How to Hire Techies Who Fit Your Company Culture

October 28, 2015

When it comes to interviewing and hiring technical people, many hiring managers get it wrong, says Johanna Rothman, author of the book, Hiring Geeks that Fit.” That’s because they focus too much on measuring technical people by what computer languages they know, instead of their cultural fit and people skills, she explains.

Rothman argues that writing down a laundry-list of required computer skills dehumanizes the entire candidate experience. “I know seven computer languages, and I can learn another one at the drop of a hat,” she says, “but I may not have the other skills needed.”

After experience with hiring hundreds of technical professionals, Rothman devised her own ideas about the process. Here are her tips to help managers screen and hire techies that will make great employees. 

1. Rather than listing technical skills, put several personal qualities at the top of your “must have” list

When you create a job description with a list of skills you’re looking for, list the personal qualities and non-technical skills first. Ask yourself - what are the most important soft skills required for the position?

For example, if you need somebody who is going to have to work across the organization, you need them to have good negotiation skills and the ability to influence others. “All of those soft skills are much more important than the number of years of C++ a person has,” says Rothman.

She finds that, as more people are moving to agile development today, it’s becoming increasingly important to have personal qualities, such as adaptability, perseverance, the ability to ask for help and the ability to coach others.

“If you make it a priority to look for some of those needed softs skills over technical skills, you will have a much better chance of hiring individuals who can adapt well in your work environment.”

2. Ask questions that will get a technical person talking about their non-technical skills

To help her get a better handle on a candidate, Rothman likes to ask the question: “Tell me about a time when you didn't have all the requirements at the beginning of a project. What did you do?” This question is deceptive, she says, because almost no project has all the requirements at the beginning.

“What I have found is if I ask the question in that way, people will then say, ‘you know, I made friends with the product owner, or I made friends with so-and-so, or I did this kind of a thing as a work around,” she says. There is no right answer for this particular question. It just gives her a lot more insight into how they might behave in a similar situation if she were to hire them.

Another favorite question is, “Tell me about a time when you had to ship something before you thought it was ready. What did you do?”

“When answering this question, people will say all kinds of things to explain how they handled a stressful situation,” says Rothman. “It can also give great insight into the creative process of developers, because they’ll often have to back up and explain why the product wasn’t ready, or explain why it was ‘ready enough’ to ship.”

3. Create an audition for your candidate

It’s critical to devise an audition during an interview with a technical person. “An audition is where you take your actual product, or real data and then ask the person to demonstrate how they would actually work with your product,” explains Rothman.

During an audition, you might start off by showing the candidate your product, and then ask them how they might apply their skills to extend the functionality of the product. Rothman points out that even if the candidate doesn’t know the same programming language you’re using, you can still have them audition by asking them to write you something in any language they’re most comfortable using.

"It isn’t supposed to be a trick," says Rothman. "It gives candidates the chance to work with your product and allows them to demonstrate if they have the right problem solving and adaptability skills that can be applied to your organization’s specific challenges."

4. Let the whole team have input on the candidate

Don't hire someone to work with a technical team without first giving the team a chance to meet them, work with them and put in their vote on if it’s a thumbs up or thumbs down, says Rothman.

She favors Matrix style interviews, where each team member gets a piece of paper with the one or two questions they are going to ask the candidate during a short interview.

In addition to these interviews, Rothman thinks it’s a good idea to allow viable candidates the chance to sit with the team and work alongside them on a short trial period. “I have found that allowing a person to meet with members of the team is a great way to sell the person on the organization, because if they like the people on the team, they're going to want to work there,” she says.

Finally, when it comes time to decide on who you should hire, Rothman says it’s absolutely critical to decide as a team if you want this person. “Everyone can get together at the end of the day and say let's do a quick thumbs up, thumbs sideways, and thumbs down to see how excited people are about this particular candidate."

It can be important to do the voting with eyes closed, cautions Rothman, because if there is a person on the team who is very loud and senior, others may not express their true opinions.

“This is a form of limited consensus, but it gives the project manager a chance to see how many people are excited about a candidate.”

Rothman learned the importance of voting the hard way when she overrode her subordinate team of naysayers many years ago. “I thought I needed this candidate because her technical skills were great,” she recalls. “I guess you would say she did not have adequate interpersonal skills, and a week and a half later there was a parade of people in and out of my office saying, ‘either she goes or I do’.”

5. Be honest about your culture

“In the end, it’s important to be honest about what your organization is really hiring for,” says Rothman. Every company and team has its own culture, she explains. So when you try to hire people who fit in your culture, think about what you reward and how people treat each other.

I worked with a team that called ideas either ‘the best thing since sliced bread’ or ‘brain dead.’ Now there are a lot of people who would not appreciate anyone calling any of their ideas ‘brain dead,’ so we needed to hire people who were okay with using that phrase.”

There are also companies who claim, ‘we reward good work,’ but what they really reward is heroics, says Rothman. “And if you cannot be honest with yourself as a hiring manager about what you're really looking for, you will hire people who don’t fit with the reward structure at your company.”

The key is to not confuse cultural fit with any of that other stuff, like perks and office decor. “Culture is how people treat each other, what the organization allows you to discuss, and what the organization rewards.” So if the managers in the organization reward good work and not heroics, hire for that. If they reward people who can stay late, hire for that. “It doesn't matter what people say the organization is like, it matters what really happens in the organization.” 

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