How Byteboard’s CEO Decided to Fix the Broken Tech Interview
Everyone knows that tech interviews are terrible — the whiteboard tests, the grilling of candidates on obscure algorithms, the wasted time you’ll never get back. Through the company she leads and co-founded, Byteboard, Sargun Kaur is working to change all of that.
In a conversation for this episode of The Tech Founder Odyssey podcast, Kaur likened the way many companies gauge job candidates’ technical skills with assessing the abilities of Steph Curry, the Golden State Warriors star, by asking him to draw championship-winning plays on a whiteboard, rather than watching him run, pass or shoot on the basketball court.
Kaur, who worked for Symantec and Google, had an epiphany after a brilliant, self-taught engineer she had meticulously coached on interviewing washed out early from a Google interview process.
“Something’s not working here,” she told Heather Joslyn and Colleen Coll of The New Stack, in this episode. “Something is leaving a number of great candidates off of this pipeline … it’s not even letting them shoot their shot.”
The problem, she added, is that tech interviews are “very artificially focusing on theoretical questions, focusing on interview styles that didn’t reflect what engineers did on the job.”
Inadequate interviewing, she said, contributes to not only a lack of diversity in organizations but also in hiring the wrong people: about one in four new employees turn out to be ill-suited to their jobs or their teams, what recruiters call “mis-hires.”
Through Bytecode, which she started in 2018 with fellow Google employee Nicole Hardson-Hurley, she has created a project-based technical interview that is used by customers like Dropbox, Lyft and Robinhood to help make their hiring processes more efficient and more equitable. In 2020, its co-founders won a “30 Under 30” award from Forbes magazine for enterprise technology.
A Child of Silicon Valley
It’s perhaps no surprise, given that she grew up in Silicon Valley, that Kaur has empathy for tech workers. What’s surprising is that she decided to become one herself.
Her father, an immigrant from northern India, was an engineer when she was growing up.
“Back then, Silicon Valley looked different. There weren’t slides and free food, and all these fun offices,” Kaur said. “My dad’s office very much was a cubicle that I would go and visit and I was like, cool, I’m never going to do that. That’s one career that does not sound appealing to me at all.”
At the University of California, Berkeley she studied environmental science but also pondered a career in journalism. Forced to choose a major or leave the institution, she picked computer science after being introduced to programming through an elective. Shadowing a female engineer at Microsoft, and seeing what it takes to make PowerPoint do a user’s bidding, also piqued her interest.
Having a foundation in coding, she thought, would serve her well in any industry. But the rest of her undergraduate career wasn’t easy, she said.
“The class sizes were like 700, 800 kids, 90% of them were men,” she recalled. “Or were students who had started to code when they were five. And I was just getting into it. So it was really, really difficult.”
‘What If I Don’t Know Something?’
Kaur was recruited in 2014 as an engineer for Google, work she loved. She wasn’t thinking about founding her own startup yet.
“Never thought I could go and start a company,” she said. “I can’t imagine myself at a company of less than 500 people because like, what if I don’t know something? What if I just don’t know how to build something? I’m in a good spot, I have like really good mentorship, I’ve got a team that I really like.”
And then, she added, “This problem presented itself.”
As Kaur began wrestling with the issue of lousy tech interviews, she “applied on a whim” to Area 120, Google’s in-house project incubator. The program allows participants to keep their Google employee status while working on their side projects full-time, with the expectation that their projects might one day become Google products.
It proved to be a decisive move for what became Byteboard, which was developed over three years before launching as a full-fledged company.
“I grew tremendously in those three years, right having going from the idea of, I could never be at a small company, to then taking an idea on from thin air,” Kaur said. “And then see it build out, see us get our first customer, and then our second, and then to start to see revenue coming in.”
Check out the full episode for more about Kaur’s journey with Byteboard, including why founders have more power than they think in a fundraising meeting, and how AI will affect tech hiring processes.