For two summers in a row, for two different companies, I have been in the lovely position of being able to offer a temporary trainee position for some person for that summer. As one can imagine, when there is a true beginner position available, there are a lot of applicants.
Unfortunately, it is really hard to make a difference between an applicant and another when what you look for is potential. Our general approximations of potential are off, and the biases we have will impact our choices.
The first trainee that we selected for last summer came through the HR pipeline. The lucky 5 selected out of thousands to be viewed at the final stages were fascinating people to talk with.
First of all, they all had programming experience. I particularly remember a woman with 2 years in a position in another company that my co-interviewer rejected based on "not knowing this piece trivia means she does not know anything" and a 15-year-old boy with 6 years of programming experience. While I'm delighted the promising young man got a chance, that recruitment filled my heart with hopelessness for anyone who starts later in life.
Again, we are recruiting on potential. Obviously we want the person to contribute in the work. But we want also the person to learn, to grow, and become someone they are not yet when they start their work with us. And you can't see that potential from their past achievements when we talk about an entry level position.
Entry level positions are like placing bets. The chances are we will never know we missed an awesome candidate. Or, chances are, we will know later in life when that person we rejected on trivia shows up as our boss.
With my hopeless heart, I needed an experiment to bring out hope. To balance the last line of trainees all be men, I facilitated creation of another position open to everyone but primarily marketed in women's spaces. I did so well with targeting my marketing that men did not apply. Where you post matters on who you get.
Also, I wanted to try a different criteria. Instead of selecting them based on how they write and talk about their aspirations and experiences, I refused to read their CVs to prioritize who I would talk to. I talked to every single one of them, for 15 minutes. Or rather, as I set expectations already in the invite to apply, we wouldn't talk of them. We would pair test an application because the main skill I would look for in a candidate under my supervision is learning under my supervision.
I saw the people on the video calls as we worked together on the same problem, over and over again with the candidate changing. I would write notes of how they approaches the problem and how they incorporated my guidance as we were strong-style pairing on test code. And after a lot of calls, I had a small group of people with tester kind of thinking and learning pattern that I would select from. The final one was based on luck, I put the three names in a hat and pulled one out.
Turns out she was a 47-year old career changer. The moment where I felt like I should have given this rare opportunity to a younger woman was a great revelation on my personal built-in ageism. From acknowledging my bias, I set out to help her succeed.
During the summer, she learned to write test code in python and include that into a continuous integration system. She explored and analyzed a feature, and got multiple things in it corrected. The tests she contributed were our choice, and in hindsight, our choice sucked. She was part of starting a larger discussion on what types of tests are worth it, and what are little value. Her coded tests didn't fail because she couldn't code or analyze a feature, but because we pointed her at a feature that we really should have thought twice on.
The lessons I drew of this are invaluable to me:
- Choosing a tester by testing with them is a better foundation
- Choosing a tester by testing can happen in short sessions and overall time is better used in this activity over deciphering a CV
- The work we allocate to someone starting as new does matter, and their success is founded on our choices
- Diversity of our work force will never change if we expect our 15-year old summer trainees to come with 6 years of programming experience. The field evidence shows that late start does not hinder later usefulness.