A Coding Test for Contractors: Good or Bad Idea?

April 13, 2021

When hiring for an open role, it goes without saying that it’s important to vet your candidates before hiring them. With this in mind, many organizations and recruiters who want to evaluate potential new hires in the tech space will implement a coding test for contractors. Designed to test the skill sets and knowledge of their applicants, the length of this test can vary. 

On the other side of that coin, many developers who pursue contracting work do not respond positively to being asked to complete a coding exam. In fact, our recruiters have found an interesting trend: When interviewing for a contract role, 65% of candidates who are asked to complete a coding test during the hiring process say that they’ll accept an offer with another company, one that does not require a coding test. This information suggests that a coding test might actually scare off potential candidates. At first blush, this might seem counterintuitive to a company that wants to hire top talent. After all, a coding exam is an excellent tool for learning the strengths of a candidate. 

That’s not to say that giving a coding test is always a bad idea – but rather, that implementing a coding test during the hiring process for a contracted position, isn’t always necessary. Here’s why:

Contractor Roles are Treated Differently than Full-Time Roles

First, think about the difference between a full-time hire and a contractor. Then, think about the hiring process and how it differs between these two types of hires. The process for recruiting, hiring and onboarding a full-time tech hire is very different from the process of hiring a developer for contract work. In the contract market, things move quickly. At times, an offer can come within 12 to 24 hours of a first or second interview. On the other hand, an offer for a full-time hire usually takes longer to reach the candidate.

Since contractors are not full-time employees, many are also actively interviewing for other positions. Those other positions may make an offer for the candidate you’re vetting, too. In this fast-paced contract market, asking a candidate  to complete an exam may sink your chances of landing that candidate for your role. By the time they’ve completed the exam, you’ve reviewed it, and made the decision to come back with an offer, your candidate could potentially have received (or accepted) multiple other offers. 

The Hiring Process Is Lengthy – Even Without Implementing a Coding Test for Contractors

It’s also a good idea to think about how long the hiring process takes. Your candidates have already spent a significant amount of time finding open roles, writing a cover letter, and researching your company. If you’re going through the interview process with them, there’s a good chance they’ve also committed to at least one interview with you. Interviews also require preparation. Preparation takes time. 

It’s often easy to lose sight of the fact that, just as recruiters have multiple candidates to vet, contractors have multiple interviews. Many applicants feel that the amount of preparation they do before they even get to the interview itself goes unnoticed by recruiters and companies. The candidates you approach for contract work, in most cases, have already invested a significant amount of time in their application. At this point, it’s important to stop and ask yourself if a lengthy coding exam is an acceptable request to make.

A Coding Test for Contractors Should Be Relevant to the Actual Job Duties

It’s also important to look at the role you’re hiring for. Are you interviewing a junior developer or someone who has held senior roles? The approach needed when vetting a junior vs senior candidate is necessarily different. It’s often safe to assume that a senior candidate has the prerequisite knowledge and experience. Many times, the junior candidate is not as experienced. 

A coding exam is typically most effective when vetting a junior developer. You’ll want to explore the depth of their knowledge, and an exam is often the easiest means to that end. Likewise, for a senior developer whose resume demonstrates the necessary experience, a full exam may not be necessary.

Consider asking to review a sample of code your senior candidates have already written, rather than asking them to write new code during the interviewing process. Ask pointed questions related to the skills your candidates need to possess to fulfill the role. This way, you’ll be able to see their strengths and evaluate their skills for the role you need to fill, but it will save both of you time. If during the interview process you notice that their answers are off-the-mark, it would make better sense to administer a coding test at that point. 

Not All Coding Tests Are Created Equal

Finally, it’s worth considering the type of exam you’d like to administer for your candidates. Do you have a senior developer on-staff who is creating a test that is relevant to the project you’re managing? Or, are you employing a more generic exam? A major caveat when it comes to boilerplate, generic exams is that they are not always accurate. In fact, they are often completely irrelevant to the role you are trying to fill. Exams from third-party services may test knowledge, but are useless unless they test relevant knowledge.

Wondering what to do if you do decide to administer a test or an assessment for an intermediate- or senior-level candidate? A brief test with questions directly related to the assignment daily tasks, is much more effective than a multi-hour exam. Keep your evaluations short and to-the-point, and you’ll save time both for yourself and for your candidates. Make sure the questions you do ask your candidates are relevant to the tasks they’ll be performing. This way, you may not even need to have them complete a full exam!

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