359: How to Create a Great Take-Home Assignment for New Job Applicants
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In today’s episode of The Startup Chat, Steli and Hiten talk about take-home assignments for job applicants.
This topic was chosen as a result of mistakes that were made at recent hirings at Close.io and as take-home assignments is an integral part of the hiring process.
In this week’s episode, Steli and Hiten share their thoughts on what take-home assignments are, how to approach them, mistakes to avoid when handing them out and much more.
Time Stamped Show Notes:
00:00 About today’s topic.
00:39 Why this topic was chosen.
01:34 A take-home assignment for a recent job posting at Close.
02:17 Hiten’s view on take-home assignments.
02:37 The only way to understand what a person can do.
02:49 An example of a contract to hire approach.
03:10 Why it’s a good idea to have every candidate carry out the same.
04:01 Why you don’t want to give them work that relates too close to your company.
05:10 How to give out take-home assignments.
05:34 Why you should give assignments that are limited in scope.
3 Key Points:
- I’m a huge fan of understanding what a person can do.
- Typically, I like every candidate having the same assignment.
- If it’s an unpaid job, you don’t want to give them work that relates too close to your company.
Steli Efti: Hey everybody. This is Steli Efti.
Hiten Shah: And this is Hiten Shah.
Steli Efti: In today’s episode of the Startup Chat, we want to talk about take-home assignments for job applicants. Here’s the setting. Here’s why I wanted to talk to you about this, and I thought it would be very valuable to people, Hiten. We are hiring tons of people at Close. If you’re looking for an awesome remote company to work for, a little plug here, check out Close.io/jobs. All of our jobs … There’s not a single position that is open that we would not have a take-home assignment as part of the interviewing process, right? Typically, you have to fill out an application. It goes through some internal reviews. If you check off on all of the main marks, we’ll have somebody on the team have a first conversation with you. If that goes well, typically the very next step in almost all positions will be us giving you a little “homework assignment,” a take-home, so that you can show us how you work. You can create something for us, and we can give you feedback and critique, and you can see … Where both sides can see how we work together versus just talking about working together. These take-homes have always been a kind of key part of our interviewing process, and recently, there’s been a role that we hired for where … It’s just been interesting where … The way we designed the take-home was not very thoughtful, so it created all kinds of weird take-home assignments that then made us realize, oh, we’ve never talked about how to design the take-home. This hiring manager thought about it very differently from how we used to think about it, and he created all these kind of like aha moments that I thought might be useful to people, might save them a lot of time. Before I go into some of my tips, I’m just curious. Is that part of how you’ve been hiring people as well? Have you always been doing take-homes? Are you doing them sometimes for certain positions but wouldn’t use them for others? What’s your kind of overall take on take-homes?
Hiten Shah: Yeah, it’s either a take-home or some form of assignment. Sometimes we’ll even go as far as making it a paid assignment and putting some constraints around it. Yeah. I’m a huge fan of understanding what the person can do, and the only way to do that is by making them do it. A take-home assignment is definitely one key way. Another one would be, like, spend some time with us and do something with us. That’s more of like a contract-to-hire example, freelancer sort of approach, where you work with the person for a week in some capacity if it’s a little more of a fuzzy job. But typically, I like every candidate having the same assignment, especially if I’m recruiting for a role. I guess if I’m recruiting specifically for a role, there will be an assignment, and all the candidates get the same assignment. What this really helps you do, especially if you’re specifically recruiting for a role … I’ll keep stressing that part of it because that’s a key part of it … Is it helps you evaluate, apples to apple, every single person that does the assignment.
Steli Efti: Beautiful, yeah. I like that, and that’s a super-critical part. I think the other thing that the … I’ll go through some of the mistakes of this kind of recent example so that people can avoid-
Hiten Shah: Yeah, please. Yeah, I’m curious.
Steli Efti: … So people can avoid them. This is the first time that we ran into this for a number of reasons. The person that created the take-homes and is kind of the hiring manager is a new team member. It’s somebody that joined the team and is hiring now but has not been in the company for years, right, which is new for us. It was interesting where there were small mistakes, like the team decided let’s not give somebody an assignment … Oftentimes, if it’s an unpaid assignment, you don’t want to give them work to do that relates too close to your company, right?
Hiten Shah: Yep.
Steli Efti: Because later on, if you even do something yourself that seems similar, it could create problems. The person could claim that you used their work, the free work they did for the job application. You didn’t hire them, but then you just used their work, right? It can create all kinds of problems. So, typically companies have adopted the best practice of doing something that maybe relates to your company but is not create a better homepage for us, or something like that, right, that could be like a real job, and then later the person could claim that you used their work in an unethical way without paying them and pretending it was for a job application. The same thing happened here. But in the description of it, instead of saying very clearly, “This is an example of something that doesn’t relate to us. Pretend Close.io would want to start a business in this totally different vertical. If you had to create a landing page with these main goals in mind, how would you do it?” the take-home assignment just said, “Close.io wants to change business model and is going off to these totally different people. Create a landing page for that.” Applicants were confused and were like, “Are you guys changing and pivoting to doing this completely random, different thing?” We’re like, “Why is everybody confused about this?” Then, I read the take-home, and it was like of course they’re confused. It doesn’t say it clearly that this is just an example. It states it almost as a fact. The other thing that was really interesting was that, when you create a take-home, I mean, you want to … I think most of the time, if it’s not a paid contract gig, right, kind of like it’s work together for a few weeks on a contract basis … If it’s a take-home, I am a big fan of doing something that is somewhat limited in scope, right, and gives that limit to people so that you don’t have … You can’t have an apples-to-apples comparison where … You don’t have one person working on that for four hours, and another person working on it for 40 hours, and you compare the two projects together. Right? But you tell people, “Hey, this should not exceed this amount of hours.” I like to keep them somewhat limited so it’s a reasonable ask in the very early stages of the relationship with them. One thing that we didn’t realize that we had to do, and one mistake that came up in this specific example, was that we had different people grade the take-home. Again, usually we’re all … We’ve never experienced being of completely different opinions on take-homes, very rarely. In this case, I saw some of the grading that people got from the take-home. I would look at the take-home, and I’d be just baffled. I’m like, “How in the world are these two people on our team thinking this is a good take-home?” This blew my mind, which then led to me talking to them and be like, “Let’s go through these. Let’s pick three or four take-homes that we got. Let’s go through them, and you explain to me how you’re evaluating this. Then, I’ll tell you how I evaluate this.” Once we went through the exercise, we all three looked at each other, and we went, “Oh. We use completely different criteria for how we’re grading these fucking take-homes,” right? Of course we’re not on the same page. Which then made us realize that, as part of the process now, when we put together a new take-home, we’ll have a little section for internal purposes that explains exactly how we grade the take-home, like what are the criteria that we’re rating and ranking and grading it on? As your team grows, maybe in the early days when you’re two or three people, maybe even then it’s useful to do to make sure that you have full alignment and you’re on the same page. But as the company grows and become bigger and bigger teams, and as new and newer team members are starting to be part of the interviewing process … This was a mistake that we made that we didn’t think about, and then it got to the point where I was baffled why we all seemed to be on totally different pages how we rank these take-homes. Now it has helped us get on the same page and get much better results in terms of being in agreement on who’s succeeding on the take-home based on what criteria and who isn’t.
Hiten Shah: Yeah, I think that’s really important, knowing what your success criteria is and what you’re assessing people for. What we do when we create these assignments is we actually think of those things first, so what’s our … How are we going to evaluate the assignment? Even before we do the assignment, we think through how are we going to evaluate this assignment, even who’s going to evaluate it, what’s the criteria we’re going to use to evaluate the candidate based on the assignment, and then we create the assignment. Because basically the assignment has to be designed to get us what we need, which is an assessment of the various candidates, an objective assessment. We need to know who’s going to review it, too, because it’s a … You know, these things are a coordinated effort. You’re bringing someone new on your team, and there’s a process. The people that work with that person or can assess that person or that candidate for that role are really key in bringing into the conversation.
Steli Efti: Absolutely. All right. I think that’s it from us for this episode on some tips on dos and don’ts, when to use take-homes, what to do and what not to do, what mistakes to avoid. Hopefully, it’s going to help the people that are listening to find the right people faster that they want to onboard on their startup. That’s it from us for this episode. If anybody has interesting tips or seen crazy-cool or crazy-terrible take-homes and wants to share them with us, we always love to hear from you. You can get in touch with us, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com. We always love to hear from you, and we do so frequently So, thanks for that. Until next time, that’s it from us.
Hiten Shah: See you.