(For the avoidance of doubt, I have nothing to do with hiring at my employer. This test is probably deeply problematic in ways you’ll angrily Tweet me about.)
I’d like to tell you a story!
I am a teenager applying for temp jobs. It’s the late 1990s and the temp agency have asked me to take a Microsoft Office test. You know the sort, do some data entry, format a letter, maybe perform a mail-merge.
“No worries!” I think, as I sit in front of the wheezing 486 with a nicotine stained keyboard. “I know Word 2.0 and Word 6.0!”
The CRT monitor juddered into life, Microsoft Word swam into view. But it wasn’t the MS Word I knew and loved. It was Word ’97. Utterly unfamiliar to me. A letter to a client appeared on screen.
“Make the client’s name BOLD” said the prompt.
“Too easy!” I thought. I selected the text and hit CTRL+B.
“BZZZT!” said the prompt, “Incorrect. You have 2 attempts left.”
Whoever had programmed this test had a precise way they wanted me to complete the tasks. So, I hit the Bold icon and carried on.
I made things italic, added bullets, adjusted some indents, and then got stumped.
“Change the paper size to A4”.
OK… Is that in the File menu or Edit? No! Format? I hovered my mouse over File, then chickened out and clicked Edit.
Yeah, yeah. I burned another lifeline and eventually found the submenu they wanted me to find.
This was infuriating! And so it went on. Every keyboard shortcut I knew was rejected. If I didn’t immediately know the precise location of the option, I got dinged.
Never mind my 80WPM, I was being tested on how well I knew an unfamiliar bit of software. It was relentless, unfair, and annoying.
Then came the Excel test. I was doomed.
“Please create a PIVOT TABLE from this data.”
GAH! In theory, I knew how to do this. But under pressure and on modern software…?
The timer in the corner – did I mention the timer? – counted down the minutes until the ordeal was over.
And then… a brainwave!
The computer didn’t buzz or chastise me. It pulled up the help pages!
I quickly looked up Pivot Tables, read the examples, and completed the task. I did the same for VLOOKUP, calculating mortgage interest, and all the other esoteric questions.
The software gave me a 100% score. I was sure to get on the agency’s books! I turned around triumphant to the invigilator.
“You failed,” she sneared.
I was agog.
“You cheated!” she spat venomously. “You didn’t know how to do any of those things, so you just cheated!”
I was ushered out of the office and wandered down the street in a daze until I reached the next temp agency.
So, here’s the hiring test I’d like to run.
Put someone in front of a bit of software they’ve never seen before and ask them to complete a set of tasks.
It isn’t a test of how much they know. It’s a test of whether they know how to look for help.
- Are they able to read a manual?
- Can they formulate a search query?
- How do they assess whether the tutorial they found is suitable or reliable?
- What steps do they take to make sure they’re finding – and learning – the right information?
I’d tell them that at the start, obviously. This isn’t The Secret Rules For Getting Hired.
“I know you’ve never used Blender*,” I’d say, “And this job doesn’t require it. But we want to see how quickly and accurately you can learn to use something unfamiliar while under pressure.”
* Or whatever.
Because this is what the modern world is like. Tomorrow, the UI to your computer or Word Processor or Twitter is going to radically change. An unwanted update is going to move all the icons and disrupt the order of menus. Is that going to stop you from doing your job?
None of us are born knowing how to use software.
But we all need the curiosity to say “I don’t know how this works – but I know how to find out.”
Anyway, the second temp agency didn’t bother with a computer test. They stuck me in a call centre where I was screamed at all day by people who swore blind that they had been mis-sold mobile phone contracts.
There’s no moral to that part of the story. Sorry.