5 Mistakes companies make recruiting software interns

August to November is internship application season for computer science undergraduates and over the past few months I've been applying to a good number of internships myself. Through these applications I've learnt a few things about what makes for a good recruitment process and what doesn't and I hope to share a few of them here.

Having a good process is really important in software engineering roles because candidates hold so much power. A good candidate will be progressing with at least 3 or 4 companies that are likely to hire them at any one time. If they find any reason to dismiss your company, then they will. Below I've listed five common mistakes I've seen in recruiting processes and why each one is likely to lose you a good candidate.

1. Timing the process wrong

The big companies that recruit computer science interns (Google, Amazon, Facebook etc) tend to start their processes around September. This means that all the candidates they wanted have been snapped up by December at the latest. If you are starting your recruiting process any later than September, then you are losing a lot of good candidates to bigger companies that got in earlier.

The earlier you list your positions, the better. If a candidate receives an offer from you whilst they are only in an early stage of the process with other companies, then they are much more likely to take your position. Of course, the same applies to other companies, which makes it even more necessary to get in early.

All this is not to say that there aren't still good candidates left later on, it's just that you will have a harder time finding them. When a candidate receives an offer, they're likely to take it.

2. Bad communication

There is nothing worse from a candidate's perspective than not hearing anything back from an application. Not being clear on what happens next in a recruitment process comes in a close second. It's crucial when recruiting to be prompt in replying to candidates and exceedingly clear on what the process will entail.

Often companies make this mistake by opening applications for a position, stockpiling them and then come back to review them a few weeks later. Alongside being an unpleasant candidate experience, this will also lose you candidates to other companies that have reviewed and made offers faster.

In terms of making sure the candidate is aware of what the process entails, it's generally a good idea to let them know as early as possible in an email that lists the steps, and then reinforce this at the end of every step. Candidates really appreciate having all the information and will reward you for your effort with a better image of your organisation.

3. Unhelpful interviews

An interview is your best chance to get to know the candidate and their experience. Something that's often overlooked, however, is that it's also your best chance to sell the candidate your position.

Lists of what is important to software engineers in their job often start with working with smart colleagues. For the candidate to know that your team are excellent at what they do, it's important that the questions they get asked in interview are smart and relevant. Asking candidates to recite some facts from a textbook is unhelpful for you and them, but asking them to solve a problem that's relevant to your business both gives you greater insight into them and demonstrates your team's skill.

4. Not reimbursing travel

Hiring software engineers is expensive. The amount of recruiting and engineering time that goes into a single candidate is huge. But the reason for this is that hiring the wrong engineer is even more expensive. So why would you vastly narrow your pool of candidates and exclude many good engineers by not paying for a train fare or flight? The price will pale in comparison to what you're already spending on the candidate. Personally I would not attend an interview without travel reimbursement and I know many people that feel the same.

This is also a problem in terms of recruiting diverse candidates. I'm sure that I don't need to go into the benefits of a diverse workforce, but not reimbursing travel expenses reduces the diversity of your talent pool. Only candidates from the local area, or those who can afford to travel would then attend. Assuming that you'll find enough good engineers this way can be a costly mistake.

5. Ignoring early year undergraduates

This is quite possibly the most common mistake I see companies making today. A candidate not in their penultimate year of study can have an awful experience with all the auto-rejections and non-replies sent their way. This is a real shame because there are a lot of really good candidates that get ignored by companies that prefer to hire penultimate year students.

Understandably, some companies run internships for the express purpose of channelling interns into their graduate program. The argument goes that candidates are more likely to return for a graduate job if they get the offer just after their internship ends and you can only offer graduate jobs to students expecting to graduate the following year. Whilst this is true, I would disagree with this implying excluding earlier year candidates because in my opinion the early bird gets the worm. If you are a company that doesn't ignore non-penultimate year students then those early students will have a more favourable image of you. On top of this many interns return for another internship at the same company, meaning you still get the funnelling effect, just they're even more productive when they join full time due to the extra experience working in your environment.

It's also worth mentioning that a lot of the most talented students I know are not penultimate-year. Whilst university is valuable, some students have been programming for years beforehand and come into university well above their expected level. It would be a shame to ignore these candidates, especially at a time in their career when other companies are less interested.


TL;DR

Internships are a fantastic thing for all parties involved. Interns get great experience and companies get access to some of the smartest engineers at an early stage in their career. Getting the recruiting process right can lead to great things for your organisation, and it's a shame to see simple mistakes being made.

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