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Microsoft revamps developer interview process to better match real-world skills

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Under the five-year reign of CEO Satya Nadella, Microsoft has made major strides in reforming its once-cutthroat corporate culture — an effort that’s even seeped into how it interviews software developers.

John Montgomery, partner director of program management at Microsoft, tells Business Insider that the core of cultural change is about making sure that teams are working with each other, all over the company, solving real problems for real customers. And so, Microsoft began rethinking its interview process to match that goal.

Traditionally, interviews at Microsoft and elsewhere can be highly technical — like, “reverse a linked list” — and include math games, like asking candidates to figure out how many ping pong balls would fill a 747. Both these types of questions really have little to do with what employees would actually do day-to-day at work — but even Google decided to discontinue its infamous brainteasers, because they didn’t actually test for anything worthwhile.

To that end, starting in early 2016, Microsoft’s developer division began rolling out the “Alternative Interview Framework,” which Montgomery detailed in a Medium blog post. It’s designed to better match an applicant’s skills to what the job really requires, says Montgomery, who spearheaded the effort as it spread through Microsoft’s developer division.

“We wanted it to be more like what people are expected to do at work,” Montgomery told Business Insider. “People are expected to collaborate. You can ask questions. We wanted it to be more like what you’re expected to do at work.”

The ‘Alternative Interview Framework’

Under the new process, Microsoft shares the interview questions in advance so that candidates can prepare. During the interview itself, a candidate might run through a real scenario or problem the team is trying to solve.

“When you walk a candidate through that process, every candidate brings something to each of those phases and each of those interviews,” Montgomery said. “Some candidates are great at a particular phase but not so great at others. It still makes them great hires. From that perspective of inclusion, it enables us to ask a broader array of questions.”

What’s more, rather than doing things one-on-one, a candidate talks to two interviewers at once— usually a senior employee and a junior employee. This gives the team two opinions on the candidate to consider, and it can actually make the candidate feel more comfortable as they get double the perspective on the team they’re trying to join.

Furthermore, the team uses blind feedback, meaning that all interviewers withhold their opinions on the candidate until the process is complete, at which time they all pool their opinions and come to a final decision. This can help reduce bias: It means that a second- or third-round interviewer won’t come into a meeting with the candidate with any preconceived notions from the first or second.

Redesigning the interview process

The team first tested the process on its own members over the summer of 2016, says Montgomery, interviewing each other to see if worked in practice as well as it does on paper.

“We haven’t had that much fun in a long time,” Montgomery said. “We also tested interview processes on people who are more senior. It’s a lot of fun when you’re effectively interviewing someone from your own team. We kept on learning and iterating to make it better.”

In so doing, says Montgomery, the team tried to apply the principles of product development to refining the new interview process. As they went, the team constantly reassess what was working and what wasn’t, iterating on the process on the fly.

In the last half of 2016, the team finally started running its first candidates through this brand new interview process, which has gradually expanded to more of the company since.

There’s still more Montgomery would like to improve on. Right now, the interview process is long, requiring candidates to take out an entire day. He thinks it would be useful to figure out if there ways to either shorten the process entirely, or at least spread it out over multiple days and gives candidates more time to reflect and think.

Also, he’d like to improve on making the scenarios more realistic and approachable for people who don’t have a background in professional software development, but may still be qualified candidates.

“We want to design an interview process centered around the interviewee,” Montgomery said. “It’s a manifestation of Microsoft culture and being more inclusive in identifying talent that a normal interview process might not identify.”

More empathy

Montgomery believes this new framework is more inclusive: By relying more on finding solutions to real problems, and less on esoteric or in-depth technical knowledge, it’s easier for people who didn’t come from traditional tech industry backgrounds to shine. Microsoft also works to make sure the interviewers reflect the company’s diverse workforce.

Montgomery points out that he himself took an unusual path to Microsoft. He majored in Russian literature, and then worked at trade press magazines and startups before joining Microsoft in 1998.

“I am introverted and I like to have time to reflect,” Montgomery said. “It turns out that that’s true for a lot of people. Everyone needs time to think. It has helped hugely for us to find people who are a little more thoughtful but good at what they do.”

Carol Smith, a senior program manager at Microsoft for the Open Source Programs Office, was one of the first candidates hired through the Alternative Interview Framework, and she says that interview process was the reason why she chose to work at Microsoft.

“The scenario-based interviewing process gave me an excellent sense of what my job at Microsoft and working with my coworkers would be like, much more so than any other interview process I’ve ever gone through,” Smith said. “It was the most difficult interview process I’ve ever gone through, and it was also the best.”

You can read Montgomery’s full blog post here.

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Canadian tech diversity and inclusion in the spotlight

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Diversity and inclusion are hot-button issues, but for all the attention they get, there’s still work to be done in the tech sector, according to a recent Gartner blog.

Citing a range of challenges that include pay inequity, lack of diversity in corporate management, and difficulty recruiting diverse talent, the blog suggests three possible remedies for organizations trying to become more diverse and inclusive: having a long-term plan but focusing on one aspect that will make the most benefit, setting targets and making leadership accountable, and committing resources.

The call for such strategies finds support in a report from the Brookfield Institute revealing that Canada’s technology sector has a disappointing track record when it comes to inclusion and equity, with women “four times less likely to be employed in the sector than men, and earning on average $7,300 less than men in technology jobs.”

The findings are just as grim in a January 2020 report funded by Canada’s Future Skills Centre. According to this document, despite corporate commitments to diversity, “decades of initiatives designed to advance women in technology have scarcely had an effect: The proportion of women in engineering and computer science in Canada has changed little in 25 years.”

And women are not the only disadvantaged group, says the report. “The under-employment of skilled immigrants and under-representation of women and other groups in the ICT industry suggests that recruitment and retention policies and practices of the very firms complaining about this [skills] gap may be contributing to the problem.”

Until we do a better job of addressing inclusion and diversity, career opportunities will continue to be limited for women, internationally educated professionals, racialized minorities, First Nations, Inuit and Métis people. In addition to being a very human issue, this is also one that perpetuates the ICT skills gap by failing to tap into a supply of well-qualified labour.

On the bright side, there are technology companies and organizations across Canada that are truly determined to create opportunities for those who are under-represented in the digital talent pool. There is also an opportunity to recognize their efforts during Channel Innovation 2021: Adapting to the New Customer Experience, a 2.5-hour, virtual event on April 28, 2021.

A showcase for independent software vendors (ISVs) and Canadian channel innovators, the Channel Innovation 2021 celebration will take place on CIA-TV, a unique ITWC platform that allows the audience to take in the show, download related content and videos, and network in live breakout rooms. There are six award categories, including the C4 Award for Diversity and Inclusion. Nominating is simple. Whether a self- or third-party nomination, there are only two main questions to answer and an opportunity to include a supporting document or image.

Winning entries will be announced during the celebration and profiled in the Channel Daily News Magazine and in Direction Informatique, ITWC’s French-language publication devoted to the Quebec marketplace. They will also receive a digital badge for use on their websites and on social media to help gain industry-wide recognition and end-user exposure.

The media attention and recognition are reason enough to vie for this honour, and we always need things to celebrate during a global pandemic, but the real value in awards for diversity and inclusion is in setting an example for others to follow. The news is full of the ways we are falling down when it comes to equity in the IT sector. Let’s take some time to highlight the success stories and encourage other tech innovators to step up.

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Leading Canadian tech entrepreneur Saadia Muzaffar to give virtual keynote in Peterborough on March 9

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In celebration of International Women’s Day, one of Canada’s leading female tech entrepreneurs will be giving a virtual keynote for residents of Peterborough and the Kawarthas on Tuesday, March 9th at 7 p.m.

The Innovation Cluster is hosting Saadia Muzaffar as part of its ‘Electric City Talks’ series.

Muzaffar is a tech entrepreneur, author, and passionate advocate of responsible innovation, decent work for everyone, and prosperity of immigrant talent in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). She is the founder of TechGirls Canada, a hub for Canadian women in STEM, and co-founder of Tech Reset Canada, a group of business people, technologists, and other residents advocating for innovation that is focused on the public good.

In 2017, Muzaffar was featured in Canada 150 Women, a book about 150 of the most influential and groundbreaking women in Canada. Her work has been featured in CNNMoney, BBC World, Fortune Magazine, The Globe and Mail, VICE, CBC, TVO, and Chatelaine.

Muzaffar’s March 9th talk, entitled ‘Redefining Term Sheets: Success, Solidarity, & The Future We Want’, will inspire women to achieve success in all areas of life, including in business by providing strategies for obtaining funding.

“It is impossible to explain how women only get 2.2 per cent of funding for their ventures while we constitute a majority of the population, without acknowledging long-standing structural and systemic bias,” Muzaffar says, describing her talk. “Women know these odds in our bones because we feel them in too many boardrooms, banks, media advertisements, and venture competitions — yet women are the fastest-growing demographic in new businesses.”

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ARK’s Cathie Wood joins board of Canadian tech firm mimik

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ARK Invest’s Cathie Wood is joining the board of Canadian technology company mimik.

Vancouver-based mimik is an edge computing company that effectively turns devices like phones into private cloud servers. It has already teamed up with Amazon Web Services and IBM on edge computing – two of the bigger players in the space.

The AWS partnership gives software developers access to mimik’s cloud platform. Together, edge devices including smart phones, tablets, and Internet of Things (IoT) products can act as extensions of the AWS cloud. With the IBM partnership, mimik’s technology will be included in automation and digital transformation across manufacturing, retail, IoT and healthcare.

All of mimik’s business lines fit in with Wood’s broad ‘next generation internet’ thesis, one of her big five investment themes. The company itself is private and Wood is not an investor. 

However, as Citywire noted in January, Wood has hinted in interviews that ARK is exploring the launch of a private markets strategy. 

Wood joins a relatively high profile board at mimik. Other members include  Allen Salmasi, a pioneer in mobile technology who was previously with Qualcomm, and Ori Sasson, managing director of Primera Capital, who was an investor in VMWare and other technology companies.

‘I’ve always believed in backing founders who are at the forefront of innovation,’ Wood said in a statement on her decision to join mimik. ‘At mimik, [they] have built a foundation for the next generation of cloud computing.’ 

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