Instrumental's most important product is our interview process

Instrumental's most important product is our interview process

Anna-Katrina Shedletsky
December 06, 2017

Instrumental builds software for hardware engineers. In the physical world, when the wrong part is stuffed into a million phones, there is no such thing as a "hotfix". It must be right the first time. Our two mechanical engineering founders and many hardware users have shaped our engineering culture accordingly: we are thoughtful about the impact of our choices and intentional about risk. This intentionality is part of most things we do at Instrumental, from choosing a tech stack, making decisions about what to work on next, to how we look for new teammates to join us.

The most important ingredient in building a great company is building a great team. Since the beginning, I’ve set out to build a passionate and diverse team, because I believe this powerful combination fosters our best selves and our best work. As a woman founder, CEO, and someone who has run an organization for women in STEM for the last five years – the need for diversity is personal. It’s the world that I want to live in. It’s the world I strive to build at Instrumental.

You can tell a lot about how a company operates and what it cares about from its interview process. Our engineering interview template was one of our first “products” as a company – and is now the most iterated. Over the last two and half years, our team has dedicated countless hours to evolving our interview process to maximize signal for both parties and to remove bias, all while being as efficient as possible. No process is perfect and true to our culture of being intentional, we reflect and iterate after every interview. While we apply the same intentionality in the processes for all roles at Instrumental, our engineering process is the most highly evolved.

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Like many small companies in the Bay Area, we’re actively seeking passionate people to join our team. It’s a frothy hiring environment, but candidates still only get small glimpses of any new company they are considering: only little bits about the team, the culture, and the impact of the work. Our interview process reveals so much about who we are. I wrote this walkthrough (inspired by Slack’s) to share Instrumental’s most important product with would-be candidates.

What we look for in candidates

Fundamentally, our process is designed to identify candidates who will be able to grow and thrive at Instrumental. We’re building a team of passionate people who naturally take ownership of their work and build up others. Whether the team member is coming up to speed on a new language or has programmed with it for a decade, we are looking for people who are constantly seeking opportunities to learn and to improve. For junior team members, we look for good instincts and the potential to learn; for seasoned team members, we’re looking for craftsmanship and the ability to coach others. We are a highly communicative team where productive disagreement is not only encouraged, it’s part of the job.

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What is the interview process like?

We’ve designed our process to maximize signal on key areas that are actually important to the role of being a software engineer at Instrumental, such as technical competence, communication, and teamwork. We recognize that when we are interviewing a candidate, that the candidate is also interviewing us – so we’ve created opportunities for the candidate to truly interact and learn about us. We follow the same process for all web development candidates, regardless of position or level of experience.

1. Resume or LinkedIn Review

We’re looking for passion for software engineering – demonstrated by personal projects (if you’re new to the field) or professional experience. We don’t care about your educational background – many of our team found software development after starting in another field or career, and have developed into amazing engineers.

2. Introductory Call with the Talent Team

As a candidate, your time is valuable. The goal of this call is to spend about 30 minutes so that both sides can determine if the opportunity is interesting. We ask candidates high-level questions about their prior experiences and open-ended questions about their development interests to ensure alignment to the role. We also ask about your passions – whether it’s Perl, puns, or pancakes, there’s no wrong answer. Passion is infectious and we believe passionate teams produce better products. 

In turn, we share a high-level overview of Instrumental, how we’re thinking about the role and its impact, and the team. Instrumental builds cutting edge technology in an industry where most candidates have no prior experience or knowledge – so we encourage candidates to ask lots of questions, even if they seem basic. The goal is for both sides to walk away excited for the next step!

3. Take-Home Project

Scientific research has shown that one of the best indicators of performance in a role is a work sample (Schmidt, F. L., & Hunter, J.E. 1998). As a result, every single role at Instrumental has a work sample as part of the interview process. We know that our candidates are busy, and some may prefer live coding challenges because they take less time. We’ve deliberately chosen a take-home work sample instead of a coding challenge because we’re far more interested in a methodical and complete approach to a solution versus what you can come up with on the spot in an hour. Some awesome engineers aren’t great at “whiteboard coding" interviews, which often require skills that are not needed in the actual job. We believe the work sample approach is the closest representation of real-life work at Instrumental, and enables us to evaluate candidates more objectively than a live coding challenge.

As part of the take-home project, you’ll be paired with an Instrumental engineer. Most prompts are designed such that you’ll need to ask questions, and many candidates enjoy these back and forth interactions with a potential teammate, as a glimpse into what it would be like to work on the team. Instrumental places great emphasis on this part of our process as a representation of how you work – from the code you write to complete the assignment, as well as the supporting documentation and testing. We have an explicit set of criteria that we use to grade assignments to help reduce bias in our process, and share a short list of these with the prompt so that you can submit your best work. In some instances, we may do a followup phone call with a candidate after reviewing their work sample to understand a more complete picture of tradeoffs made – it’s also a great way for us to get candidate feedback about how to improve.

4. Visit us onsite!

On the day of your onsite, you’ll come to our Los Altos office for about five hours to spend some time with our team. Our onsite philosophy is that you are interviewing us as much as we are interviewing you. For each role we have identified core competencies that a candidate will need to have to be successful in that role. We then took those competencies and designed 45 to 60 minute sessions to assess each one with a predetermined set of questions or prompt. While each conversation will be unique and may meander based on the candidate’s responses, this foundation question list ensures that all candidates are given the same opportunity to demonstrate expertise, thought process, and communication skills.

In addition to traditional interviews, we do a technical deep dive and at least one team exercise. We don’t believe in whiteboard coding or brain teasers, but we do want to learn about your technical background and communication. You’ll choose a topic for your deep dive before the onsite, prepare as necessary, and then informally walk a few (technical and nontechnical) team members through the topic of your choice. The team exercise is an opportunity to see what it’s like to work with your future teammates on a quirky mini-project together.

You’ll also have ample time to spend with your potential teammates, get to know what they care about and why they love Instrumental. We make sure to leave time at the end of every interview for questions so that candidates can get a diverse perspective on what it’s like to work at Instrumental. We recommend using the time to ask several different people the same questions, such as:

  • What is a high and a low that happened in the last 30 days?
  • How would you describe the culture?
  • What made you decide to work at Instrumental? What has kept you here?
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What technologies does Instrumental use?

Our main application is entirely de-coupled. Our backend includes a main Scala application, AWS hosting, and a Python machine learning cluster. Our front end leverages HTML, SCSS and TypeScript. We believe great software engineers come from many different backgrounds, so we do not require candidates to have any familiarity with these technologies in order to apply to, to interview at, or to join Instrumental.

Our current challenges include:

  • Transitioning our cloud-based machine learning services to run in real-time on Linux systems located in worldwide factories, including China
  • Creating new features for hardware engineers to discover and label defective products within their data
  • Continuously improving the security and reliability of our app and infrastructure

How do I apply?

Check out Instrumental’s open positions on our careers page. We’re interested in applicants from all backgrounds and encourage you to apply if you think there could be a fit. If you’re excited about what we are doing but don’t see an exact match, please reach out and tell us about your interest here. Many candidates assume that they need manufacturing industry experience or knowledge in order to get a job at Instrumental -- I assure you that this is not the case! If you have any questions, reach out to me on LinkedIn or to our Talent team at jobs@instrumental.com.

Check out Instrumental’s open positions on our careers page. We’re interested in applicants from all backgrounds and encourage you to apply if you think there could be a fit. If you’re excited about what we are doing but don’t see an exact match, please reach out and tell us about your interest here.

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