Tech Interview Featured

Article by Portia Kibble Smith, Head of D&I at Karat

Job interviews can make even the most confident person feel vulnerable.

But interview anxiety can be especially detrimental for people who are already under pressure to conform to cultural norms and present themselves a certain way. Unfortunately, these anxieties are amplified for Black engineers and undergraduates entering the tech industry with little to no interview practice/experience and who also face a compounding effect of racial bias and stereotyping in white-male dominated spaces.

According to a recent study from Karat, these challenges were even more acute for Black females, who face a compounding effect of gender and racial bias in white-male-dominated spaces. According to the report, black females reported feeling extreme levels of interview anxiety twice as frequently as their male counterparts. Thirty-seven percent of black women rated their interview anxiety at a 9 or 10 on a scale of 0 to 10 compared to just 18% of black men. Black females also demonstrated high levels of imposter syndrome more frequently than men (40% compared to 31%).

After years within the industry, I know the high-pressure interview situations. As one of the first Black women in tech in the 1980s, I was determined to climb the corporate ladder despite countless obstacles. D&I programs were “virtually nonexistent” in those days. But one opportunity led to another and I eventually became an executive recruiter at Sprint, helping the company build inroads into leading MBA programs and HBCUs in pursuit of the best candidates for roles as future officers of the company/firm.

When I first started at IBM, I was the only Black woman on the sales team and garnered many strange looks and comments from customers. At the time, women and minorities were rarely given the opportunity to work in the large accounts division in sales. I’ve even faced meetings with customers who would get up and leave because I didn’t “look” like I worked at IBM. Nevertheless, despite all of the negativity and racism, I showed up and didn’t allow anyone to intimidate me from reaching success.

But for those just entering the field, this process and the anxieties associated with interviewing can result in physical reactions. Many black women go into interviews knowing they need to perform at a higher level than their peers and are more self-conscious because they are intentionally trying to avoid the perceived stereotypes of “aggressive behaviors.” This includes the natural reaction to stress like sweat, physically shifting, and involuntary body language, which can be perceived as being deceptive or not allowing the candidate to focus on acing the interview to secure the job.

Some of the participants of the Access Gap Report stated the following about their interviewing experiences:

My greatest challenge is not seeing a lot of women, especially Black women, in the field. I am so nervous that interviewers won’t like me or that I will say something that makes it seem that I am unable to do the job or any job in the field for that matter. Also, because I am a dark skin plus-sized woman, I worry about not looking the part for someone in a business setting.

Closing the Access Gap Within Tech

Socioeconomic factors such as access to personal computers and computer science education at an early age require long-term investments and systemic changes to American primary education. Still, there are also immediate ways for organizations to build more equity into hiring today. Here are three steps organizations can take to improve diversity hiring and increase retention of technical talent.

Make the interview process transparent

When candidates have inside knowledge of a company and its hiring process, they are better prepared due to networking or referrals. Hiring managers should ask themselves if a candidate who is interviewing without knowing anyone at their company has the same understanding of the interview process and questions as one who has an “in” with someone on the team.

Failing to do this will artificially benefit people from similar backgrounds as your existing team, resulting in hires that consciously or unconsciously prioritize interpersonal relationships and subjective “likeability” over skill. Consequently, this leads to less diverse and ultimately less effective teams, hurting both the efficiency and equity of the hiring process.

Create interview practice opportunities with second chances

Offer multiple interview opportunities to candidates. One way to do this is by giving candidates the ability to redo their technical interview if they’re not satisfied with their performance.

In fact, the preliminary results from Karat’s Brilliant Black Minds practice interview program also reinforce this best practice. Brilliant Black Minds offers HBCU computer science students multiple practice interviews. After each interview, students received written and verbal feedback on their strengths and opportunities for growth, followed by a second interview opportunity. Seventy-six percent of participants who received practice interviews focusing on data structures maintained or improved their scores, and 85% of participants who received algorithm interviews maintained or improved.

Foster inclusion with support and mentoring

Not seeing people within production, leadership, and C-suite roles can make the candidate feel out of place. According to Code2040, “while Black and Latinx people earn nearly 20% of computer science bachelor’s degrees, they make up only around 5% of the technical workforce at top tech companies. Only 2-5.3% of tech executives are Black and 3.1-5.3% are Latinx.”

Factors that can impact imposter syndrome include first exposure to computer science and the lack of representation within the tech companies – within leadership and C-suite roles.

To address this, engineering teams can create a more inclusive culture by providing support for engineers of color in the form of mentorship opportunities and creating a more transparent structure around roles.

In technical interviews, where applicants are supposed to be judged by “experts” on their skills, bias and perpetuated stereotypes must be checked at the door. And then proactively corrected throughout the recruiting and hiring process to create more equitable experiences and higher retention rates.

COVID-19 presented organizations with the opportunity to get out of their limited referral networks and recruit from new or non-traditional sources – including HBCUs and local colleges. But organizations also must ensure that they’re setting up interviewees and future employees for success in the hiring process by reducing the inconsistencies and bad interviewing practices that cause anxiety and produce false negatives. This can be achieved by adding transparency, creating practice opportunities, and providing career support for employees.

Portia Kibble SmithAbout Author

Portia Kibble Smith is an executive recruiter and diversity & inclusion lead for Karat, a company that conducts technical interviews on behalf of businesses hiring software engineers to create a more predictive, fair, and inclusive process. She has recently been the driving force behind the Real Talk: Diversity in Tech series and the launch of Brilliant Black Minds.