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I recognize that its standard practice for tech companies to bring candidates onsite and put them through many coding challenges as part of the interview process. Its well known that when interviewing for major companies like Google, that you will be in store for 4+ hours of this. I find that I'm perfectly willing to go through such a lengthy and grueling process for a job at a major/prestigious company. However, I hesitate to do the same at lesser known organizations (unless they've already convinced me of their mission and potential for success).

I understand the need to vette candidates, but (as an experienced software engineer) is it wrong to feel somewhat insulted (or perhaps disappointed) when asked to go through a 5 hour onsite interview for a company? What is a graceful way to handle this situation?

Update

First off, I'm blown away by the responses and discussions below. I think this might help clarify and address some of the issues:

  • I understand that it is VERY costly for a company to make a bad hire. From their perspective it makes sense to put candidates through this kind of scrutiny.
  • I don't have a sense of entitlement and fully expect to be put through technical interviews that include whiteboard coding challenges. However, I feel that there is a limit to how much of that I'm willing to do, which seems to shift depending on who its for.
  • Its not always easy to find enough information to form an opinion before stepping in their door and doing an onsite interview. If the company is small and/or relatively new, there may not be any information available on Glassdoor or other sites.

Just to clarify, I do expect to be put through technical interviews as part of any company's process. I completely understand their perspective and don't blame them for having a rigorous process. I think it comes down to weighing my interest level against what they are asking. If their demands on my time outweigh what I'm willing to give (due to uncertainty or other reasons), then maybe its an indicator to move on.

  • Have you had other conversations with the company, such as a phone/skype interview, or a shorter in-person interview? 5 hours seems excessive to me for a first meeting, but if the company has 3 final candidates they're trying to decide between, it may be appropriate. – alroc Apr 25 '13 at 18:19
  • @JoeStrazzere I've already done a phone screen with the CTO and was anticipating something around 2 hours for the onsite. – user8841 Apr 25 '13 at 18:21
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    It is reasonable to turn down an interview because you do not like the voice of the scheduler. If you do not want to interview with them then do not. You can say no too. I do not see an actual problem to solve here. – IDrinkandIKnowThings Apr 25 '13 at 18:23
  • @JoeStrazzere - that is a great comment. But it is not an answer. And whining about downvotes does not help your cause. – IDrinkandIKnowThings Apr 25 '13 at 18:30
  • You can say yes or no, completly your choice. But the company that does the best job checking the skills of those they hire are the least likely to hire this guy. [outsourced][1] [my][2] [job][3] [1]: articles.latimes.com/2013/jan/17/business/… [2]: edition.cnn.com/2013/01/17/business/us-outsource-job-china [3]: abcnews.go.com/Business/… – James Jenkins Apr 25 '13 at 19:12
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I understand the need to vette candidates, but (as an experienced software engineer) is it wrong to feel somewhat insulted when asked to go through a 5 hour onsite interview for a company?

Perhaps if you have written books on the subject, published all sorts project work and documented your experience as a senior developer in an easily verifiable way (good luck doing this).

You might consider yourself the Best Software Developer Ever but the company has no way of knowing this.

Also keep in mind it is very unlikely a 5 hour interview will consist of 5 hours of technical skills testing...

However, I hesitate to do the same at lesser known organizations (unless they've already convinced me of their mission and potential for success).

This is 2013 - you should be able to find a TON of information about any company you want prior to having to "waste" time interviewing.

Start with:

  • Read through their website
  • Look up their people on LinkedIn
    • You could even talk to some of them with preliminary questinos
  • Google news stories about them
  • If they make software products, go look at/download/explore

Plus, the smaller a company, the more serious of the problem if they hire the wrong person.

What is a graceful way to handle this situation?

What I would do is one of the following:

  1. Contact them and ask for an agenda for the interview. This gives you the ability to know what you will actually be doing and you may find this helpful in making it easier to stomach.
  2. Ask if you can have coffee with someone first to make sure you are a good fit culturally (so you don't waste either your/their time all day).
  3. Ask if there is any way to do some of the initial work via phone to save both people's time.

You want to make sure you phrase any request to change their policy make sense to them too - not just you.

Make sure it's part of some dialogue too, someone is much more likely to be agreeable if you are showing interest (even if just some email back and forth) rather than responding to their first communication with "hi I can't do 5 hours sorry - what are my options."


Personal opinion

I would never work somewhere which didn't bother interviewing senior level people seriously. In fact I probably would never accept a job offer with a company which didn't spend some time evaluating MY skills, because it means my coworkers had equally no evaluation.

That being said, I do the steps above and automatically discount any unknown company I didn't have serious interest in working for myself.

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    Yeah, but it doesn't take a whole day and five separate interviewers to evaluate someone's skills. It just doesn't. – pdr Apr 25 '13 at 18:03
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    There are a lot of other things which I would want to learn about people I am interviewing - or potentially working with - for senior positions. Most of these are not even necessarily specific to technical skills, but rather project management abilities, how someone works with people, or all the other things senior people will be expected to be able to do. – enderland Apr 25 '13 at 18:06
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    Again, I agree. But I still don't think it takes that long. One hour technical and one hour personal is enough. I am a fan of having those two hours on different days too, so that if I / a candidate doesn't fit personally, an employer / I don't waste time on the technical interview. But that's not always possible. – pdr Apr 25 '13 at 18:10
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    The day long interview is about getting a feel for the culture fit rather than the technical ability. One way to do this is to put them into a room with people they will be working with, let them talk about the job, and see how they interact. It is easy to put on a front for an hour or so. Keeping it up for almost an entire day is often more than some of the worst candidates can handle. – IDrinkandIKnowThings Apr 25 '13 at 18:21
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    I used to think this a while ago, but nowadays it's very easy to check someone's track record. After years of working in one area and one industry you end up knowing a lot of the same people. Asking a senior developer to code fizz-buzz if you know for a fact that they built complex systems is a bit funny. Other than coding tests, why in the world would an interview take 5 hours? – MrFox Apr 25 '13 at 18:27
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Any answer that you'll get is the writer's personal feeling. (Including the answer I am editing out here.)

Every candidate has different concerns, as does every hiring manager (as you can see from the variety of answers here). And the idea on both sides is to find a match to your personal feelings. If they think it's fair to put someone through a 5-hour interview and you don't then you're not a good match. Simple as that. Don't waste anyone's time.

To be graceful about it, you have to be honest. Tell them why you're passing up on them. If several people cite the same reason then they know they're narrowing their candidate pool and get to decide if that's a good thing or not.

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    I understand and accept that refusing to go through this for any one company is essentially putting an end to your candidacy. Internally, I'm trying to figure out why I'm willing to do it for some and not for others. Maybe I don't feel as strongly about a given companies mission or products, therefore its not a good match. I don't see a problem with valuing my own time and being selective about which companies I am willing to put that level of effort into though. I don't think that correlates to being driven by money. – user8841 Apr 25 '13 at 18:30
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Is it wrong to feel insulted? I'm not sure why you feel that a lengthy interview is an "insult"? Most companies don't invest that kind of time in candidates unless they are interested. I know I cut off interviews quickly as soon as I sense there isn't a good fit.

Anyway, if you don't want a long interview you can of course decline. And of course you risk being crossed off their list.

It's your choice to make. If you don't think a particular job is worth 4-5 hours of your time, then decline. Ask nicely if they would consider a shorter first-round interview. You could even ask if they would be willing to conduct a more "group interview" (with many people in the room at the same time) as a way to shorten the duration. Perhaps they will shorten their process for you, but probably not. It's worth a shot.

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    I'm not sure why you feel that a lengthy interview is an "insult"? - It is perfectly valid to feel insulted when one's time is wasted. I bet the OP feels that a 5-hour long interview in an unknown company is just that. – MrFox Apr 25 '13 at 18:07
  • @MrFox I'm sure the company probably feels anyone who is not willing to interview with more intent to research the company ahead of time and just "try them out in a shorter interview" is probably wasting the companies time, too. "I'm interested in your company, but you're really only worth a few hours of my time since I'm not really sure, is that cool?" – enderland Apr 25 '13 at 18:09
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    Right, but the market is full of candidates and other companies. If for a candidate all the other (good) job prospects involve a one hour interview and a hand shake, what makes these people so special that they want someone to take a day off? If every (good) candidate with options says that, then that comapny will be staffed with B-level players. – MrFox Apr 25 '13 at 18:40
  • That being said, barring the comment above, after putting some more thought into this I think this answer is valid for some situations. It depends no the job market in question, as per my edited answer. I'm not the downvote. – MrFox Apr 25 '13 at 18:49
  • That's fine. I just don't think there was any insult intended - that's different than what it says in your answer. One can be insulted by things that weren't meant to be insults. That happens all the time. – MrFox Apr 25 '13 at 18:51
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Is it reasonable to turn down an onsite interview due to length?

Certainly.

There are two good reasons that come to mind:

  1. You're likely employed. Most job hunters are currently employed; most interviews are during business hours. Taking a long lunch can be done most places - even 2-3 hour interviews can be excused away as doctor's appointments, or having a repair guy to the house. 5 hour interviews really need a full day of PTO. As an employee, you can only take a few of these single days in the middle of the week on short(-ish) notice before people start wondering what you're really doing. Companies should understand and respect that.

  2. That's a lot of commitment on the company's side on a relative unknown. If they ask for a 5 hour interview, it might just be that they're a process driven, bureaucratic monstrosity. This is of course more likely if they've not given you a phone screen or something first.

I work for one of these companies that has a lengthy (6 hours with 7 different people/groups after a phone screen and 1 hour intro interview). When going through it, I thought "wow, at least I won't have too many people slipping through the interview that I'll have to work with". Alas, that is not the case. Turns out, they didn't have anyone who was skilled at technical interviews so tried to compensate with quantity... YMMV

2

Here's the thing - the risk of a non-performer does not vary from company to company based on the company's industry reputation. Companies use the on sight interview based on their need to resolve risk in bad hiring decisions. A 10 man no-name company actually has a bigger risk of a non-performer (10% of their productivity needs are not met), where a Google is only going to suffer a small percentage of loss. Any company with flawed hiring practices is going to bear a big overall cost as each the overall percentage of non-performers will increase - to the point that if the practices are bad ENOUGH, they impact morale overall killing productivity even further.

The software industry is not an industry with a broad base of superstars. While having an outstanding job history and great first-round interview skills will increase your chances of moving through the process more rapidly than others and more efficiently (fewer rounds of interview failures before a job offer is in hand), it won't eliminate steps of the process. I know of absolutely no situation in the software/computer industry where there is a quick escape and a company will simply hire someone because their initial credentials and impression was SO AMAZING that a part of the process could be skipped. There is no single qualifier that makes someone in this sort of work "good for every job".

The exception is - Personal Reference - a trusted member of the team or management MAY manage to circumvent the process for someone they know. The reason: They have more information than any interview process can provide, they actually know what it's like to work with this candidate. Mileage varies by how much the company trusts this information and how much autonomy is granted to the person making the recommendation.

So:

  • Don't be insulted. It's not you - its the process of trying to fit very skilled people into very challenging jobs.

  • Realize that saying "no" is fairly equal to saying "I'm not interested enough in this job to complete your screening process". Regardless of what you mean that's what it means to them. In essence, that IS what you've described above - you would have no problem doing the long process for a highly prized position, you mind when the rep of the company doesn't seem to be worth your time.

A recommended process:

  • Decide what jobs are worth your time. At every level. I frequently turn down headhunters when I know the opportunity will not pay me well, or be very interesting. But then... I have a job. "Worth your time" is fluctuating scale based entirely on what you want, what you need, and what your skills justify.

  • Pursue accordingly. Would you want this job based on your current knowledge? Then invest the time in the next step. If you don't want the job - feel free to opt out and say you are no longer interested.

  • Where possible, change the vector to suit your needs. For example, on long distance travel see if a remote interview for the full length would work. See if you can break the process into parts that work with your work/life needs. Change the equation in such a way that the company gets what it needs in a way that gets you what you need.

  • Realize what you give up. An onsite also gives YOU time to determine if you want to work there. See the workspaces, see the conference spaces, figure out the commute and get a sense of whether the vibe in the workplace is something you want. If you take a job sight unseen, and hate it, you have no one to blame but yourself.

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I have passed on interviews due to length, repeatedly asking me to come back. I also do not take face to face interviews without a technical phone screen. Too many bad experiences of going in, then getting asked questions that me and everyone else I am not qualified and these skills are not on my resume. Better places to work generally do phone screens first. I cannot speak for positions outside of IT on this.

Yes its reasonable. I have found that really long interviews are generally just different people coming in 1 and 2 at a time and asking the same questions. I have had cases where I have to sit around for hours between people talking to me and stare in the corner.

I have given alot of technical interviews. I can get a good feel for you a 30 minute phone screen. Face to face is so you can draw stuff on a white board and I get a better feel for your personality. This takes about an hour with other people. I take notes. Anymore than this and candidates will just get jumbled up anyway. Most people don't take notes so they won't remember you.

I'm at the point in my career where I can afford to turn this stuff down. Earlier on I had to accept it. So it depends on you. To try to keep from burning bridges, you are better off turning down the interview and saying you just got promoted so you are no longer on the market. You never know if you will need a job.

  • I have to agree, a five hour interview where you sit with one person at a time rather than a panel is disrespectful of your time and your need to do your current job in the meantime. I would not accept one of these interviews either. – HLGEM Aug 23 '13 at 12:44
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Whether this is reasonable or not comes down to supply and demand of the job market you are in.

If good candidates can find great jobs without going through 5-hour long grillings, they will, and the company will never get to see them. This would mean that only people who can't find jobs as easily will end up interviewing there, and the company will not be staffed with the best people despite the rigorous interviewing process.

At the same time, if the company in question is really such an awesome place to work that they can draw on an endless pool of candidates (Google, etc) then that is not a concern.

It seems to me that this questions is localized with that as the determinant.

In my opinion, experience set, industry, and locale, a 5 hour interview for an unknown company is very rare. It is also an alarm bell of sorts that you are going to be dealing with people who are out of touch with reality and reaks of mis-management. YMMV.

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It's harder to differentiate sr. devs. I know you think it should be easier to identify your skills, but that's only comparing you to lesser devs.

Risk They say a good developer is 8-10 more productive. Regardless of the desirability of the firm, they have to get this right. Not only is the expected increase in productivity at risk, but you'd be expected to mentor entry-level programmers. If you don't work out, the problems are compounded.

Personal Fit I agree that doing coding exercises or solving puzzles for 4 hours would be too much. There's more to the interview than just technical abilityh (I hope.). I know this sounds bad, but a lengthy interview is sort of an interagation technique. Most people can fake their personality for about a half hour. They're going to ask you the same thing over again. After 4 hours, they get to see the real you.

Other Industries and Experiences Academia is notorious for interviews lasting an entire weekend. Even in the tech industry, I've had several interviews for the same job and the final one was a formal lunch. I took a teaching/coaching position that required 5 interviews; the last one was in front of the entire school board.

It's a double-edge sword. You may not want them to take up your time, but you should want to work for someone who is willing to give up theirs as well (Locking you in a room for 4 hours doing a paper and pencil test is not what I envision.). I don't know the magic number of hours, but if you're not willing to go a minimum of 2 and probably closer to 4, I don't think you're right for the job and would be better off applying to places you think merit your time.

Edit: I do appreciate your follow-up comments to your question. You're willing to go through the process, but still feel a company should consider the attractiveness of the job they are offering relative to yours. This Uncle Bob post made me think of this question.

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