Re-inventing the engineering interview: Meet Googler Sargun Kaur, Co-founder of Byteboard
Sargun Kaur is the Co-Founder and General Manager of Byteboard, a new technical interview that measures for on-the-job skills. Sargun created Byteboard with Nicole Hardson-Hurley as part of Area 120, Google’s internal incubator for experimental projects. They launched Byteboard on July 17, 2019.
Sargun is familiar with the tech recruiting process first-hand; after graduating from the University of California, Berkeley with a B.S. in Computer Science, she applied for jobs at and was hired by leading companies in Silicon Valley, from Symantec to Yahoo! to Google. Here at Google, in her previous position as a software engineer on Google Photos, and then on Maps, Sargun has always advocated for women and people of color, as users and as colleagues.
I’ve worked with Sargun and her team directly on applying product inclusion principles to the development of Byteboard. I sat down with her recently to discuss how she came up with the concept, how she collaborates with her co-founder, and how she continues to be an advocate for social impact, equity, and inclusion in the tech world via creating a new product guided by, as she says, “the values of integrity, empathy, and ingenuity.” Here’s our conversation.
How did you come up with the idea for Byteboard?
The idea for Byteboard came directly from feeling the pain point first-hand — the present format of technical interviews are inadequate assessments of technical ability. Five years ago as a graduating senior, I spent hours pouring through practice theoretical problems in order to prepare for my interviews. I remember my mentors telling me even then, “technical interviews are a skill to be learned on its own, separate from your software engineering training.”
It wasn’t until I met my now co-founder Nikke at a social-enterprise-themed hackathon put on by Area 120. We started sharing our interview experiences and ways we wish it worked, and then we realized we needed to act upon our idea. Who better to build a better interview for engineers than engineers?
A few Google searches confirmed that many others shared the same sentiment and frustration about the process. Not only does the present-day interview process offer a poor signal of actual performance on the job, it also takes up countless hours of engineering work time to conduct these interviews. Moreover, the design of the interviews gives an advantage to candidates that have the time and resources to prepare. For example, Stanford offers a quarter-long class on how to “prepare students to interview for software engineering and related internships and full-time positions in industry.” Not every school has that class. We heard and read so many stories of women, people of color, and other underrepresented talent having an uncomfortable, alienating, or negative experience through the interview process. This ignited us to ultimately launch Byteboard.
What makes Byteboard unique?
For us, the key was not to be first-to-market, as there are many other interview tools on the market that promote efficiency. We wanted to use our background as two technical women of color who had experienced first-hand the problems with the current system to build a better solution for all. This led us to be very intentional in our research and execution, ensuring we were confirming each part of our building process among a wide user sample that consisted of individuals across demographics, education backgrounds, ethnicities, and levels.
For example, our early research and user interviews pointed out that untimed or long take-home interviews put people with less time (i.e. parents, those caring for elderly or sick family members, or anyone working multiple jobs) at an unfair disadvantage and causes them more stress. And after the two hour mark there wasn’t a significant additional signal on the candidate’s technical aptitude. So we spent a lot of time testing varying time-limits before landing on an experience that gave all candidates a fair opportunity to demonstrate their skills without the stress of spending hours on an assessment. Focusing on ensuring a positive candidate experience for everyone ultimately drove us to make better product decisions.
We’ve built a technical interview that is fundamentally different from how it’s been done for decades in the tech industry. It measures for what engineers do on the job, providing signals for over 20 essential engineering skills. The anonymized format and structured rubrics ensures evaluators don’t lean on any unconscious biases when evaluating interviews. And ultimately, an effective and equitable interview that has proved to show increased onsite-to-offer rates and a better candidate experience for all.
What types of user feedback have you gotten from testers?
A recruiter who was an early tester of Byteboard recently told me how he and his team were now able to spend more time meeting candidates face-to-face, which is so important, especially when recruiting historically underrepresented candidates within the tech community. Having replaced 100% of their pre-onsite technical interviews with Byteboard, they are now able to attend more schools and conferences and invite more candidates to their interview process.
A recent candidate from Howard University stated, “I felt less anxious while doing the interview and it gave me the most complete view of my strengths and weaknesses than any other interview I've done.”
You and your co-founder hadn’t worked together before at Google. What were the benefits and challenges of co-founding a new project (within Area 120) in this context?
Both my co-founder and I are driven by our passion to do impactful work and fell into stride very quickly once we found this was an issue many individuals in our communities also faced. The one thing I really value in my co-founder is that we very deliberately made time to develop our team and product values and understand our ways of operating. While we both have different communication and working styles, taking the time to understand and build open communication spaces has played a direct impact in the great product and team we’ve built. It took many, often difficult conversations, but I really appreciate that we continue to challenge each other to grow personally and professionally!
How did you frame your inclusive product in your winning pitch to Area 120?
Once we came upon our idea and found countless supporting materials within research papers, blogs, and surveys that this problem was felt widely and ripe for fixing, it didn’t take long for us to build a compelling pitch deck to apply to Area 120 with. Everyone in tech — from recruiting to engineering — has an opinion about interviews, so the idea definitely resonated among the Area 120 partners and other advisors we met with. A compelling idea, coupled with two determined women that complemented each other’s skill sets and had unparalleled motivation for the project, made a strong case for Area 120 to fund the idea (and team).
Inspired by Sargun? Apply for a job at Google to build, create, design and code for everyone.