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October 26, 2015 / alipeles

Want strong talent? Get disciplined!

Have you ever been in this situation?

Colleague:  Oh, hey. Do you have time to do an interview? We’ve got someone in for the open Java role.
You:  Sure. I can make some time. Do you have a resume?
Colleague:  Yup. Here you go. She’s in Conference Room C. Joe’s just wrapping up with her now.

Does anything seem wrong here?

I hazard that every IT development manager would agree that the greatest single factor in the success of a software development project is the quality of the programmers. Is grabbing whom you can at the last minute to go into the interview room largely unprepared consistent with the importance of the decision you’ll be making?

From the exchange above, we know that the hiring team has no interview plan. There’s no list of skills to be assessed, no design for assessing it, no process for organizing the feedback, no strategy for reaching a decision, and, in all likelihood, no thought at all given to making sure good candidates actually want to join at the end of the process.

Hiring is expensive. Hiring the wrong person is even more expensive. You need to be rigorous and rigor takes effort, but there’s good news. First, it will pay off. If you can figure out how to eliminate unqualified candidates within 1 or 2 rounds, then you save a few hours per interview. Even in a buyer’s market, you’re doing well if you only meet with 5-10 candidates per role. A good plan can save a week’s work per candidate.

And second, you can get a lot of impact from just a little rigor. Here are a few simple steps:

  1. Make a list of the skills and qualities you need to assess. You probably already did this when you wrote your role spec.
  2. Order the list of skills by importance. There’s no reason to waste any time assessing nice-to-haves if even one must-have is missing. (BTW, the ability to write code had better be number one on this list for any programming role.)
  3. Decide how you are going to assess each skill and roughly how long it takes to do the assessment. This is the hardest part, because you need an actual strategy, not just “Tahmina is really good at OLAP, we’ll have her ask the candidate some questions.
    1. For each area of assessment, create a central list of questions and require interviewers to work from them.
    2. Create a simple standardized template for collecting feedback.
    3. Keep anything the candidate writes during the interview.
  4. Create and distribute a schedule before the candidate arrives. Make sure that every interviewer knows what he or she is supposed to assess. Make sure the decision points are clear. E.g. decide in advance that the second interviewer has the authority to send the candidate home if the feedback from both of the first two rounds is negative.
  5. Assign someone to manage the interview process, preferably someone warm and friendly from your administrative staff. Make this person responsible for:
    1. Ensuring that every interviewer knows what to assess.
    2. Sticking to the schedule. Don’t let anybody show up late or run over.
    3. Collecting and collating written interviewer and candidate output from every session.
    4. Documenting the decisions.
    5. Passing the feedback so far to each interviewer before they meet with the candidate.
  6. Make a yes/no decision the same day as the interview, whenever possible.

A simple hiring plan might look like this:

Senior C#/WPF Role Interview Plan

  1. Intro to company and core behavioral assessment – To be completed by Human Resources (they’re probably organized, already)
  2. Core programming skills – Written coding assignment from canonical list to be completed in C#
  3. Core design skills – Written design problem from canonical listDECISION POINT – Design interviewer decides whether to proceed
  4. Deep knowledge of WPF – Verbal-only interview from WPF question list
  5. Management experience – Verbal-only interview using management scenarios from standard listDECISION POINT – Management interviewer decides whether to proceed to senior manager.
  6. Fit/Interest/Sale – Senior manager interview

Make sure the senior manager in step 6 receives the feedback packet before the candidate arrives. Always review that packet thoroughly before you pass it on and, if possible, meet with the senior manager beforehand to summarize the candidate’s strengths, weaknesses, and concerns.

In order to execute this plan, you’ll need to spend some time writing those question lists and assessment forms for each interview, but you can probably collate much of your first draft from existing material or what’s in people’s heads.

With the input of 1-2 other people, you should be able to implement these steps in 2 days. As long as you stay disciplined, the impact will be significant and your investment will pay off within a week or two.

Daniel Chait at Greenhouse thinks that the potential to improve talent acquisition in most IT organizations is huge. The steps I outline above amount to establishing a basic workflow for interviewing a single candidate. Greenhouse aims to organize and automate that workflow, but that’s just the tip of an iceberg. They’ve developed software that helps organizations answer questions like these:

  • How should we find candidates?
  • How should we manage and process resumes?
  • How should we manage our relationship with vendors?
  • How do we estimate the time it will take to complete our hiring?
  • How do we estimate and optimize direct costs in money spent and the indirect costs in employees taking time out to hire?
  • How do we ensure that time spent in the interview room is effective at both assessing the candidate and selling him or her on the role?
  • How can we leverage the data we create in the hiring process to make future improvements?

I know Daniel from my time at UBS, when he was a partner at the consulting firm Lab 49 and I was a client. When we caught up recently, I immediately saw the value in what he’s proposing.

Most IT organizations, especially on Wall Street, are haphazard in their hiring practices. At past jobs, candidates for programming jobs were presented to me for final approval who had not been asked to write a single line of code in a full day of interviews. I’ve been interviewed, myself, by people who wasted the entire time reciting their own resumes. And, in 20 years, I have never seen a hiring plan with a cost estimate or with a timeline backed up by anything better than a finger in the air.

Yet, many organizations have solved these problems and their practices are not secret or, for the most part, bespoke. But, it takes a dedicated team of talented people to build the requisite infrastructure. So, it makes sense to outsource by buying software and/or consulting services to organize the process and introduce discipline.

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