Good Hiring in Tech - Part 1

Good Hiring in Tech - Part 1

*This article was kindly contributed by Yaniv Bernstein author of the People Engineering newsletter (subscribe here).


Hiring in tech follows Sturgeon’s Law: 90% of it is crap. If you’re not sure whether your organisation’s process fits is part of the 90%… it probably does. I started putting down my thoughts on tech hiring in general and eng hiring in particular, and it turns out I have quite a lot of them. So I’ve broken this article into two parts.

In Part 1 (this article) I will provide a few general tips for how to think about, design, and conduct an interview process for tech roles. To be honest, most of this applies well beyond tech, but tech is what I know and there are a couple of things (especially supply/demand dynamics) that lend tech hiring a unique flavour.

In Part 2 (coming next week) I will break down the particular anatomy of a software engineering hiring process, including the controversial topic of testing algorithmic skills.

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Be Clear About You’re Looking For

You’ve decided to hire a new employee. How exciting!

It seems obvious, but somehow it seems quite common for an organisation to embark on a process of hiring a new employee without having a great deal of clarity as to what they’re looking for. There’s usually some sort of job description, but if that’s not been carefully formulated and doesn’t have buy-in from the right stakeholders, it’s not very useful.

At the very least, you should have agreed on:

  • Key role responsibilities.

  • Knowledge, skills, and abilities that a person will need to possess in order to succeed in this role.

  • Level of seniority.

  • Salary range / budget.

  • Reporting line.

It goes without saying that it is essential to write all this down. This may be standard at a larger organisation, but even if you’re small and scrappy, this is one time when you really need to get it in writing. If you don’t write it down, different people involved in the process will have different ideas of what the right candidate looks like. This is, of course, a recipe for badness.

Respect People’s Time

I once worked with someone in recruiting who felt that getting candidates to invest a lot of time into the process was a good way to get them to demonstrate their commitment.

I disagree. Not only is it disrespectful of people’s time, it is a great way to lose great candidates. This is a candidate’s market: make sure that whatever time you demand of candidates is put to good use. This is true not just within the interviews themselves, but also in the back and forth of scheduling and communicating. There tends to be a lot of “faff” in the interview process (ignored emails, frequent rescheduling) that comes across to the candidate as disrespectful and unprofessional. Try to eliminate that.

The Hard Soft Sell

It is well known that technology roles are subject to significantly different supply/demand dynamics than obtain in many other professions. Technology professionals always have multiple options, and that means that you need to work actively to make sure that they choose you when it comes to offer time.

For an employer, the hiring process is as much about selling the role and organisation to the candidate as it is about assessing the suitability of a candidate. In other words, the hiring process is truly two-way.

At the same time, candidates do not like to feel like they’re being subjected to a hard sell or that you’re trying to pull one one over on them. Honesty and respect are core.

The first part of the sell is simply to have your shit together throughout the process (see the previous section). It’s amazing how much of a good impression a well-run hiring process makes. Beyond that, I recommend the following:

Prepare your interviewers & leave room for questions. Interviewers should be aware that they are representing the company and are selling as well as evaluating. Make sure you provide some basic training in making a candidate feel comfortable. It is also important that all interviewers leave time for the candidate to ask questions. This is where they can really satisfy their curiosity and get answers “straight from the horses mouth”.

Provide access to senior leaders. Senior leaders are well equipped to represent the culture and vision for the organisation, as well as giving a good sense of how things are run. Furthermore, involving senior leaders in the hiring process is important signalling to the candidate that they are valued and that the company is excited about the possibility of having them come on board.

Share internal comms. This works quite well (at least it worked well on me!). You can give a real glimpse into the organisation by sharing some all-staff emails, videos of leadership talks, and that sort of thing. The reality of the company as a “body in motion” is often the most exciting thing about working at a dynamic organisation.

Gather Feedback Effectively

First of all, I would like to make an important philosophical point: it is not an interviewer’s job to make a hire/no-hire decision. Really. If a single interviewer in a single interview could determine everything that was necessary to make such a decision, you would only need one interview. In practice, we nearly always have multiple interviews testing different aspects of the candidate, and the hiring decision is a synthesis of all the data that was gathered through the hiring process (interviews, references, work history).

So if an interviewer’s job is not to make a hire/no-hire recommendation, what is their job? In my view, they have two responsibilities:

  1. To provide an accurate (and reasonably detailed) record of what took place during the interview.

  2. To provide commentary on how well the candidate did relative to the aspects of the role description that the interview was designed to assess. So if the interviewer conducted an algorithmic interview, they should provide an assessment of how well they performed relative to the expectations of algorithmic proficiency in the role description.

If you’re paying attention, it will occur to you that assessing “how well the candidate did relative to the aspects of the role description that the interview was designed to assess” requires that the interviewer know what those aspects are. For that, you need a rubric: a list of things to look out for (e.g. communication skills, user research skills) and the expected level for each of those things. This needs to be written down and clearly communicated to the interviewers. If this is not done, the interviewers will make their own (arbitrary) decisions about what it is their job to assess.

And yes, interview feedback should be written down. Interviewers hate doing this (I know, I’ve had to write a few novels worth of feedback in my time) but it really is important, as it is the only way to get a record of what happened that can feed into a decision process (see next section).

An important matter of hygiene: interviewers must not discuss the candidate until they have finished writing down their feedback. Groupthink is very real, and allowing interviewers to influence each other’s feedback will reduce the amount of useful information you will get to make a decision.

Making a Decision

Given that the primary purpose of a hiring process is to decide whether or not to extend an offer to somebody, I find it fascinating how little thought goes into the process of making that decision. Often it is left to some sort of ad hoc process between HR/TA and the hiring manager. This is full of opportunity for bias.

You’ve put in a lot of effort in sourcing and interviewing the candidate, so make sure you have a clean, repeatable decision-making process that makes use of all the available information.

My recommendation is to have some sort of hiring meeting consisting of a number of stakeholders (but not necessarily the interviewers). The job of the hiring meeting is to review the available evidence and come to a reasoned, evidence-based decision on whether to proceed with the hire or not. Importantly, this should be more than just taking the interviewer’s word for it. This is where the written feedback comes in. The hiring group knows more than any individual interviewer, and needs to take the evidence skeptically and holistically.

The hiring meeting should proceed in a spirit of inquiry, and should be a place for challenge and debate. How many other important decisions do you make at your organisation without some deep discussion and debate? Your hiring decisions deserve the same respect.

What a Lot of Work!

You may be reading this and thinking to yourself: this is a lot of work. A written role description? Written interviewer notes? Assessment rubrics? Hiring committee?

I won’t lie, it is a lot of work.

But do you know what is even more work? Dealing with the fallout of hiring the wrong person. The management time. The emotional labour and do-over work for everybody who works with them. The time taken to put them through performance improvement plans. Not to mention the missed opportunities.

The work you put into running a decent hiring process is some of the best time you will ever spend.