Karat’s Interviewers, Software Help Tech Firms Assess Engineers

When it comes to interviewing candidates for software engineering positions at big technology companies, “takes one to know one” tends to be an appropriate axiom, says Mohit Bhende. He’s one of the co-founders of Karat, a Seattle-based startup that uses proprietary software and its own stable of freelance interviewers to help some of the marquee names in tech assess job applicants.

It’s typical for someone who has applied for a engineering role at a large software company to be first screened by a recruiter or other human resources staff, Bhende says. A candidate who makes it through that initial vetting, in which they’re often asked about salary expectations, willingness to relocate, and other non-technical topics, may advance to the next stage: the technical interview.

The goal of a technical interview is “to understand how a candidate thinks” about particular problems, and how he or she can write software code to address them, Bhende says. And the best person to assess a would-be software engineer is a fellow software engineer, he argues.

But many businesses, such as Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT), where Bhende worked for about six years before co-founding Karat, view the time that engineers spend interviewing prospective hires as cutting into time spent on their core work: developing their employer’s products and services.

“My engineers at Microsoft did not join Microsoft to be interviewers,” says Bhende, who spent about half of his stint there as a director in the company’s Xbox division. He estimates that each hire his team made cost the tech giant “about 100 hours of engineering time.”

To take a crack at solving this problem, Bhende teamed up with Jeff Spector, who had worked for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as chief of staff to Melinda Gates, and launched Karat in 2014.

The startup, which according to Crunchbase has raised $13.6 million from investors across two funding rounds, is building its business in part on the belief that certain companies are better off bringing in outside help to handle technical interviews, versus assigning their own engineers to handle the task.

Karat’s customers include Citrix (NASDAQ: CTXS), Intuit (NASDAQ: INTU), PayPal (NASDAQ: PYPL), and Pinterest, according to company materials. Typically, an organization’s chief technology officer or vice president of engineering oversees its relationship with Karat, Bhende says.

The startup uses a network of what Karat calls “interview engineers” to assess candidates, and nearly every interview the startup does is over video conference, Bhende says. (Karat records the interviews so clients can view them afterward.)

Interview engineers get paid on a freelance basis, not as full-time employees of Karat.

Many of them have worked at big tech companies, such as Alphabet (NASDAQ: GOOGL) and Groupon (NASDAQ: GRPN), Bhende says. Some of the interviewers spend about 20 hours a week working for Karat and their other hours pursuing an unrelated profession—like being a firefighter or an opera singer, for example.

At the moment, Karat is primarily a services provider, Bhende says. The startup’s primary offering is its cohort of interviewers, who help customers make better hiring decisions and alleviate the demand on the engineers already employed at those organizations.

However, Karat has developed software that its interview engineers use to assess candidates—tools that can suggest hints to help them answer questions and score a candidate’s responses. Bhende says his startup may eventually license these tools to outside organizations in exchange for recurring fees.

“I think as we keep scaling, there will be a [software-as-a-service] play,” he says. “We’re a combination of people and data and technology.”

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