Opening the Door to Technical Talent – Part 1

by John W. Stout

Beyond the consulting work we do at Stout, about 50% of our activity is, because of the staffing side of the business, attracting and evaluating new technical talent. Undoubtedly, hiring talent is a big percentage of what you are doing in the current market, too. And if your company is like a lot of other companies in the business, you aren’t finding enough of it.

Here is a question we’ve had to ask ourselves: Is our door open as wide as it needs to be?

It may sound like an odd question to consider if one is doing broad job postings, doing Web searches for candidates, networking or engaging multiple recruiters.

I recently read Stieg Larrson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. If you haven’t read it, the book isn’t for the faint of heart. That aside, reading this book one is struck by the title character—an extremely brilliant and talented investigator and computer hacker, who never went near a college. Nevertheless, her prospective employer, upon recognizing her talent, finds a way to carve out a mutually beneficial employment relationship that works. Okay, if you know the book, you may find this to be an extreme example, but it serves to illustrate a point: the employer in the story kept the door open to finding a way to make use of rare ability and not give way to tradition or personal biases.

We are rarely faced with such a dramatic example. I’m not advising that you seek out troubled, controversial talent—a manager would have to have a great deal of savvy to manage such people. However, there are some areas where the door to hiring might be opened further and effective use made of talent and willingness. That’s the subject of this two-part article.

GETTING PAST THE RESUME

Some people are just lousy resume writers. This is not an article about how to write a resume. It’s just advice that you have to get past resumes to assess talent. Some resumes are underwritten and obscure a candidate’s experience and ability. Or they can be grossly over-written, e.g., a 12-page painfully detailed catalog that raises as many questions about a candidate as it answers. Try to read between the lines. If the person appears to be seriously underselling him- or herself, conducting a phone interview or following up with a questionnaire can shed light on the actual skills and abilities that are merely hinted in the resume. Remember, we’re hiring programmers, not authors.

DEGREES

The danger in discussing this topic is that a reader immediately assumes that a recommendation is being made minimizing the importance degrees or other professional credentials. Nothing could be further from the truth.

It’s a fact that many companies require degrees and won’t consider candidates without one. And in many of these cases, because of the nature of the work being done by the project teams, it would be very hard to justify not having one. For example, it’s hard to imagine (although Einstein did it) gaining a knowledge of advanced mathematics outside of a collegiate setting.

The danger is of course being so impressed by a degree from the World Renowned Institute of Technology that one assumes that the candidate knows how to apply what he has learned. We’ve all encountered the academic who can quote chapter and verse from texts, but doesn’t write code or even initiate work without lengthy discourses on why something should be done. Warning signs:

  • the candidate talks about projects he was part of but doesn’t articulate what he personally did, keeping only to generalities such as “we used ASP.Net;”
  • the candidate has changed jobs frequently over a career and can’t show anything about what he accomplished;
  • the candidate, when given the opportunity to white board a programming challenge, turns the assignment into a science project.

Really, the most telling factor in education and the factor we’ve found that makes the most difference in evaluation is not if the candidate got a degree 20 years ago, but how much the candidate spends in ongoing career education, on the candidate’s own volition. This is manifested in a few ways. A good sign is a candidate receiving ongoing certifications. The other is self-education, which you can verify by asking: Which technical books have you read recently? How has the book influenced your ability to get results? Can you show how you use that knowledge?

On the other side of this degree question, I once interviewed a candidate who listed on the resume a degree from one of the most prestigious technical schools in the world. As part of our qualification process, we verified the degree, but a review of the candidate’s transcript showed a surprisingly up and down academic career. I know some companies that would have declined the candidate right then and there. However, I felt that since this candidate had lived through some obvious turmoil to get that degree and survived 4 years at this school, there was at least a persistence factor to the person that couldn’t be overlooked. Probing deeper, it became obvious that this candidate possessed the smarts and experience to be a real asset, and most importantly, could demonstrate his ability to get results in the years that followed his schooling. We hired him and our faith was borne out by his performance.

That experience leads me to the next point.

HOW DOES THE PERSON HANDLE ADVERSITY?

Every one of us faces times in our careers that we wish didn’t happen. The computer industry itself has dealt out its share of challenges over the past decade.

The measure of a candidate is how the person has handled that adversity and recovered from it. Unfortunately, some people don’t—and manifest that in bitterness or a standoffish attitude that challenges a prospective employer to prove “it won’t happen again.”

Looking at the positive, some of the best employees we’ve seen are people that endured difficult employment and personal situations and came through them with a strength and savvy that made them almost unflappable. And a company can really benefit from people who know how to manage a disaster—these people know a disaster is survivable and won’t likely bail out at the first bump in the road.

How do you find these folks? Here’s what I’d look for:

  • Evidence of loyalty. This might be seen as extended periods of employment that include staying with a company through its trials.
  • Proactive efforts to improve oneself after a difficulty. Evidence would be education or certifications to keep one’s skills current, especially during or shortly after a period of adversity.
  • A realistic willingness to accept some risk or self-sacrifice. It might mean a lowered salary as one returns to the employment market and proves his or her worth, or accepting a temporary employment assignment as a trial period before a long term employment offer.

To be continued...

Read Opening the Door to Technical Talent – Part 2

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