How to Run an IT Skills Assessment without Losing Top Talent

IT professionals have the lion’s share of leverage for the near future. With restrictions on H1B visas, inflation-driven demands for higher wages, and 45% of tech talent wanting remote options, your available talent pool is much smaller than it would have been a few years prior. For that reason, organizations need to adapt their tactics that might encourage candidates for their open positions to take their search elsewhere.

All that in mind, a technical skills assessment test is one screening tactic, useful though it is, to implement with caution. You want to vet any potential candidates to ensure you avoid hiring someone who lacks the core technical capabilities necessary to thrive in the role. However, you don’t want to create what can feel like excessive hoops in a process that is already exhausting (35% of job seekers say they valued their last positive job search experience because hiring was quick and easy). With that division in mind, here’s how you can run an IT skills assessment that gauges candidates’ strengths without creating backdoors for them to exit.

Asking About Everyday Usages

Unless you are hiring for a role in academia, focusing too heavily on theory or role definitions of technical terminology or methodology can do the technical interview process a disservice. Yes, asking fundamental questions verifies a candidate’s fluency with industry lingo, but it doesn’t always reflect the actual job.

For example, most people with a computer science degree aren’t using mathematical proofs daily. Or if you’re interviewing data professionals, most aren’t creating algorithmically complex data structures  when more simplified and straightforward solutions will do. It’s great if your top contenders know elite techniques but grading them on measures that make no material impact on the job they’ll do isn’t worth your time.

Instead, the focus should be on functional problem solving. Pulling from organizational examples is always a sensible starting point. Let’s look at the healthcare payor industry first. Many healthcare systems in the United States are dealing with the emerging revelation that much of their data is biased or outdated, especially for underserved communities. Asking candidates how they might go about identifying inaccuracies, overcome biases, and contribute to the further engagement of the full spectrum of patients or members is a better way to assess their skills in practice.

Here’s another example. If you’re trying to hire skilled developers for the financial services sector, it makes sense to focus on discussing coding challenges from a security standpoint. With cyber-attacks predicted to surpass the pinnacle of 2021, your organization likely wants to hire development talent who incorporate DevSecOps thinking (or at the very least a security emphasis) into their methodologies. Otherwise, they might be ill-equipped to handle the genuine threats at your doorstep.

Creating the Right Practical Challenge

Asking incisive questions reveals some of what makes candidates exceptional, but seeing their actual work, how their experiences and knowledge take shape, completes the rest of the picture. The test portion of the IT skills assessment is often how companies get their answer, though some within the IT community resent the way they’re administered.

In an article for software assessment platform Qualified.io, they mentioned one common reason coding tests get a bad reputation is they focus on algorithmic skills rather than day-to-day programming. Again, you want your test to focus on relevant challenges, not academic exercises. If they need to brush up material they haven’t reasonably needed to use in years, then you’re repelling more people than you attract.

On a good day, most people recognize these types of tests are an unavoidable reality. Reviewing GitHub repositories can highlight some of a technical candidate’s potential work, but you’re not assured the code or projects included are 100% their own. The trick is creating a test that doesn’t feel too disruptive or needlessly time-consuming, whether at-home or in-person.

  • At-Home Assessment Tests – Think of the candidate’s time in advance because they certainly will be. When you ask IT professionals to complete a technical assessment on their time, you are asking candidates to forgo other opportunities to work for you. Organizations need to emphasize the value of the role upfront (intriguing challenges, hybrid work models, competitive benefits, etc.), to emphasize the value and justify the investment of time to complete the assessment.Test all your take-home assessments with internal IT people in advance. If they can complete the initial evaluation in under an hour, you’re on the right track. Any longer, especially in this market, candidates might feel the juice isn’t worth the squeeze. Follow-up IT assessments can last for longer, but it’s important to brace the candidate for time-intensive tests in advance.
  • In-Person Assessment Tests – If a candidate is on-site for their interview, you might have a little more leeway. They’ve blocked off this time to meet with your team and won’t directly feel the mental pull of other obligations. However, you still want to conduct the test in a way that lowers any unnecessary discomfort.One way is to allow them to use the toolkits and practices that empower them to perform at their best. For example, if a candidate has a preferred and customed integrated development environment (IDE), you can make concessions (barring any security concerns) to allow them to use their application.Also, on-site tests offer the chance to explore how they collaborate with leaders or members of your team. Picking the brain of a candidate as they solve an actual problem or participate in a theoretical challenge with a peer can enable them to brandish the technical talents they will need on the job.

No matter the approach, be sure that you appraise their abilities with the specific languages your team uses on a regular basis. Whether you create something in-house or choose a pre-built option, the test should function as a means of showing how they’ll function on-the-job, not as a puzzle box meant to stretch the capacity of their capabilities. When at their best, technical tests disqualify people who really won’t be up-to-snuff with your average workload, while ushering the caliber of people you want onto the next stage.

Paying Attention to Soft Skills Too

Technical assessments aren’t just a clinical look at what people can do: they’re an opportunity to see how soft skills mesh with technical talents. During or after the test, experienced organizations will ask themselves the following questions:

  • How well do IT professionals explain their work and the resulting behavior? With a time crunch, there’s a significant difference getting the intended results and lucking into a happy accident. In addition to getting a desirable outcome, your candidate should be able to explain that thought process in a way that is easy to follow and shows clear consideration.
  • How would the test’s hypothetical situation impact an organization? Even though IT assessments are meant to investigate whether tech talent can walk the walk, you want to make sure they can talk the talk when it comes to understanding the tangible impact. How this trial run, if applied on-the-job, would improve processes, security, profitability, or the user experience, should be front of mind for anyone you interview.
  • How do they work with other people? Whether they’re coding alongside other people or explaining their actions to a member of your leadership team, you want an ideal employee to do so in a respectful and coherent way. If they’re being rude, dismissive, or getting lost in the weeds, you’ll know that, even with top technical aptitude, they’ll be a bur under your saddle down the road.

Partnering with an Experienced IT Staffing Firm

At the end of the day, running an IT skills assessment is designed to screen anyone but qualified professionals from the process. When it’s adding time to your overall hiring process in a way that contributes to candidate falloff, you might want to consider a supplemental or even alternative way to extract top talent from the existing pool. The right IT staffing partner can help.</