The Best Way to Improve Tech Hiring

You need to assess more than tech skills to have better hiring outcomes

There was a customer engineer named Tom that I knew that was remarkable in two ways. First, he was always coming up with the most odd-ball consumer product ideas that he was convinced would be the next big thing. Second, his job was to reach out to customers and gather their requirements for the engineers. Problem was that he was not very good with customers.

Being in a big, slow moving company, his poor job fit was often overlooked. That is, until the “Bob’s” arrived to clean things up. As the Bob’s grilled Tom on what he did exactly, Tom got flustered and shouted, “I have people skills, I am good at dealing with people! Can’t you understand that? What the hell is wrong with you people!”

Let’s just say that Bob was not invited to return to his role or the company thereafter. If this scenario seems familiar, it was from the movie Office Space. But if you have not watched the movie, the scene above might have triggered memories of your real life in offices of the past.

We all know those one or two people on our teams that have not quite worked out. You might have even been the hiring manager. Even with rounds of interviews, live coding tests, and reference checks, somehow hires pass through that either flame out or are so toxic you cannot fire them fast enough.

My hypothesis is the root cause comes down to one question, a question we toss out casually during interviews without a second thought. That question is:

“Can you tell me about your biggest failure?”

Or maybe you heard this version, “What would you say is your biggest weakness?” These, and their many variants, are typical fodder used to pad the perfunctory non-technical parts of the interview process. Likewise, they elicit the type of canned responses that provide little in the way of insight or views into how a candidate thinks and operates.

The functional interview is the single biggest miss when it comes to technical hiring. Vetting for technical competency is no where near as difficult since it is harder to fake tech skills, whether in online code tests, over the phone screens, or during the rounds of tech interviews. The hires that do not work out are not failing because of their technical skills, it’s because of the skills outside of the technical domain. Therefore the best opportunity to improve hiring outcomes is to align hiring to the culture of your company.

To be clear, I am not taking about “culture fit” as discussed in Silicon Valley speak. Culture fit in that context is often surface level superficialities about getting along. It also often results in a monoculture that makes the work environment less welcoming to anyone hired that does not fit the mold of everyone else.

Culture is also not about perks and the tangible aspects of work. Culture is a deeper set of values that inform the language, rituals, and why of doing work and are refined by everyone in the organization.

A good culture is defined by values that speak to the DNA of the organization. By adopting and reinforcing these values over time, the culture directly impacts business outcomes. You see this in companies driven by a tightly embedded culture that allows them to innovate faster, build greater loyalty with customers, and improve employee satisfaction. It also elevates the quality of the hiring process and the quality of hires.

Hiring is a pillar for how Amazon continues to innovate, grow, and maintain its culture. Even across over one million employees across almost every country in the world, the 14 Amazon Leadership Principles are the guide for how we serve customers, make data-driven decisions quickly, and consistently deliver results.

Our leadership principles are so core to how we operate, they are tightly integrated into the hiring process. We specifically interview and access candidates on a handful of leadership principles with each interviewer a candidate speaks with.

This approach is similar to one that I have used to help startups founder implement a structured technical hiring early on. There are four areas to consider when building a hiring process that aligns to culture:

  • Build consistent interview questions – creating a bank of standard questions that ensure similar questions are asked and delivered in the same way, providing a consistent benchmark when assessing candidates later on.

  • Align questions to company values – asking behavioral questions that are derived from the values and culture of company help assess how a candidate responds in situations from the perspective of those values.

  • Score all responses to questions – applying both qualitative and quantitative measures to responses ensures fair and transparent assessment of candidates, especially when using a consistent set of questions.

  • Apply metrics to hiring decisions – when consistently scoring interviews, over time data helps identify areas of improvement in the hiring process and interview questions used, as well as providing insights that raise hire quality.

When it comes to the questions themselves, an approach that is used in Amazon and many other places is the STAR interview technique. STAR stands for situation, task, action, and result as described below:

  • Situation – the scene & details of the example being given

  • Task – the responsibilities of person in that situation

  • Action – the steps involved to achieve desired outcome

  • Result – the outcome and metrics of the actions taken

This technique brings clarity to interviews for the candidate and the interviewer. Candidates can more easily describe what they did and specifically owned in a situation to drive measurable and tangible outcomes. Interviewers can more easily drill into details to get behind the “why” and “how” of the actions and decisions taken by a candidate.

As an example of what I mean, the table below is a snippet I created for an early stage startup. Each value ties back to a question or set of questions that are then scored according to the clarity and completeness of the answer. Doing this over the course of many interviews will lead to some questions being adjusted, some removed, and some added to create a more informed and accurate interview process.

We all know the cost of bad hires because they cost us three times. The first time is in the initial hiring process. The second is in lost productivity by not having the right person for the job. The third is having to start the hiring process all over again. This does not even address the issue of lower team morale and impacted engineering efficiency.

Being more deliberate in the non-technical aspects of tech hiring helps mitigate the risks of bad hiring. It does not solve all hiring mistakes, but over time you will have a better understanding when a promising hire does not work out as planned. I share some more tips and thoughts on tech hiring in a recent presentation I gave at the CTO Connections Summit last month. Check it out and let me know if there are any other thoughts or questions into hiring that you have!

How closely aligned is your hiring to company values and culture? What is the one thing you most want to change about your technical hiring process today?

Mark Birch, Editor & Founder of DEV.BIZ.OPS

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