Opening the Door to Technical Talent - Part 2

by John W. Stout

Read Opening the Door to Technical Talent - Part 1

At Stout, about 50% of our business activity is attracting and qualifying new technical talent. I know that finding, evaluating, hiring and keeping talent probably occupies a lot more of your time these days, too. Is your door open as wide as it could be?

I recall an interview I endured as a software development candidate back in my coding days. The company’s interview process lasted several hours over three separate interviews. The interviewers were clearly very interested in my thought processes and personality traits, but to get the answers they wanted, the interviewers asked a number of indirect, psycho-babble style questions of the type, “If you could be a peach, apple or pear, which would you be and why?” Again, this interview was for a software development position. Early in the third interview I decided I wanted no part of the company, but was so fascinated by the roundabout interview questioning, I stayed to the end of the interview. Finally, one of the interviewers asked me a direct question about my reaction to a particular methodology the company used; I gave an honest answer that my approach would be different. Shortly after the interview, I was told that I was not a fit for the position, based on my answer to that one direct question. I couldn’t help but be amused that hours of interview time could have been saved by just asking that direct question early in the first interview, and I never forgot that lesson. (That company, by the way, is long gone.)

Stout uses a 21-point screening process in matching a technical candidate to a job opening. The process is rigorous. While that process could be covered in a series of articles, here are five key points that we look at in evaluating personnel:

1. Willingness includes a flexibility and eagerness to learn new technical skills and processes, as well as adaptability to a changing work environment and industry. Does the person have to be pushed to change every time it is required? Does the programmer bull-headedly keep using the same approach to tackling thorny issues even if new and potentially better solutions exist? How does the person respond to sudden emergencies that affect the team?

2. Responsibility goes hand-in-hand with willingness. This can be a tough one in any organization, as we’ve all known people who wanted a specific job with exact duties, but no broadening of responsibilities. You’ve heard it from them: “It’s not in my job description”. Yes, there are programmers, technical writers and analysts who just function better in team environments and do not perform as well on their own without daily guidance. Today’s competitive global economy means that a company and its employees had better be able to handle a less limited set of duties. And with increased telecommuting these days, a person’s capability to self-manage and work independently takes on a greater importance than ever before.

3. Capacity. The old Intelligence Quotient (IQ) concept is a somewhat limited view of capacity, but it suggests what I’m getting at. Is the person capable of grasping a wide range of business problems and a broad number of technical concepts with clarity, and then applying them? Willingness and responsibility can be monitored by capacity, as a person who considers his or her capacity limited will likely be less willing to accept change and new duties.

4. Experience/Skills. What is the quality of that experience? If a candidate has done virtually the same thing over and over in a career, perhaps used the same programming language or worked on the same systems, has the candidate actually advanced his or her experience and skills?

5. Credentials. I discussed degrees, certifications and so forth in the earlier article. However, it won’t hurt to say again that just because credentials are not the first thing I look at in a candidate, it doesn’t mean I am devaluing their importance. Credentials successfully attained, especially those obtained during the time one has been in the workforce, are usually a good indicator of willingness and responsibility.

Communication is the only way you have of evaluating these five areas. A candidate who has difficulty with communication often has difficulty with 1, 2 and 3. The most successful candidate has to be willing to freely communicate, responsible enough to contribute to the team and products, and have the capacity to receive and understand communication from others.

Unlike the long-gone interview I had experienced, my approach is to ask each candidate direct questions. If a candidate’s self-assessment is direct, e.g., “No I would not be interested in a position that means I would be responsible for managing others,” then I don’t have to spend a lot more interview time on the person. Sure, in asking someone to self-assess, I sometimes get glib answers. That’s okay, too, because I also ask more probing questions to verify the accuracy of the answers.

The message I want to send is that, based on my own experience in building a successful business, if a candidate is solid in 1, 2, and 3, as well as demonstrates some success with 4, I have found someone worth their weight in diamonds. We have even made successful team members without much 4. Don’t overlook “diamonds in the rough” who might need more 4 and 5.

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