On Hiring: Trial Week - Yay or Nay?

| 5 min read
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Today a blog post titled “Trial Week: Our Hiring Secret“ has made to the Hacker News homepage. I naively tweeted my dislike and now I feel obligated to share my thoughts in a more meaningful and constructive way.

First of all, congratulations to the Weebly team, as this trial week strategy is clearly working very well for them.

I, on the other hand, am against using a trial week for vetting candidates, and I am going to share my thoughts.

Let this serve as a reminder to the rest of us: every organisation and team is different, so think carefully before committing to a given strategy.

One Week is a Major Commitment for the Candidate

In Australia, a full time employee typically gets four weeks of annual leave, with one or two weeks of which used up for the Christmas / New year down time. We are looking at asking candidates to spend 33-50% of their vacation time to commit to a trial week for one company - a terrible ROI (Return On Investment) from the candidate’s perspective if you ask me.

Candidates who are currently employed, with multiple offers from other organisations are more likely to skip the trial week - from experience, this is often the higher quality candidate pool.

Side Effects

  • Increases the likelihood of burnout due to the reduced vacation time
  • Shrinks the candidate pool
  • Misses top talents who are unable to make the one-week commitment
  • As a result, the overall quality of the candidate pool drops
  • Paints an image of “not-caring (enough) about the employee’s well being”

Of course, since the trial week is paid for, the employee could always take unpaid leave from their current employer.

Side Effect

  • Raises alarm bells at current workplace since one week of unpaid leave is significant

One Week is a Major Commitment for the Team

Given the trial only lasts a week - we better make it count! That means one or more current developers need to be assigned to take care of the trial developer - pairing and walking through existing systems, etc. This is assuming we are going to act responsibly, and not simply just direct the trial developers to their desks and ask them to “go for it”.

Side Effects

  • Higher pressure for the team
  • More difficult to act on other priority tasks

Developer Productivity Curve (One Week is Not Enough)

From my experience of on-boarding new developers, it typically takes 4-8 weeks for a developer to become productive and effective in a new work environment.

According to Weebly, candidates are assigned with a project that is small enough to do in a week, but still resembles what the candidate would be doing if hired. It sounds great if it works, but for many organisations this is unfeasible, for instance:

  • There is no small projects to assign, unless invented
  • Navigating documentation and source code would take days, if not weeks

Either way, with one week of trial, the candidate is unlikely to have enough time to contribute as well as to be integrated into the team culture.

Side Effects

  • Higher chance of misjudging the candidate’s ability and productivity
  • Significantly higher chance of creating solutions misaligned with the team and/or the organisation
  • Higher maintenance cost should the team decides to keep the solutions created

66% Hire Rate Suggests Deeper Hiring Issue

Weebly at the end of their blog post writes:

Our hire rate out of trial week is around 66%, which feels like the right level.

I respectfully disagree. A 66% hire rate from the trial week is a 34% failure rate on the pre-trial week recruitment process, and this is significant.

Which brings us to…

More Effective Ways to Vet a Candidate

Where I work, we have a simple, three-step recruitment process:

  1. Complete a small and fun code challenge, in your own time and with your own pace. The code challenge usually takes 2-4 hours to complete.
  2. Invited to our office to chat with our developers and founders, optionally done via video chat. This usually takes an hour or so.
  3. Pairing session, usually takes 30-60min.

Step 2 and 3 are sometimes swapped. And we also check out the candidate’s Github account if available, and their past projects if public.

In the code challenge we vet the candidate’s problem-solving ability, software design sense, code quality, code style and ethics (it’s easy to tell whether they cheated).

During the chat we vet the candidate’s project experience, depth of knowledge, breadth of knowledge, communication skill and culture fit.

In the pairing session we vet the candidate’s development practice, thought process and the ability to articulate.

By the end of the three steps we are usually pretty confident on +1 or -1 to hire the candidate. If we aren’t, it’s a -1.

But hold on, didn’t I mention one week is not enough for a candidate to be productive and effective? Yes! And that’s why most places have a three-month probation.

The difference between the long probation period and the short trial period, is not only in duration, but more importantly in commitment. In my opinion, only when both parties are committed can you achieve great result.

So, let’s hear your say, what do you think? :)

Poll: Trial Week, Yay or Nay?

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