How Competing Against a ‘Bot’ Could Land You a Developer Job

Don Tennant
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Consider this scenario: You’re interested in getting a job as a developer with a high-profile company, but in order to get on the short list, you’re challenged to a coding duel by a bot that was trained by the company’s engineers. Beat it, and your foot’s in the door.

If that sounds a bit futuristic, you may be surprised, as I was, to learn that that’s happening right now. That scenario is just another day at the office for CodeFights, a coding competition platform provider in San Francisco. I recently had the opportunity to speak with CodeFights Founder and CEO Tigran Sloyan about how the platform is being used not only to enable people to compete against each other to solve coding challenges, but also for recruitment by the likes of Uber and Dropbox.

I asked Sloyan if he sees CodeFights as more of an educational platform, or more of a recruitment gamification platform. He said it depends on the point in time that’s being considered:

If you look at CodeFights right now, it would be more of a recruiting platform. I think five to 10 years down the line, it will be more of an educational platform. The vision behind the company is all based on education—the idea is to take skills like programming, and turn them into addictive games. But education and recruiting are very much connected to each other. The goal of getting an education and learning certain skills is to use it for something practical—usually, to get a job. So I see education and recruiting as two ends of the same spectrum—you start with education, and in the end, once your skills are good enough, you’re basically ready to get a job.

Sloyan went on to explain how a growing list of companies, to include Uber, Dropbox, GoDaddy, Instacart and Asana, are using CodeFights bots as a recruiting tool:

If you’re popular enough—if you’re a company like Facebook or Google or Uber—you can get your own ‘bot’ from CodeFights. CodeFights bots are basically automated opponents from specific companies that play like engineers from those companies—the companies train the bots to play like them, and developers are able to compete against them.

When a developer faces that bot, and he wins, you pretty much know that developer is better than your engineers, because they beat the bot that plays like your engineers. The developer who beats your bot is good at the specific things you’re working on, because the challenges that people face when playing the bots are tailored to your specific company. So when a developer wins, he receives a form asking if he’d be interested in working for this company. Most people say they would, and we connect them with the company.

Sloyan said his company’s partnership with Uber was the first experiment in the bot direction:

CodeFights started as a fun way for developers to challenge each other and practice their skills, and we grew to a community of almost 200,000 developers within a year. We have a lot of internal connections at Uber—a few of them are our advisors and investors. About three months ago, we were contacted by Uber—they wanted to do something interesting with CodeFights. So we created an Uber bot that people could challenge, to see if those people would actually be interested in working at Uber. Initially, we weren’t sure, but we found that almost 50 percent of the people who challenged the bot were interested in talking to Uber about a job.

Sloyan also shared his thoughts on how a shifting educational landscape is affecting the tech hiring process:

What's happening across the board is around education becoming more open. For example, MIT has put all of their lectures and lecture notes online; Harvard is doing that. Almost all of the popular educational institutions are sharing the data that they’ve gathered. People are creating online learning tools—Khan Academy is creating a database of videos that covers almost anything you would need to know and learn to be a strong professional. So the shift is that education is going online, and becoming more accessible.

With that ease of access, Sloyan said, has come “a lot more noise” in the tech and engineering fields:

It’s much harder to tell who is a good engineer. Before, companies would rely on your diploma, or something like that—not that it was very reliable, but at least it would say that this person graduated, so he’s probably good enough. Now, a very large majority of engineers are self-taught, because all of that information is accessible online. It’s practically impossible to say who might be a good engineer, because everybody looks the same on paper.

Therein lies the value of CodeFights as a recruitment platform, Sloyan said. Challenging developers to a coding competition separates the wheat from the chaff.

Sloyan also shared his vision of a future in which coding is a popular spectator sport. I’ll cover that in a forthcoming post.

A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.

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