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 Dice.com. 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 monster.com 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.