Kari McMahon

@karimcmahon

What Technical Interviews Have in Common With Masterchef

And what we can learn from it.

Masterchef for those unfamiliar with the programme, is a BBC reality TV cooking show. There are three versions — celebrity, regular and professionals. with the core concept being contestants compete with the goal of becoming the “Masterchef”.

I have been watching Masterchef for years. It’s a self indulgent reality TV covering one of my favourite topics food. It requires minimal thinking. Despite being an avid watcher, only last night during a 4 episode bingeathon of Masterchef The Professionals did it occur to me that the show has a lot in common with technical interviews.

The show begins after the BBC pre-select a number of accomplished chefs from renowned UK restaurants to compete in the show. We as viewers are introduced to them when they compete in the first round — the skills test.

The skills test is a challenge set by the Masterchef judges. The contestant is set the challenge by the judges when they enter the room. The chef must gather their thoughts and produce a result under the watchful eyes of the judges all in 30 minutes.

Each series without fail we see incredibly accomplished chefs fall apart during the skills test. Often this is down to a combination of nerves and lack of day to day familiarity with the challenge that results in poorly developed dishes. Every so often we see a chef who nails the skills test — who remains calm. These chefs often seem to be granted with a touch of luck because they have a wealth of previous experience on the skill being tested.

I observed that the format of the skills test is rather similar to that of a technical interview — whether it be an interview for software development, UX or product management and the reaction of the chefs may feel familiar to those who have participated in a technical interview, it certainly does for me.

Over the years I have had several technical interviews each with a completely different format, style and expectation however what they all have in common is the intention to test your technical knowledge under pressure. I never performed well in this type of interviews. So when I see accomplished chefs flustered in the skills test, I see much of myself.

In technical interviews the nerves definitely get the better of me. I find it very difficult not being able to in some way prepare for a task. I find it even more challenging when you are provided a vague description ahead of the technical interview you will be doing.

The person who provides the description of the technical interview is often the recruiter over the hiring manager and I have often found the recruiter does not always translate the expectations of the interviewer effectively. Vague technical interview descriptions can lead infinite preparation possibilities. For someone like me who likes to be prepared and who is working a full time job, being given less than a week to prepare for an interview with infinite prep possibilities can lead to stress, nerves and lack of clear focus — practically a recipe for failure. Combining my nerves from lack of preparation and my impostor syndrome, I almost convince myself I cannot do the test before I enter the room.

I suspect you might be thinking those who cannot handle the unknown, cannot handle the job. However I refute this argument, rarely in my career or my studies have I been faced with the complete unknown. There is always some way to prepare. The unknown in the corporate world is more often than not only a vague calendar invite named “Meeting” from someone you have never met before which usually leads to a directionless meeting requiring a follow up after further preparation is done.

I am most successful when I have time to think and prepare. Ask me for an immediate opinion on a call and I will almost always will provide an initial thought which I then follow up on later when I have had time to gather my thoughts, review additional information and spoken to others. Upon reflection of technical interviews I often think of better ways to approach the task a day later. I have found I make marginal improvements on technical interviews when they are similar to previous interviews I have done, I believe this is down to existing familiarity with the format. Companies need to examine if they are missing out on talent by not catering to this type of worker who performs better with preperation?

The beauty of Masterchef is that candidates are not judged purely on the skills test. They are also given the opportunity to display their skills on a challenge which they can prepare for in advance. However they still must produce the practised dish under the watchful eye of the judges and time pressure. Often we see those who performed poorly in the skills test, perform well in this challenge. Perhaps this is because the two challenges balance the different types of workers ? Why in the technology industry do we only want to see how you perform under stress ? Why do we not want to encourage seeing candidates succeed also? If we enabled candidates to prepare a presentation on an industry theme they are passionate about, provide an in depth examination of a project they worked on or even have them work in the office for a day or two then we may see a completely different side to the candidates. We would see their skill sets in a range of scenarios which balances the “under pressure” technical interview results.

Several companies have veered away from technical interviews — going for projects like design or programming challenges. These are homework like tasks which are “supposed” to take only a few personal hours to work on and the results are then sent to the company. I say “supposed” to because those who really want to impress will often spend significantly more time on the task. These homework tasks are suitable for those of us who prefer to show our skills on a task we can prepare for. However many including myself have been scorned by submitting work to companies in the guise of “technical tasks” and then never hearing anything back. Candidates are often left feeling mugged off that they have produced free work for companies and not even received any feedback in return. Homework tasks are useful to offset the results of technical interviews because you can see the candidate into two types of situations however candidates must be cautious that some companies are simply leveraging the technique as way of receiving for free work. Nate Swanner recommends that if candidates are asked to produce work on a homework task they should be able to ask to do the task in the companies offices if it not suitable for them to do in their personal time or candidates should be asked to be compensated a freelancer fee for whatever work they produce. By asking for these simple requests you can see how serious the company are about the work they are asking you to produce, if they can’t oblige it is unlikely the company are worth your time.

Lack of feedback after a lengthy and complicated interview process can be one of the most frustrating and disappointing aspects of the process. In every cooking reality show, feedback is provided after every task and when a decision made about who is leaving the competition. The feedback is balanced with positive and negatives enabling a candidate to learn from the experience and improve. Why do companies refuse to offer this common decency to candidates who have spent time on various calls, interviews and technical tasks ? The recruiters and interviewers obviously saw potential when they progressed candidates to the further stages, so why can’t they share the initial thoughts they had along with the reason for a candidate’s rejection. The Washington Post recently reported on employees leaving companies and not sharing this detail with their employer — essentially ghosting the company. I believe this stems from the increasing growth of companies ghosting candidates who have participated in lengthy and costly interview processes and never receive feedback for their participation. After a few ghosting incidents candidates can be left feeling extremely frustrated and depressed which may be leading to employees and potential employees losing respect for companies resulting in the ghosting phenomenon.

Masterchef, The Great British Bake Off and Nailed It may be a trashy feel good TV on the surface. However each of these shows can teach us about how we should evaluate technical candidates — just because someone who performs poorly in one style of test doesn’t mean they will perform poorly in their day to day role or in other types of tasks. It is essential for companies to analyse the experience they are providing to candidates and the metrics surrounding their process to understand any unintentional biases it may be generating. Finally it is important to remember candidates have invested time in the process too, don’t leave them with a taste sour grapes from not providing feedback right at the very end of the process.

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