some instances too. That’s what life looks like at ThoughtWorks. And we want to give interviewees a taster of it in our interviews.

When you hear that interviews at your company are considered difficult, do you wear it as a badge of honour or does it concern you?

It really concerns us. We do a lot of work to hire those who are historically discriminated against and articles about the “most challenging” and “brutal” hiring processes are likely to put these people off from applying in the first place. I wish all of these pieces were about the most thought-provoking processes, but I doubt they’d get picked up by Forbes and the Huffington Post.

We tend to think of it as selective, rather than tough. And being selective can be an attractive attribute. It’s not about earning points or making it through a hazing ritual, it’s about knowing that if this process selects me, then it has probably selected other people who I will enjoy working with. We hope that being selective in this way could be seen as a positive amongst groups that have been historically discriminated against. We like to think that when we look closely we’re going to see value and excellence that less opened-minded organizations are going to miss.

Given our social values and our mission to better humanity through software and help drive the creation of a socially and economically just world, it shouldn’t be easy to become part of the ThoughtWorks team—it’s just not along the lines that everyone typically thinks when you read “difficult” interview process. In that respect, we are proud because we’re really thoughtful about our hiring.

Do you find that challenging interviews result in better long-term employees?

I’d prefer to say that our hiring process results in better long-term employees, rather than challenging interviews. We have a pretty amazing retention rate, especially for consultancy. Our hiring process does a really good job of making sure that people know what ThoughtWorks is all about, and we know what the individual is all about. That’s the balance we’re looking for.

Do you worry that difficult interviews could scare promising talent away?

We worry that the perception of difficult interviews might. We want to bring together the most capable, driven and passionate people to drive our mission. I don’t think that difficult interviews are a part of that message. We’re about hiring for potential, at every level in our business, and a focus on difficult interviews could scare away people who don’t see themselves as a perfect fit. That’s the bit that I think Glassdoor missed; what does the organisation do to assess potential? Difficult makes it sound like there are text-book answers that we are looking for, and there really aren’t.

Things seem to be working at your company. Do you have any tips on interviewing techniques that might help other HR professionals?

I think that what’s working at ThoughtWorks is more than just our interviewing. When you deliberately build an open, collaborative culture, where people are inspired by and are working towards some common goals, amazing things will happen.

About ThoughtWorks (www.thoughtworks.com)

ThoughtWorks - A software company and community of passionate individuals whose purpose is to revolutionize software creation and delivery, while advocating for positive social change. Our clients are people and organizations with ambitious missions; we deliver disruptive thinking and technology to empower them to succeed. In our 20th year, over 2300 ThoughtWorks employees - ‘ThoughtWorkers’ - are currently serving clients from offices in Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Ecuador, Germany, India, Singapore, South Africa, Uganda, the U.K., and the U.S.

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