15 Principles for hiring into technical teams

Hire the right person and they can shift the outlook and capability of a team.  Hire the wrong person and it can be disruptive, damaging and distracting. 

This article shares 15 key principles for hiring into technical teams based on my core experience of interviewing and placing people in teams and organisations.  Hopefully they’re helpful for you!

1. Hire great people

This could appear obvious, but sadly pressure to fill roles or to ‘hire-them-so-I-can-go-back-to-my-day-job-itis’ kicks in and people compromise.  If the candidate that was “broadly a good fit” or had “some of the technical skill” it’s not uncommon to hear a hiring team after the interview convincing each other that they are good enough.  Please don’t do this and watch for it happening with others.

Compromising on candidates risks an undefined cost for guidance, development and support.  This could be a minor distraction, but I’ve lost (and seen many others lose) significant time, brain-share and sleep over a snap hire.  Even if it worked out 80% of the time, that 20% is going to hurt.

2. Hire people better than you

Back to the start, hiring the right person can shift the outlook and capability of a team.  A sure way to not achieve that is to hire lesser-skilled people (technically, socially) into the team.  Some managers and leaders do this intentionally (for example to maintain control/order/stability), and it can be unintentional too – especially when hiring in volume or at speed.

Hold one question in your mind during interviews – is this candidate better than me in a meaningful way?  Meaningful could be more technical, experienced, creative, resilient, humble – that doesn’t matter.  What matters is you know they’re going to add something to you and the team.  Another capability, another opportunity for you and the team to learn and develop.

Doing this also makes it easy to explain why you’ve hired them and can guide short-term objectives.

3. Hire for fit, behaviours and attitude first. Technical skill second.

The most successful teams have strong, valuable relationships within and outside of those teams.  That could be people that listen to and work with others, people that freely educate and share knowledge, people that want to learn new skills and stretch themselves or people that find ways to adapt to and meet the needs of others.  Whatever those behaviours might be, when you’re hiring don’t let the glare of technical excellence blind you to their importance.  I’ve never regretted hiring someone with the right attitude and without some of the certificates.

4. Expect a lot from people you hire

You’ve taken them through a good process, know that they’re capable and want them to add to your team, so make sure they can!  I may be misquoting, but an engineer joining Facebook is promoting code to production within their first 2 weeks.  They are not held back or put through more hoops to earn their stripes – they are trusted and expected as great engineers to perform.

A common example of this restriction (and frustration for a new hire) is administrative rights.  Unless there’s a compliance/security concern (clearance not yet complete), holding back says “we don’t trust you”.  A new role and company should be awesome and not being trusted will make new hires question their decision.

5. Hire people that can cope with uncertainty and change

Technical teams, roles and organisations are facing constant and increasing levels of change.  New technologies and ways of working are disrupting norms and the potential for many organisations is phenomenal.  New hires need to be comfortable working with change so make sure you check.

This could relate to their ability to learn new technologies, their comfort deciding when information is missing or their outlook after a project they were leading got cancelled.

A good way to test for this is to ask some (only one or two in an interview) hypothetical questions.  See #8.

6. Test in several dimensions

Given the speed that we form a first impression about someone (7 seconds according to Forbes), a hunch that a candidate is suitable is not a reliable gauge of quality.  Are we consistent in our performance from second to second?  Of course not.   The best remedy to this, and to the many unconscious biases that appear when interviewing, is to test candidates in several dimensions and be empirical when possible.  That gives you some facts on which to base a decision.

For example, when you have multiple candidates for the same role, keep at least a core of questions the same so you can compare answers.  Include mental aptitude testing (psychometrics) if you can, and include time for practical tests (coding, troubleshooting) or presentations that show a candidate in a more typical situation.  Prepare model answers / guidelines to help with subjective questions before interview (for measuring “drive” good might be “evidence of overcoming challenges to get a result” where poor could be “focused on reasons why X didn’t complete”

This might appear intimidating, but not if it’s setup right.  For candidates that struggle with the formality, pressure and infrequency of interviews, they have an opportunity to shine elsewhere.

7. Test everyone for leadership skills

This is straight from the Google playbook, and something everyone should do.  The implication isn’t that every candidate you hire is going to end up managing teams, rather that we all find ourselves leading regardless of what the org-chart says.  In flatter and more collaborative structures, this applies significantly more.

To unpack that idea, leadership includes traits like the ability to face adversity, to take direction in a crisis, to hold an unpopular position, to show humility and respond well to failure, to work through conflict.  If you’re anything like me, you can imagine several engineers, developers, service-desk engineers or DBAs that have exhibited all of these, and yet it’s unlikely they were asked about these at interview.  You want self-organising teams?  You need to be testing for these kinds of leadership traits.

8. Always include hypothetical questions

Hypothetical interview questions, when used sparingly and appropriately, can yield some fascinating and useful insight into candidates.  Avoid abstract questions like, ‘you’re stuck in a crisp packet, how do you escape’, but use intentionally ‘fuzzy’ (but business relevant) ones for some useful insight. 

For example: “Imagine you are responsible for our core product. How would you improve its performance?”  The answers you could get are wide, and that’s the point.  If you get an immediate answer like “add more RAM”, it’s obvious that assumptions have been made and could be an indicator of action first, thought later. A more considered response like “could you clarify what you mean by performance?”, or one with the assumption visible, like “ok – if we wanted to improve its sales performance I would…” demonstrate some deeper thought.   As an interviewer, coach the candidate if needed, and invite them to share their thinking out loud. You can even ask the candidates to make and share assumptions.

9. Tailor and plan your interviews in advance

Before interviews, plan what you want to find out about and then seek that evidence at interview or through the other activities you include.  Lack of planning for interviews has several risks:  candidates picking up or being confused by disjointed or irrelevant questions, candidates being brought back (I forgot to ask!) or decisions being made on hunches without basic information.

By contrast, with even a lightweight plan, interviews will feel more professional, it’s easier to help candidates understand where they are in process and what’s coming next, and the data records will help candidate comparison.

10. Remember: Interviewing is a team sport

Related to testing in several dimensions, it’s important for multiple people to interview each candidate.  This has two key advantages.  For you as the hiring business, you get different opinions, personalities and insights into a candidate.  For a candidate, they get a wider view of the organisation and who they could be working with, and possibly a second chance to talk about a skill or experience they missed earlier.  Always avoid interviewing alone, but if inevitable, plan more time so you don’t skip note-taking.

To take this further, it’s even better if you a) include interviewers from within your team – the potential peers and colleagues of the candidate – both to allow them to take ownership with you for the hire and give the candidate ‘actual people’ to talk to and b) include interviewers from outside of your team; the value of their distance and objectivity cannot be overstated.

11. Question and listen like an expert

Being able to ask perceptive, well-structured questions that elicit the answers you’re seeking is a skill.  It’s a skill that can be learned with practice, and here are a few pointers to help you.

Really learn to use open and closed questions to guide conversation.  Open questions (those typically beginning with who, what, where, when, why, how and which) are designed to gather information, where closed questions by contrast are for clarification and typically receive a yes/no response.  For example, always ask “What examples can you share?”, not “Do you have any examples?” unless you want to stop the interview!

Use intentional language in your questions.  For example, asking “What experience do you have with DevOps?” restricts responses and makes assumptions compared to “Tell me about your experience”.

Embrace silence.  It might be awkward as interviewer, but it’s important a candidate has space to answer, and isn’t ‘rescued’ (prompted, let off) before they’ve given something.

Practice active listening – the art of concentrating on the candidate’s response before your mind starts racing forward to what you’re going to ask next.  You could miss something crucial, notably half-answers, intriguing facts to pursue or other social cues.

Put your phone and laptop away, or don’t take them with you.  Keep focused!

12. Think Organisation

Be broadly familiar with other hiring going on within the office/organisation when you interview candidates.  This allows you to be open minded throughout a candidate’s application, and while they might not get the post in your team, you can facilitate other introductions.  This can do several things:  for the organisation, you may retain a great candidate that would otherwise be lost, and it promotes bonds and shared understanding between teams.  Meanwhile, for the candidate, it demonstrates some reassuring collaboration and that you are considering their interests too.

13. Consider the candidate. Always be respectful.

No doubt we’ve all experienced good and bad interviews, so make sure the interviews you are part of get remembered for the right reasons.  Make sure candidates know the schedule:  what’s expected at each stage, when they’ll get results (if not immediately available) and any deadlines for submissions.  Always allow at least 10 minutes to field questions from a candidate:  it’s critical they get a chance to quell concerns, and for the hiring team, insightful candidate questions can tell you a great deal about their potential.  Make sure the space is comfortable, refreshments are available and – especially for longer interviews – they know where the toilets are!  There is nothing to be gained from watching a candidate sweat in a three-piece suit in August.

I will also add here that respect should extend to declining candidates early (not dragging it out).  It is not acceptable to be certain a candidate is unsuitable and then pursue the interview anyway – it’s a waste of energy and is disingenuous to the candidate, especially if the result is then delayed too.  Either wind up / reduce the questions you ask or be direct and tell them (politely, objectively and respectfully) you’re terminating the interview.

Finally, don’t allow the gap between offer and start-date to be silent.  Make sure you’re in contact with the new hire and check-in with headlines/updates or useful preparatory information (don’t expect them to work in advance for no pay though!).  Overall, make it clear you’re looking forward to having them on-board.

14. Give useful, actionable feedback

We know that feedback is the key mechanism for any of us to improve or develop our skills.  However, in my experience, feedback given after interviews is inconsistent, generic or typically lacking altogether.  What’s the result?  For the candidate, they lose an opportunity to learn (or even challenge a preconception) and similarly the organisation can’t act to source or sharpen the screening for more appropriate candidates in the future.

Why not instead be the person that feeds back, or better still, the company that feeds back?  Tell candidates know what they did well and, if deselected, what they didn’t.  If you can do that in the room, face to face and in an objective way, it can be extremely powerful and respectful to a candidate.  If you can’t share in the room, write notes that you share with the candidate (or agency).  Apart from a very few people who stoically resisted the feedback, the majority were grateful for the candour and thought and were more likely to recommend others for interview.

If feedback in your organisation must go through the resourcing/recruitment team, still take responsibility and make sure they have facts to relay.

15. Reflect on your own results

Few people look back objectively at notes from previous interviews – especially in context of great or not-so-great hires – and therefore miss a fantastic opportunity to learn and improve wider processes.  Give it a try!

Imagine (or review) one of the best hires you’ve ever made.  What questions did you ask them?  What specific questions showed you their brilliance?  If you didn’t ask such questions, what would you ask if doing it again now? 

Ask hired candidates for their view of the process and questions:  What worked (or didn’t) for them?  What ideas do they have that would make the experience better?  When interviewing elsewhere, what processes or methods stuck with them as effective?

Finally, of course the inverse:  imagine (or review) one of the worst hires you’ve ever made.  What questions did you ask them?  What assumptions or compromises did you make in your questioning?   What did you miss that you need to cover in future?

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