Take Home Interview Assignments
6 Tips for Managers and Interviewers To Do Them Right
With a new year, many of us are looking for that new role. The Great Resignation of 2021 continues to accelerate, and I expect we’ll see lots of people and jobs in motion.
(want to listen to the podcast version of this newsletter? check the link below)
Maybe you’re interviewing now. Maybe you have roles to fill on your team. Maybe you are looking to switch jobs or companies. On either side of the table, whether interviewer or interviewee, take home assignments may play a part in the decision. This goes for many roles, from UX to product management to engineering and beyond.
We covered this topic (among others) in a recent Product by Design podcast.
But I want to dive a little deeper into tips for creating good take home assignments. This goes for interviewers and managers creating the work, as well as candidates who are given the assignments.
Take Home Assignments
Take home assignments include anything you ask a candidate to do outside of your actual interviews. It includes specific prep work that you may have a candidate do for an interview or round of interviews.
I’m generally a fan of take home assignments. I like them when structured correctly. They give managers the ability to see aspects of a candidate that may otherwise be difficult to explore in standard interviews. They give candidates the ability to showcase more skills than just answering interview questions, whether that is writing, presenting, critical thinking, etc.
Take home work also allows for some flexibility and time to think. Rather than trying to answer questions on the spot, a candidate can think through it and prepare. I personally value that as a candidate, since I’m better at preparation than on-the-spot answers. I also value it as an interviewer because I get to see the best of someone, rather than potentially a flustered version of them.
All that said, it is important we structure take home assignments in the right way to get the most out of them and not to burden candidates.
So how do we do that?
Tips For Creating Take Home Assignments
Make it Clear
First, make the expectations for the assignment clear. If you want a candidate to create a presentation, tell them that. If you want them to prepare 3 wireframes, then tell them you are looking for 3 wireframes.
There may be some value in leaving work open-ended, so candidates can approach however they like. But that should also be clear.
When I was hiring for a UX designer, we created a take home assignment for our candidates with a specific problem area and a deliverable of 3-5 mockups they could walk us through. We tried to be very clear about what we hoped to see and what the purpose was. And it worked well.
As a candidate, if you feel like something is unclear, ask about it. Remember, hiring managers are people too, and often really busy. So they may have overlooked something or just not taken enough time to flesh out the details. Don’t assume that asking questions will hurt your chances. If something is unclear to you, it’s probably unclear to others, so don’t go away and get to work if you don’t feel like you understand. It will be a massive waste of your time and everyone else’s.
I struggled early in my career to ask enough questions. I felt like I should always understand, and if I didn’t, it was my fault. But that’s not necessarily the case. Don’t be afraid to ask questions!
Make it Appropriate for the Role
As a hiring manager, you should ensure that what you’re asking candidates to do is appropriate for the role. Meaning that a junior UX designer shouldn’t have to create a design system. Or a product manager shouldn’t create a strategy presentation for a new product you’re thinking about.
Those may be good tasks for a potential head of product or UX lead, but they are too much for more junior roles. Make sure that the ask is congruent with the role.
Make it Timeboxed
Along the same lines as ensuring that the take home work aligns with the role, you should also ensure that there is a way to limit the work as well.
This involves really thinking through the structure of what you’re asking. Since you can’t actually dictate how much time a candidate spends on a task, you need to be really thoughtful about what you’re asking someone to do.
Because, let’s be real, even if you said that you don’t expect something to take more than an hour or two, those Type A personalities who demand perfection of themselves will likely spend an order of magnitude more time on it, especially for opportunities they really want.
I know, because I’ve done that.
I recall an assignment I received several years ago. It involved preparing a presentation around a potential new product. It wasn’t supposed to be more preparation than an hour or two (yeah right). I spent several hours each night for a week working on that. And then at least 8 hours the final day before I sent it over. All told, I probably spent 20-30 hours working on it. An order of magnitude more than I should have.
I did a tremendous amount of research into the industry. I created not only a pitch, but an entirely new business model. I refined all the transitions and made the entire presentation really eye-catching and professional. It was absolutely insane.
By the end, I was not only convinced on the product, I was ready to pursue it whether or not I got the role I was interviewing for. I was almost ready to go raise funds and create my own company.
I didn’t though. And didn’t get the role either. Which worked out just great because that company ended up not creating the new business line, and doing a massive amount of layoffs shortly after we had spoken.
Regardless, the level of effort I put in was far too much. That is partly on me, but also on the manager for not structuring the assignment in a way that limits the time spent.
In my own interviews, I intentionally limit what I ask. Like I mentioned above, that may include limiting the number of wireframes. For product managers, I may ask for a one-page document, a half-page answer to a question, or a three-slide presentation on a limited topic. These give me the opportunity to see specific skills in action (like writing and presenting), without opening the door for endless hours of writing or preparation.
Make it Outside Your Company’s Problems
It’s easy to create a problem-set for the problems you’re dealing with as a company or team. But it’s not fair to ask candidates, who may have limited knowledge of your company or industry, to solve your specific problems.
Additionally, it’s hard to be objective about a candidate’s work when you are so close to the problems and solutions yourself.
This creates the potential for bias. If I give a candidate a take home assignment that very closely mirrors what we’re doing on our team or within our company, I may prefer the candidate who best approximates my own thinking on the issue. And that may blind me as a manager to candidates who arrived at different solutions, but had solid thinking as well as solid writing or presentation skills.
For all of this, I prefer to keep take home assignments more generic and further away from our company- and team-specific issues. Additionally, asking candidates to solve problems specific to your company gives the feeling that you’re asking them to do work for you before you even hire them. That generally isn’t the case, but it gives a bad impression.
Make it a Discussion, Not a Filter
I was reading recently about a company that uses a take home assignment as an initial filter. Before candidates even talk with a manager or recruiter, the company is sending them work to do to be considered.
Don’t do that.
Take home work should come later in the interview process, once the interviewer and the candidate feel like the role is a potential good fit. It should add to the conversation.
As an interviewer, you should only ask for things that you are willing to spend time reviewing and discussing. Take home work should be part of the interview process. If you ask for something as a manager, you should have an interview where you walk through the work, ask questions, and allow the candidate to discuss. This is true of presentations, written documents, etc.
As a hiring manager, I want to see the work, but also want to let the candidate tell me more. If a candidate prepares a presentation, it makes sense to let them present and discuss. If they create wireframes, we want to understand their thinking and ask questions. If they’ve prepared a business document or future press release (one of my favorites) we want to discuss and debate. That is what all these items are for, in an interview and on the job.
As a candidate, if you see companies using take home work as a filter, walk away and don’t look back. You’ve dodged a bullet.
Remember, an hour-long presentation by a candidate requires numerous hours of preparation. Anyone who has done public speaking or created presentations knows good ones require significant work. Potentially, dozens of hours could go into creating an hour-long presentation. Good writing and designing and coding is also labor-intensive and difficult.
As hiring managers, we should understand this difficulty. On top of that, interviewing for roles is rarely the only thing a candidate has on their plate. They may work full-time, have a family, or have other activities and responsibilities. We need to understand this and empathize.
This may include giving the right amount of time for a candidate to do the work they need.
I recall one company many years ago asking me to complete a take home assignment in a standard time-frame they give to all candidates. But that didn’t work for me because I had other things going on. I could understand that they want to level the playing field for all candidates by allowing for the same amount of time, but we have to understand that giving each candidate two days to work on something does not necessarily make it equal. Some candidates may have nothing else to do, and can dedicate 10 hours per day. While others may only have one spare hour per day.
Understand this. And work with candidates to create realistic expectations. The main point isn’t to filter them out, but to give them an opportunity to create good work. If that takes two days for one candidate and six days for another, that is fine.
As a candidate, if it doesn’t seem like your interviewer is showing much empathy or understanding, walk away. It is most likely they are looking for cogs to plug into a system, and believe that they just need to churn through enough people to get there. You want to be valued for the work you do and who you are, not simply for being a cog in the system.
As managers, take home work can be a powerful tool to understand potential candidates. It can give them a chance to show skills and understanding that is difficult in a standard interview format. As candidates, take home assignments can give you more flexibility and an opportunity to go deeper into certain skills you have.
But for take home assignments to be effective interview tools, they need to be structured correctly. Assignments should add meaningfully to the discussion and process, not detract from it or become too onerous. But with a few key tips, we can all make the most of our time, our interviews, and our skills we’d like to showcase.
Other Good Links
In Praise of Unglamorous American Invention (article) - Interesting article praising some lower-key inventions. It includes wood glue, which is near and dear to my heart as a woodworker.
“While some luthiers still use animal glue when they build stringed instruments—yes, the kind rendered from animal hides—most woodworkers have switched to PVA, and especially Titebond, and especially (for projects that need it) Titebond III, which inspires arias of awe all over the woodworking internet…”
The Surprising Power of The Long Game (article) - I’m always about the long game, and this was a good take on short vs long games.
“Every action is a step toward the short game or the long game. You can’t opt-out and you can’t play a long-term game in everything, you need to pick what matters to you. But in everything you do time amplifies the difference between long and short-term games. The question you need to think about is when and where to play a long-term game. A good place to start is with things that compound: knowledge, relationships, and finances.”
The Tech and Products that Stood Out At CES 2022 (article) - I love CES. It’s fun to see new products that may come soon. And other products that are so out there we may never actually see them. Engadget also wrapped up their Best of CES with more.