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Tandem’s Hiring Process for Software Engineers

Cain Watson Engineering
Mercedes Bernard VP of Delivery

At Tandem, we pride ourselves on our inclusive and collaborative culture where everybody feels safe to ask questions and learn new things. This is a reflection of our core value, Open the Door, and it starts before you ever join the team. We’ve intentionally designed a hiring process that is inclusive, relevant, and as comfortable as possible for our job candidates.

Mercedes is one of our Engineering Managers, and Cain recently joined the Engineering team. Together, they’ll answer your questions about interviewing at Tandem by walking you through the hiring process for software engineers: from the job description, to the coding challenge, to the final interview.

The Job Description

Cain: When I started my job search, I was looking at lots of different job postings on sites like Glassdoor and LinkedIn. I got in a rut where a lot of similar job postings all kind of merged into one posting in my head: they all wanted a similar amount of experience, years, a degree, etc.

Eventually I came across the Tandem posting on Glassdoor, and it stood out right away: there was a very detailed description of what would be expected of me, what the culture is like, the values of the company — and the strangest thing I’d never seen before was the link to the career trajectory, which showed how I’d grow at the company. That was really unique.

Mercedes: We put a lot of work into our job postings. We wrote them to be as inclusive as possible: if we don’t look for it and don’t require it, it isn’t included. That’s why you won’t see years of experience or education requirements in our job posts. We focus more on job responsibilities and practical experience: have you done data modeling? Have you held technical conversations with stakeholders? We know people with marginalized backgrounds tend not to apply for a job unless they meet 100 percent of the qualifications, so we want our job posts to be as welcoming and approachable as possible.

We include our career paths so you can see where your career here can take you. And we link to blog posts like Imposter Syndrome: Feels, Not Reals because we want candidates to know we are confident in you and we want you to be too!

Cain: The end of the posting described exactly what I’d be expected to do during the hiring process: I knew I’d be sending in my resume and application, which would be followed by a phone call, etc. That eliminated a lot of my anxiety. The job search process is very anxiety-filled and scary for everyone, so I thought it was extremely thoughtful that Tandem let me know what to expect.

Mercedes: We want to set expectations so people know from the beginning what the next steps are. Part of our process is to remind the candidate of what’s coming next at every stage.

Initial Phone Screen

Cain: I submitted my application and forgot about it for a week, and then Mercedes got back to me to schedule my phone screen — which was unexpected, because for other applications I had to wait at least two weeks, or I never heard back at all. Hearing back so soon was reassuring; even if it wasn’t good news, it’s nice that Tandem responds to candidates promptly. It reinforces that they care.

Because I really dug through a lot of the blogs, I was able to talk about things that Tandem values in my phone screen. At one point Mercedes asked me about testing, and I felt so comfortable with her that I gave her my answer but wanted to hear hers too because I saw her as a figure with a lot of experience I could grow and learn from in an interview setting.

Mercedes: At Tandem we try to create as consistent of an interview process as possible. Regardless of which team member interviews you during your phone screen, you will be asked similar questions. The seven or eight questions we include are very intentional because they are things that are important for us as an engineering organization. We want to see that a person’s values and ideals align with ours and that they have approaches that would make an excellent addition to the team. We’re looking for people who are open and excited about our collaborative style of working. We’re not looking for ‘right’ answers, but for people with interesting experiences.

But we also try to let the conversation flow and be organic. We’re not playing 20 Questions!

As a candidate, you are in full control of your application and interview process, until you schedule your phone screen. After that, we try really hard to get back to you by the end of the next day because we know there’s so much anxiety in the process. We take it from there and make sure we’re super responsive at every step.

We want people to celebrate their work and celebrate accomplishments, and that includes the interview process. We want people to feel challenged by Tandem, and we want you to stretch your skills and grow — but fear, anxiety, and insecurity are not solid foundations for anyone to grow their skills on. Once you’re a candidate you’re going to get the real Tandem culture.

Code Challenge

Cain: After my phone screen, I received a PDF that included an overview of the code challenge. The instructions said that it didn’t matter what specific technology I used, just that I use what I’m comfortable with and do my best.

I was given the option of doing two different prompts, which was awesome because at first I chose one, but then I switched to the other because I realized the first option wasn’t the best showcase of my skill set. Once I read the instructions, criteria, and assumptions, there was a degree of intentional ambiguity to the challenge. I had to figure it out, just like I would have to do on the job.

I had a week to complete the challenge, which was so much more time than I could ever imagine. I used some features of a technology that I was not 100 percent familiar with to challenge myself a bit, which I feel like paid off. It allowed me to learn as I was working through the prompt, which I enjoyed. So I got started, ran into issues (as you always do during software development), then I got a night’s rest. I kept working on it the next day, created documentation, and then I submitted it.

Mercedes: In this industry, pretty much every approach to assessing a candidate’s technical skills has drawbacks. Everybody knows how horrible whiteboard coding is, so we don’t do any of that in our process. We don’t want to create the anxiety of having someone watch you code, plus whiteboarding is such an artificial situation that you really wouldn’t ever be in once you get the job.

Of course, the other option — having candidates take a challenge home — means you have to do work on your own time outside of the interview: that’s a drawback. To try to mitigate that, we give candidates a week so you have the flexibility to complete the challenge when it makes sense in your life. A two-day turnaround wouldn’t be fair, and would be really difficult for someone who has elder care responsibilities, or child care, or a job.

We want candidates to learn about us, so both of our challenge prompts are very Tandem-themed and representative of our culture and personality. They’re both problems that are similar to what we encounter with our clients. The code challenges are leveled, so if you apply for a Software Engineer II role, you’ll get an appropriately scoped challenge for an SE2. A candidate for a Senior Software Engineer role will get a more challenging prompt, because the work you do as a Senior Software Engineer is harder.

Final In-Person Interview

Cain: After submitting my challenge, I waited for about a week. Then I heard back and was invited to a final in-person interview (which was conducted remotely, over Google Meet). I received a list of what I’d be doing, for how long, and with whom. It was great to know the plan, and I went on the website to get familiar with the faces I’d be seeing that day. I also prepared by reviewing my code challenge submission.

Mercedes: We conduct three different one-hour sessions in the final in-person interview. The first hour is spent reviewing your code challenge submission with two Tandem engineers. During the first 30 minutes, we talk about your submission and walk through the code, learning what you enjoyed and what challenged you. This helps us get candidates comfortable for the day and get the initial jitters out! The second half of the first hour, we tri-pair to extend the code challenge in some way: add a feature, fix a bug, or refactor some code. During that half hour, we see how you pair, how you communicate, and how you think.

The second hour is spent pair programming on Tandem client code, which gives you a chance to see what kind of projects we’re working on and what kind of code we write. We want to see how you ask questions, how you communicate when you don’t know the answer or need to look something up. We have a safe space where you can look up documentation.

The third hour is a consulting exercise where we see how you communicate professionally and how you handle client requests. It’s a role-playing exercise, but we try not to make it cheesy — we want it to be representative of the work you’d do with us in your role as a software consultant. Throughout the interview, we only work on things that are relevant to the role you’re being hired for.

Cain: Over the course of the interview, it just felt like I had found a company where I shared values. I met a lot of the team and was able to see what they’re like to work with. An interview goes both ways: they got to know me and my skills, but I also got to really see what it’s like to work as an engineer at Tandem. I enjoyed it! Those three hours were really fun and it was a great experience, which built a tremendous amount of trust for Tandem. While I had some anxiety, I enjoyed it the whole time.

Advice for Tandem Job Applicants:

Cain: Based on my job search experience, I’d recommend you do your homework. It’s going to benefit you and make it easier for the interviewer if you know as much as you can about the company and what it’s like to work there. I think this is good advice for any company that you apply to (though it can be easier or harder to do, depending on how much the company shares with the world). Doing that homework made me comfortable and gave me questions to ask about Tandem.

Mercedes: My piece of advice would be to just be yourself and be authentic during the process. We enjoy learning together and we love questions, so we don’t ever expect a candidate to come and have all the answers and be a ‘perfect rockstar coder’ who makes no mistakes for the five hours that we end up spending with you. We want to know what it’s like to work with the real you, not the person who prepared so much that they can’t be wrong.

Do you want to work with Cain, Mercedes, and the rest of Tandem’s team? Check out our Careers page to see our open positions!

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