Summary of September 2020 Community Call - Hiring and Interviewing For RSE Positions

Published: Sep 18, 2020

On September 10, 2020, the US-RSE Organization held a community call on “Hiring and Interviewing For RSE Positions.” We organized the call as an open community discussion among RSE hiring managers, practicing RSEs, and aspiring RSEs (e.g. students and researchers), with about 50 participants. The primary goal of the call was to open a discussion using the US-RSE community to help both sides of the hiring equation. RSEs and those who employ RSEs. Through the discussion, RSEs gained a better understanding of a challenging and important process.

The interesting and lively discussion covered a wide range of questions posed by the moderator and the audience, directed both towards the hiring managers and towards RSEs, including:

  • For hiring managers
    • What qualities do you look for in candidates?
    • What can RSEs do to better distinguish themselves during the application and interview process?
    • How many applications do you receive when you post a position?
    • What does the interview process look like? How important are activities like “whiteboard coding”?
    • How long do you expect an interview to last?
    • What are the most important aspects of a resume or cover letter to make an application stand out from the pile?
  • For RSEs
    • How would you like to be evaluated during the hiring process?
    • What do you think is a reasonable amount of time for an interview?

Takeaways from the discussion include:

  • Hiring managers expressed interest in RSE applicants who had both strong technical skills and strong communication and interpersonal skills. The ability to interact with and communicate with domain researchers is as important as the ability to develop technically correct software. “People skills” are critical to the success of an RSE.
  • A few managers indicated that a candidate could stand out from the crowd by providing a good cover letter that explains how they are a good fit for the job. A cover letter is particularly helpful when an applicant’s resume or CV is not a clear match for the position.
  • The interview processes vary widely. Sometimes, the interview includes whiteboard coding or providing examples of their work on social coding platforms (e.g. GitHub). These interviews ranged from relatively short sessions with a group, to a talk followed by a series of one-on-one discussions.
  • While many RSE positions require a PhD, there was discussion about the necessity of this requirement, or if it was more of a shortcut to represent something else.
  • Because most positions require RSEs to learn new skills during the course of a project, hiring managers look for indicators that applicants can adapt and pick up new skills quickly. For example, they viewed problem-solving skills as a key indicator of this ability.

Based on the interesting discussion, and the fact that we ran out of time without being able to address all of the interesting questions posed by participants, we anticipate continuing this discussion in the future during one of our upcoming workshops. In the meantime, the discussion can continue on the #hiring-interviewing channel on the US-RSE Slack Workspace.