Hiring For IT: What We’re Doing Wrong & How To Fix It

HR departments for many technology firms tend to be a bit backwards in the way they evaluate potential hires. Early in the process, an HR member or technical recruiter will typically contribute to the never ending stream of listings posted to the popular online job sites, and funnel the subsequent flood of applicants through a filter before passing on candidates to the geeks. The key issue is that HR cannot realistically be expected to hold all the technical knowledge necessary to appropriately evaluate and filter applicants based on technical criteria. Many resumes are thus evaluated solely off keywords or ridiculous automated online exams that supposedly quantify a candidates abilities based off asinine declarative factoids.

My personal hiring strategy, while admittedly skewed towards finding only top tier entrepreneurial people, follows these steps..

  1. Go to the core of The Right Persons culture. Forget about the “Java” checkbox on Figure out what The Right Person does online, and go there directly. Post a Java job to the local JUG mailing list, or a Ruby job to the Ruby talk group, for example. Only people genuinely into these topics sign up for mailing lists and forums, so by going straight to the cultural center of the ideal candidates interests you’ve already filtered out the dingbats who would apply just for the sake of applying. The Right Person is probably already employeed and thus would not be checking anyway. Allow HR to apply their own filters after you’ve identified the right culture.
  2. Evaluate their communication skills via email and phone. When was the last time you read an uber-competent technologist who ended every sentence with three exclamation points and a smiley face!!! 🙂 Yeah.. me neither. The subtleties of written language reveal how in touch one is with technical culture. They might have extensive experience with 16 different databases on their resume, but if they can’t explain — in layman’s terms — what a database driver does, I can’t see him/her being able to produce well-documented results or be terribly useful in business meetings. Ar-tic-u-la-tion of one’s thoughts in both written and spoken word is critical to effectiveness.
  3. Talk about technology in general. I do not expect you to know the internals of the JVM to be qualified for a Java developer position. I do expect you to keep current on general technology trends and always have your ears open. I expect you to constantly learn and get your hands dirty, and I expect you’ve done some of it on your own time.
  4. Ask the right questions.What type of Exception does Socket.close() throw?” would be the wrong question. Phrase your technical inquires such that they are open ended, recognize that He/She Is Not Google, and allow the respondent to give an intelligent response even if they do not know the answer. Example: “How would you describe the lifecycle of a network connection?” The question is specific enough such that a knowledgeable person can immediately give a thorough answer, but not overly so such that it is a miniscule factoid you’d see on Jeopardy. Also ask questions which are subjective or provide incomplete information, such as, “Which Java OR/M technology would you use in a new web application?“. You’re not looking for a “correct” response, but to gauge how’ll they’ll react when prompted with incomplete, unclear or clearly stupid business requests. Just like the real world. Arrogance and stubbornness can often show through with a definitive answer to such questions, whereas a more pragmatic person might say “It depends.” followed by a diatribe on the pros and cons of various options, none of which a singularly “correct”.
  5. Invest the time. Many large companies outsource recruitment because they see it as a secondary distraction to the organizations primary tasks. But the thing is… putting the right people in the right roles is as core to your business as it gets. And for the prices charged by technical recruiters, the $20K+ per head can easily be spent on competent geek personnel dedicated to networking in the correct communities for purposes of recruitment.

But don’t fret: there are companies trying to change the system. For the time being, however, keep this mind next time you hear an interview going on down the hall…

Organization and role-specific cultural requirements come first; HR policy requirements come second.

10 replies on “Hiring For IT: What We’re Doing Wrong & How To Fix It”

Your approach works well for finding that one extra person in a small shop, but it doesn’t scale well.

If there are 10 or 20 people on the staff, increasing your headcount by 10% a year by trawling the Java boards is do-able. If you’re a 1000-person shop looking to add even as little as one person per week (5% over a year) then you’re looking at needing some way of having someone weed out the time-wasters and the simply-not-appropriates whose time would NOT be better spent actually cutting code or whatever their main job is.

That’s when you turn to the job boards, recruitment agencies and on-line tech tests. The purpose of these is to generate the levels of interest required, then weed out the dross. You’re right that HR can’t possibly spot the good candidates from a keyword search, but that’s not what their trying to do; they’re trying to stop the bad candidate getting through to the CV sift proper and the interview stage and thereby wasting valuable geek-seconds.

Oh, and if we’re being picky about grammar:

“that supposedly quantify a _candidate’s_ abilities”

[I’m probably the only person left on the planet who’s bothered about split infinitives (and American’s never are), so I’ll let you off “to appropriately evaluate”]

“that’s not what their trying to do”

Aargh! I checked and I checked and I checked.

Should be “that’s not what they’re trying to do”, obviously.

Great article – it offers a more progressive and relevant approach to hiring the best people, which his ultimately what you think every business would want. Unfortunately, for many businesses their recruitment strategy is not aligned with their business strategy and while those at the top say their number one priority is talent attraction and retention, saying and doing are two different things.

The recruitment process is evolving for the better and no doubt will improve over time. I hear Rob’s comment in regards to scalability which is valid. However your comment about time, how you use this, and what you focus on is also crucial in the recruitment process. If it is lack of resources that prevent a business being able to hire the best they need to consider hiring more people. If it is lack of hiring skill, they need to do something about it.

Recruitment is a tough job and one that is hard to get right. Businesses outsource recruitment if they don’t have the time, expertise, resources or to outsource the risk – sometimes it is for all these reasons which I discuss on a recent podcast with BNET

I absolutely agree with #4. I hate going to interviews where your expected to be a human google. A recent interview candidate actually told us after the interview it was nice to actually participant in a conversation instead of playing a quick fire question style interview. Most of the interviews they’d attended were of the latter style. A conversation put them more at ease and allowed them to actually talk around the issue and show some real insight. I personally don’t care if they can google for the JavaDoc or not.

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