Stop Giving Me Take Homes

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Nick Cannariato

Co-Founder, COO

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Nick here: BCC is a series of anonymized posts enabling Support Professionals to publish their thoughts and create public discussion about topics that would otherwise happen in private DMs. The Yetto team is deeply excited to present today's post -- our first in this series -- and we believe it's both timely and unbelievably well argued.

Are you a support professional who has something to say? Reach out to Brian (@balevine) or Nick (@birdcar) In the Support Driven or Elevate CX Slack communities, we'd love to chat.


Introduction

As a customer support professional, I'm accustomed to navigating a tricky job-hunting landscape. Avoiding work-from-home scams. Figuring out which companies just want bodies as chum for poorly-treated customers and which companies truly value their customers and the holistic business benefits the Support function provides. Getting through a few interviews before finding out a company wants me to provide those comprehensive Support services for call center pay.

But after a decade of filling out job applications, customizing my resume and cover letter for every unique opportunity, enduring round after round of seemingly endless start-up interviews, there's one thing that I've come to hate about job-hunting more than anything else in the Tech world: take-home projects.

Take-home projects (also sometimes called take-home assignments) are ostensibly meant to weed out unserious and unqualified candidates and highlight the outstanding ones. But in reality, I've found they often fail to measure relevant skills, unnecessarily lengthen already excessively long interview processes, put demands on my time that as a caregiver is difficult (if not impossible) to accommodate for a job I may not get, and are an excuse for employers to extract free labor from vulnerable people with little to no recourse for recovering their work.

Why Take-Homes Are Exploitative Bullshit

I've worked hard to hone my technical problem-solving and emotional intelligence -- vital skills for customer support professionals -- and I'm excellent at both. This isn't hubris; my professional worth and aptitude is demonstrated in my resume, in the references my peers and supervisors provide on my behalf, and in the work samples I provide in my portfolio.

Yet despite these tangible proofs of my ability and experience, almost every interview process I've been a part of during my Support career has involved a take-home project. It's not at all uncommon for the take-home project to ask me to write a help center article or answer help desk tickets, as if I were a new Support worker with no work examples to my name or experience under my belt.

Every time I'm sent a take-home project I think to myself -- did they not read my resume? Do they think I somehow cheated my way through 10 years of verifiable work experience? Did they not look at the sample work they asked for? What's the point of completing the job application if they don't read any of it?

Or worse: the also not-uncommon take-home project that asks me to do actual work the company clearly needs done, like evaluating and correcting weaknesses in a company's support community program or drafting a training program for new Support hires (both real projects requested by potential employers in the past).

Either I'm asked to prove I can do the most basic work of a Support professional, or I'm asked to provide a potential employer free labor in exchange for a chance at a job (not a promise of a job! Just the chance of being considered!), and either option is incredibly insulting to me as a candidate.

It's also become increasingly apparent to me that tech companies are just disrupting wage theft -- innovating new ways to steal labor from vulnerable people who need the work. If you're in a low-wage job, or in a hostile workplace and desperate to get out, or if you've been laid off and unemployment is a ticking time bomb about to go off -- are you going to say no to a take-home project? Even if you suspect it's a company's excuse to get work done on the cheap? Probably not.

I've also been on the hiring side of take-home projects, and it's just as infuriating. I hear my employers claim they want to hire women, people of color, older workers, and other people underrepresented in Tech, and yet still design 2-8 hour take-home projects that only folks who have the privilege of time, of money, and of power could possibly complete with any quality.

When candidates withdraw from the interview process because they understandably can't or won't complete the take-home project, my employers are affronted, as if this is an insult or red flag instead of a candidate's very reasonable exercise of agency. When I point out that perhaps the candidate didn't want to give us free labor, they scoff. They say things like, "we can't compromise our standards," or "how will we know if they're a top performer?"

I bite my tongue until it bleeds, because otherwise I'd reply, "just admit that you want to go the easy route and hire a white dude and be done with it," and then I'd be a job seeker again facing down another take-home project, weighing my need for the job and salary against my sense of self-worth.

For everyone except the most privileged, take-home projects are like playing the lottery -- you know you're probably going to lose and that someone else is going to benefit from your loss. But you can't win if you don't play, and employers know it.

So If Not Take-Homes, Then What?

Ah, I can hear you asking -- if we don't use take-home projects, how will we measure a candidate's empathy, their patience and tenacity, their google-fu, their critical thinking?

My counter-question is this: is your take-home project actually measuring those things? The very nature of take-home assignments means that they tend to ask candidates to give solutions to well-defined problems or provide detailed consultations for finite projects, but in reality, Support work is rarely so concrete or predictable.

And take-home assignments are often not effective at evaluating the candidate's ability to dig into problems they don't know much about, their willingness and aptitude for working with others, their capacity for adapting their approach when necessary -- essentially, their emotional intelligence and intellectual elasticity. We know this is true because take-home projects almost always come with a subsequent review interview, or come in addition to several rounds of face-to-interviews that evaluate for culture and values fit.

In my experience, take-homes are a dysfunctional shortcut for employers who are either too lazy to put in the effort to do things differently and reach more highly-qualified candidates, or they don't have the expertise to really zero-in on what they're looking for in a candidate, especially if it's for a non-technical role as Support roles frequently are. (Although I genuinely believe this is true regardless of the type of role, but that's an argument for another blog.)

This means that in order to replace a take-home project with a more equitable and accurate measure of a candidate's fit for a role, employers need to be thoughtful and deliberate about determining what skills and competencies the role truly needs.

At the risk of providing yet more free labor for companies that surely have the resources to figure this out for themselves, here are some suggestions.

Scenarios, Live Projects, and Writing Samples / Portfolios

Scenario-based questions and live projects are great ways to tease out a candidate's ability to navigate difficult situations with empathy and patience, their critical thinking process, and their ability to provide the right solution at the right time for the right problem.

Scenario-based questions and live projects are especially helpful when you have specific problems in your Support organization that you know a candidate will need to solve. Both scenario-based questions and live projects are time-boxed, which limits the complexity of the candidate's answer (thus limiting the chance their work will be exploited) while giving a candidate the opportunity to demonstrate how their experience allows them to meet the challenges they'll face in the role.

Scenarios and live projects also allow you, the employer, to evaluate the most important skills a Support professional needs in order to excel in any Support role: are they able to learn new things, troubleshoot, and problem-solve on the fly? How do they deal with uncertainty, frustration, and stress? Can they effectively explain what they're doing? How do they communicate with peers and supervisors? Do they know when to admit they're struggling and ask for help?

It's a frustrating waste of everyone's time to ask experienced candidates to prove they know how to do basic support work like answering tickets, but it's perfectly reasonable to want to be sure a candidate's writing and communication skills will match the needs of a Support role.

This is where work samples or writing portfolios come in. Most experienced support professionals are very well-versed in writing help documentation, training material, and even blog posts, and most will be able to provide one or two existing samples upon request. This is a much better option than asking a candidate to write a help center article for your company in a take-home project; it's less exploitative, and it tells the candidate that not only do you respect their time, but you also recognize and value the experience demonstrated in their resume and application.

But If You Must Do Take-Homes, Do Better

If you've gotten this far and you're still thinking that I'll pry take-home assignments from your cold, dead hands -- well, I can't stop you from being wrong. But if you're going to do take-homes, there are ways to not be an asshole about it.

For starters, shorten the take-home as much as possible, and limit it to only the type of work the candidate would be doing if they got the job. For an (unfortunately real) example, if they're going to be managing a team of front-line agents, don't ask them to do market research and make recommendations for how to improve your mobile app to be more competitive with other companies' apps.

Secondly, shorten your overall interview process as much as possible, and only ask a candidate to complete a take-home project if you're otherwise sure the candidate is a good fit for the role. If you're asking a candidate to go through 5-6 rounds of interviews plus a 2-8 hour take-home project, that's 5-13 hours of time you're taking away from that candidate, who you may not hire, and who is likely repeating this process with other companies as well. Aside from making your company more competitive comparatively, it's also just decent and more equitable to reduce the demands you're making on a person's largely uncompensated time.

Lastly, pay candidates for completing the take-home project, regardless of whether the take-home assignment actually contains real work the candidate might do in the role. Again, aside from making your company incredibly competitive, it's also just the right thing to do. If you're asking a candidate -- or anyone -- to do work they wouldn't otherwise do, you should pay them.

How much you should pay will obviously depend on the role and the work involved. My advice is to use the hourly rate on the high-end of the salary range for the role in question and then multiply that by the number of hours the take-home project will take to complete. Having said that, a flat rate is also acceptable, and it never hurts to default to generosity.

Could paying people for their time or eliminating the take-home altogether get expensive? Certainly, if you don't know what you're looking for or haven't properly screened candidates as they move through the hiring process. But hiring the wrong person is also incredibly expensive, both in terms of time and revenue lost, so committing the resources to ethically finding the right person for the right role at the right time?

That's priceless.