On the 'calibre' of Hack-Reactor students

There seems to be a perception that you have to be some sort of insane genius to be accepted to and excel at Hack Reactor. This is in the spirit of dispelling that horrible myth.

I think a lot of the confusion arises from the fact that HR interviewers look for different qualities than most interviewers people come across. Let me start off by saying there's no secret to our admissions criteria:

What we're looking for (very rough list) is people who we reckon are:

  1. smart and capable of keeping up with the pace of HackReactor
  2. dedicated enough to have learnt a reasonable amount on their own and so can definitely get themselves up to speed before they start
  3. fun to hang out with and don't ring alarm bells (i.e., have some humility and don't be condescending, arrogant, entitled, show off how important you are etc...)

Having said that, I think there are three, somewhat-related factors that have wrought the perception that HR selects only for "high calibre" students.

It's an unusual interview.

The interviewee's perception of the process is largely anchored by their experiences in life so far. You'll probably remember your interviewer explicitly mentioning that they don't care if you can't remember a random method on the Array prototype, or if you make a silly syntax mistake, or ask (what you might think is a) stupid question. (Side note, I will never let go a chance to clarify this: There are no stupid questions at Hack Reactor. One of the things I love most about this place is that if you think you're entitled to classify someone else's question as stupid, you can fuck off.)

What you can remember under pressure is a terrible predictor of how well you will learn things. What's more, if you're willing to stick your neck out and admit that you don't know something, that's brilliant. Then your interviewer can teach you, and you can understand, and hopefully do better. We'll be silently, internally applauding you for learning from us in an interview setting.

We genuinely want you to show your best self. That way we can get a reasonable read on what you're good at, what you need to work on, and how we can help you work on it while you're here. You'll only gain respect from your interviewer by being honest about your weaknesses. In fact, I suspect it helps enormously to think of your interview as your chance to see if you're ready. If you're not ready, the worst thing you could possibly do is trick your way into HR and be completely miserable because you can't cope. You'd be much better off picking yourself up, coding another thousand lines, and coming back to smack it out of the park. I've seen it happen and, to be completely frank, it almost makes me weep with happiness. :)

Your formal education and previous job success is not our business.

It's been the case in the past that we've rejected applicants with CS degrees from colleges like Harvard, and that fuels the perception that applicants must therefore need something better than a CS degree from Harvard. The truth is a lot simpler. I, as an interviewer for HR, don't give a damn about a CS degree from Harvard (or any other degree from any other college). The previous qualifications of an applicant explicitly do not factor into our admissions process.

This is for two good reasons. Firstly, having been through the fancy-degree process at a fancy university, and got fancy grades in high school before that, I can see no reason that your educational achievements could even resemble your success as a developer. The current educational establishment has set up a world in which your academic prowess is so irrelevant that we may as well judge you on your baking skills. This is not a radical idea in the software development world (although, full disclosure: I feel this more strongly that most people). If you're curious, check out the incredible Laurie Voss' post on why companies don't hire good engineers, and tangentially, the equally incredible Pamela Fox's post on the absurdity of throw-you-on-the-spot technical interviews. (Both are very senior, very highly-respected developers whom I've had the honour to hear speak at Hack Reactor)

Secondly, for a lot of people, their career success is an unfair uphill battle, in which people are routinely discriminated against and prejudged for being the wrong colour, speaking with a funny accent, wearing a turban, not neatly fitting into some archaic gender stereotype, being short, not blagging confidently enough or failing to suck up to whomever writes their performance review. In this environment, we'd have to be certifiably insane to pass up on people based on their career history.

By now you should be asking "if we're so un-selective, why are HR grads so well-regarded"?

The very absence of emphasis we place on expensive pieces of paper allows us access to swathes of fantastic people who, for their lack of formal qualifications, the world doesn't usually think of as "high calibre", but we do.

In all honesty, the proportion of people with fancy paper qualifications is fairly low. What makes for an amazing group of people is that they're so damned diverse yet all tick the aforementioned boxes. In my cohort, for example, I count (just off the top of my head) a professional swing dancer, a brewer, an actor, a few accountants, a lawyer, an IT consultant, a guy who cycled across the US, a physicist, a neuroscientist, a high school prodigy, a few entrepreneurs, a brewer, a chemical engineer, a pharmacist, a professional developer who wanted to brush up, a fair number of professional musicians, and of course, people still in college, who've just graduated, or never graduated at all. One of the absurdities of our world right now is that we routinely write off these people for jobs that they're eminently capable of doing because they haven't spent a few hundred thousand dollars and four years of their life at college.

Now of course we've got the odd Ivy-grad here and these, but I hasten to add that we've also got the odd high-school dropout. I went to Cambridge, there was one cohort-mate who went to Oxford, and a reasonable number of folks went to Harvard/Yale/MIT/insert-a-fancy-college-here. Some people think of these things as pretty rad... I honestly think getting that sort of paper-qualification is just another way of spending a few years of your life. It's not big deal. It's an expensive way of saying you're smart.

I also want to point out that we don't proactively select for diversity. It just so happens that when you stop discriminating on the grounds of things so unfairly distributed (like education), you allow all the really smart people for whom the current educational system is broken to crawl out of the woodwork and make staggering successes of themselves. I'm basically glowing with pride to be a part of the machine that does this when I walk into work every morning.


By now I hope you can look at your question in a different light. It shouldn't surprise you that the interview wasn't crushingly difficult. Your interviewer judged you were ready, and so you are. End of story. Nothing else matters. You can have your interviewer's word that you had a standard Hack Reactor technical interview, and if the difficulty of that didn't impress you, you can read what you will into the standard of interviews elsewhere.

Statistically, it's very likely that there's something that you can do better than most people you meet, whether it's making an awesome casserole or flying a helicopter. I just can't wait for one of your cohort mates to write about how awesome it was to have you, (a fantastic maker of casseroles?) in their class.

Originally in response to this question on Quora.