Confidentiality in tech hiring: what can you share?

Jan 04, 2023

4 mins

Confidentiality in tech hiring: what can you share?

You’re ready to take the next step in your tech career, and it just so happens a recruiter approaches you about an exciting new opportunity. Hold up … The company is a competitor of your current one, and you’re getting a lot of questions that could breach your contract. You’ve made so much progress in your current role, and you’re eager to expand upon your skills and talents. But where do you draw the line, and how can you reel back on the information you provide while still talking about your accomplishments?

Confidentiality during recruitment can be a sticky subject to navigate. This is especially true in the tech sector, where the competition is fierce and companies are constantly innovating. Candidates will usually undergo a series of tests before getting hired—whether it’s a case study or a coding exam.

These tests often draw on a candidate’s experience in previous positions, but how much can you share, and how can you protect yourself? To find out, we spoke with Krisina Antonio, a freelance Technical Recruiter based in New York City. She shares what you can typically expect will be asked of you when going for a new tech role, how to navigate answering tough questions, and how to tell if a company is fishing for information.

What type of tests do tech candidates usually have to take?

The answer to this question depends on the company’s size and status. Big tech companies will look for high-level tech skills, whereas mid-size ones might be less technical but want talent who can hit the ground rounding. A budding startup will likely be more willing to train and need people who learn quickly.

Antonio says it will be common to go through a technical test focusing on foundational things you should know for your role. “For example, if you’re going for an MLE (Machine Learning Engineer) position, you’ll be expected to know about certain databases, coding, and how to do specific tasks related to that job. You might be asked questions like: ‘How would you build a pipeline or a database?’ Or you might be presented with data and asked to configure it per the client’s needs. These are foundational things that any company will look for,” she notes.

Then, there is usually a written component where they’ll want to know if you can explain what you can do and how you do it. You might be asked to talk about a time you worked on a database project or built a database that crashed, and this is where confidentiality starts to become a consideration.

So, how do you talk about your experience?

Antonio’s number one rule is: never use specifics. “Don’t give them everything,” she says. “Write your statement, and put down everything you’d want to share about your experience. Then take a black pen and start crossing out names. Cross out the name of the company and the details of the project. Tell them what you did and what they want to know without giving away trade secrets. In doing this, your brain will start to reframe the story.”

She also notes to think of it as a two-way street—not only does your current company not want you exposing what goes behind the scenes, but it could also reflect poorly on you with the new company if you appear untrustworthy. “Tech is a small world. If you are giving away information, the new company might be hesitant to bring you on.”

What to consider about non-compete clauses

Another important factor to consider regarding confidentiality when shifting roles within the same industry is that there are often non-completes or NDAs tied to your employment contract. How do you navigate these when you want to move between companies, especially in an industry like tech, where these clauses are common? Antonio suggests digging a little deeper into the specific clause. “Usually, non-competes in tech are related to a certain department, role, or project,” she says.

Antonion gives a specific example to illustrate this: “Say you’re a Machine Learning Engineer at one company, and you want to move to another—likely, you won’t be able to move into the same role and department at the new company. So instead, you want to think about what skills you have, what skills the new company is looking for, and how you can turn what you know into transferable skills within another area so that you don’t breach your contract.”

Is the new company fishing for information?

What if the questions get too specific and challenging to navigate? If you ever start to feel suspicious of the interviewer’s intentions, Antonio says to trust your gut.

“I had a highly experienced candidate who faced this,” she says. “The interviewer was asking too many questions about the tech stacks that their current company used, database configurations—things that seemed innocent enough, but since they were a direct competitor of the candidate’s employer, the questions left him feeling uneasy. Maybe they weren’t trying to get information, but because of their approach, he ended up not working with them.”

If you ever get this feeling, let your recruiter know. “Ultimately, if you’re approached by a recruiter for a new role, they should be guiding you through confidentiality. They’re your advocate,” states Antonio.

Key takeaways: what to consider about confidentiality during recruitment processes

Here’s how to strike the right balance between showcasing your talent and keeping your lips sealed about proprietary information during recruitment processes.

Reframe your stories

When asked about specific projects or experiences in your current or past role, give only the information required to highlight your accomplishments without too much detail. Write them down and physically cross out any sensitive information, like the company name or project name.

Consider your non-compete clauses

Go through your contract with a fine-tooth comb to ensure you’re not breaching it. A best practice is to leverage your transferable skills and opt for positions outside your specific department or role with the new company.

Trust your instincts

If you sense that someone is digging for information, you’re probably right. Reel it back in and consider the long-term implications. Do you want to work for a company that operates that way? Or, what does it say about you to be giving out trade secrets?

When it comes to confidentiality in recruitment, less is more is the best approach. Be confident in your skills and what you can bring to the table, without making it about anyone or anything other than yourself.

Recruiting tests are key in any tech hiring process. But what can you share and how can you tell if a recruiter is trying to steal private data?

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