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Ditching Traditional Assessment Tools Helps Tech Firm Soar

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Zymergen co-founder and CEO Joshua Hoffman knows that the competition for engineering talent is fierce. “I want to build the best company I can and I’m doing so in a field where talent matters a lot, so I want to get the best talent I can get,” Hoffman says. “I want to win.”

So when he found himself fielding job applications from “hot shot” engineers who ostensibly had the right technical skills but didn’t seem suited for the company’s collaborative culture, he tried something radical: new evaluative processes for applicants.

First, he and his team set out to find first-rate engineers that Silicon Valley and San Francisco companies might have overlooked. “You don’t need to read a blog post to know that it includes women and people over 40,” Hoffman says. “So we said, ‘Let’s make an effort to make it welcoming to (those) folks.’ ” Then, he decided to eliminate the whiteboard interviews that are a standard part of the hiring process for software engineers and developers. In such sessions, candidates typically stand in front of a whiteboard and write code to answer a hypothetical problem posed by the interviewer. “We had an early software engineer who was incredibly good at that exercise who turned out to be a terrible fit for us.” Hoffman says. “It doesn’t test for things that are important in a workplace.”

Since dropping the whiteboard interviews, Zymergen says its percentage of women in technical positions has ranged from 32 percent to 40 percent of total tech employees, which include software developers and data scientists. Women make up about 36 percent of overall employment, and 27 percent of director-level positions or above. And productivity is at an all-time high.

Newcomers to Zymergen say they notice the difference immediately. Erin Rhode, a senior software engineer who joined the company in October of 2016, remembers that she was rarely the only woman in the room during her job interviews at Zymergen, which often had not been her experience when applying to work at other tech companies. “I never once had to ask the question, ‘What are your numbers on diversity?’ It was just so obvious because of who was interviewing me.”

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