Life of a Software Program Manager

A first person accounting of what it is really like to manage a commercial software product.

How to Hire Talent

Posted by Program Manager on June 10, 2006

I may be in the software industry, but this is a problem that affects every manager in every field. How do you recruit and hire the best talent? There are the general cliche's like "Hire people smarter than you" or "Hire someone you could work for," but these don't actually give any information you could use.

Everyone has their own process for hiring and I've been through several as both a candidate and an employer. The best tip that I can offer for how to run an interview is that the candidate should meet with several people, and all on the same day. This makes it a one-stop shop for the candidate, and allows the company to react quickly if they decide to move ahead with an offer. I'll make a future post on my idea of a recruiting / interview process.

Anyone who's ever given an interview should know that they are walking into the interview preparing to answer one question when they're finished: "Should the company hire this candidate?" The question sounds fairly easy to answer, but the process to get there is complex, and sometimes requires a crash course in psychology 101. I've compiled some tips below that I try to follow with each interview I give.

First, let me put my interviewing frequency in context. I am one of the key interviewers for my company, usually giving 5 – 10 interviews / week, ranging in candidates like test engineers, software engineers, software architects, project managers, program managers, and product managers. While a typical interview with me lasts for 45 minutes, I probably have 2 – 3 hours worth of interview material.

The biggest struggle that I see, especially in first time managers, is the ability to recognize talent. Senior people are always easy to hire; they know their area of expertise, they pass all of the technical interviews, they have the experience of several software projects, and they are mature enough to give the expected answers during the interview. For them, it just comes down to personality fit and they either mesh with your team or they don't.

It's the diamond in the rough that seems to be the most difficult to identify. And these people are the most critical to your project; the 'B' players; the group who makes up 70 – 80% of your team; the group who'd you love to see a few grow into 'A' players. So how do you sort out the candidates with potential from the ones who are just repeating what they memorized in the latest programming book they read. The basic knowledge is usually the same. The candidates most all be competent in your technology of choice, they must get along with your team, and they must fit your budget range. Now the hard part, once you've identified a few candidates that fit these basic criteria, how do you know who will really succeed? Who will improve your team? Who will exceed your expectations?

  1. Evaluate Problem Solving. Try and find out how the candidate works through a problem that they don't know the answer. How do you weigh a 747? Why are manhole covers round? How many cars are there in New York City? Questions like this are not designed to reach the answer, but to see how the candidate thinks. How do they respond to help? Do they ask questions? Do they break down the question logically or randomly? These are some key indicators for imaging the candidate 6 months down the road when you have to develop a solution that no one on the team has ever seen before. Maybe an obscure defect that you can't reproduce These situations will inevitably come up, and you want your team best prepared to handle the unknown, and be able to breakdown a problem logically.
  2. Hire Smart People. When in doubt, hire based on intelligence. Generally speaking, intelligence has a direct correlation to ability, adaptability, and efficiency. I'm not saying this is a black and white issue, but when you can't decide between a few candidates, the smarter candidates have a higher probability of success
  3. Admitting Ignorance. Throw out some questions that the candidate has no way to answer. Don't throw out a brain teaser for this one, but throw out something extremely technical or deep, or on a technology just outside of their knowledge level. You already know that they don't know the answer, the test is whether they'll admit it, try to dance around it, or engage you in a conversation to get to the answer. As a rule, anyone who tries to give me a b.s. answer, I immediately won't hire. Anyone who can admit they don't know something when they are engaged in an interview is someone with the maturity you are looking for. Professional maturity is a great indicator for future success, knowledge transfer, and constant growth.
  4. Communication Counts. Try to get the candidate to explain something complex to you. Did you understand it? Was the information presently structurally or randomly? How long did he consider his answer? Was he comfortable launching into a diatribe? At the end of the day, communication is key for any team, and yours is not any different. As long as someone can clearly express their status, position, opinion, thoughts, really anything, then your chances for team success have just gone up exponentially.
  5. Career Goals are Good. Senior talent generally know what they are looking for, and have usually already achieved some career goals. Entry level people probably have no idea what they're looking for, but just have some skills out of school and are looking to learn. Again, it's the middle group who really have something to prove. You want to make sure that your candidate has some goals, and he's on the path to reach them. The actual goals aren't very important, it is that there is a career plan being executed. It shows forethought, direction, and purpose. The one exception to this rule is if the candidate's career goals don't map to your field. For example, if someone came in and told me their ultimate goal was to save up some money and move to Outer Mongolia, and they are 4 months away, I probably wouldn't hire them. Outside of that, you're in good shape.

I'm sure that there are other beneficial characteristics to look for, but these are a few that I use. Anyone who'd like to post more tips, please comment this post. And remember, interviews can never determine if someone will be a successful candidate or not. Interviews can only increase your probability of selecting a good candidate, and all you are trying to do as the hiring manager is to hire the candidate with the highest likelihood of succeeding.

Here are some other links around the web that I've found as good reading.

  • Guy posted a reader's email – Link
  • About.com article – Link

This will be a future post, but here are some postings about how to retain talent once you hire them.

  • Why Developers Leave – Link
  • Harvard Business School on Lost Motivation – Link

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3 Responses to “How to Hire Talent”

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