Hiring tips: How to pick software pros without making mistakes

Management expert Johanna Rothman offers tips on hiring software pros: The key to finding candidates that fit is asking better interview questions.

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When software and test managers ask Johanna Rothman for hiring tips, her basic message boils down to this: Avoid virtually all of the conventional advice out there.

The author of the recently published Hiring Geeks That Fit, Rothman advises against focusing too heavily on skill sets, on using applicant tracking software to filter resumes, passing over applicants without college degrees, and asking candidates about their greatest challenge -- among other things.

By far the biggest mistake hiring managers make is defining the technical skill sets they are looking for too narrowly, Rothman said. "They want someone with X number of years of experience in C programming, X number of years with Java, and X number of years with 'pick your favorite technology,'" she said. "But what they really need is someone who fits their culture; someone who they can train to understand their product inside out."

Interviewers should not ask interviewees about their strengths and weaknesses.

Applicant tracking software, which many companies rely on to review resumes, exacerbates the problem, Rothman said. "These systems pass over good applicants because they filter on technical skills; they are a horror show."

Rothman's tips for hiring often fly in the face of what most managers believe. Interviewers should not ask interviewees about their strengths and weaknesses, she said. When hiring managers ask open-ended questions like this, they don't get a feel for how well candidates will fit in with their organization and what it will be like to work with them. Also important to avoid are puzzle interview questions, made popular by Google, Microsoft and other companies that hire a lot of software engineers. "They are charming and great for cocktail parties," Rothman said of these questions. "But they are a reflection of you, the interviewer." And they are generally asked by managers looking to hire a "mini-me," she said.

So, what should hiring managers ask interviewees? Questions that elicit useful information, Rothman said. "Treat the interview as an audition that allows you to learn about the candidate," she said.

In this article, Rothman offers more hiring tips software professionals.

1. In interviews, ask behavior description questions

Interview questions such as, "What's your greatest accomplishment?" and "What is your biggest weakness?" are clichés. Candidates are likely to respond with rehearsed answers, which do little to help hiring managers make good decisions. What's needed, Rothman said, are behavior description questions. These questions can reveal highly specific information about how the candidate is likely to interact with co-workers and customers. Example: "Tell me about a recent time you have given feedback to people you work closely with." The word recent is key here, Rothman said. "If the candidate hasn't given successful feedback in 10 years, you want to know that." Another behavioral description question Rothman recommended is: "Give me an example of when you helped a client manage a change in their project portfolio?" In this case, it's important to find out how many projects the portfolio included, she said. "People don't always succeed; you want to know their batting average."

2. Develop a hiring strategy

Hiring managers typically focus on finding good candidates without giving much thought to why they are hiring in the first place, Rothman said. "But if you don't know what problem you're solving, it is difficult to hire the right people." Asking and answering the following questions will help managers articulate a hiring strategy:

  • Do you need people for good, or just for now?
  • Do you need people because your technology is changing?
  • Do you need people with business domain expertise?
  • Do you need people because you are growing rapidly, and your adding project managers and a business analyst, for instance, to your team of developers and testers?

3. Use LinkedIn to let your network know you are hiring

Hiring managers rely too heavily on resumes and they don't use their social networks to their best advantage. Networks like LinkedIn allow hiring managers to identify a wide range of potential candidates -- not just those who are looking for a job, Rothman said. Hiring managers should do two things on LinkedIn. First, get the word out on open positions. "Use your profile to say: 'I am hiring! See my jobs below.' Very few people do that. It's a great opportunity," she said. Second, use professional connections to seek introductions to possible candidates. Once you have connected, Rothman recommended saying something like this: "You appear to have some of the background and experience I am looking for. Are you interested in talking to me?" As a "connector of people," LinkedIn is second to none, she said. "What do you have to lose?"

4. Don't wait for the perfect candidate

There is no absolutely perfect person for the job, Rothman said. "Hiring is like house hunting. You never find everything you want, so you buy a house that gets close and you fix it up." The same thing applied to job candidates. "You find someone who will fit well in your organization and you train them -- if you wait too long to make a decision, a competitor will snap them up," she said.

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