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Hiring in the era of fast-paced technological changes

· 8 min read
Wojciech Gruszczyk

Pretzel | Photo by Pierre Gui on Unsplash

Summary

Hiring the right people is critical for the success of any startup. In the post-COVID era of fast-paced technological changes, it's even more important as the impact of a single person can be huge. In this article, I'm sharing my thoughts on the qualities of an ideal candidate and how I look for them.

Introduction

Over the past decade or so, I've been both a hiring manager and a job seeker. I had my ups and downs, nevertheless, every time I decided to join or not to join a company, or to hire or reject a candidate, I learned something new. I also observed how hiring changed over time, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world and we all started working remotely.

In this post I'm sharing my cookbook of recipes I use myself when hiring people. I hope you'll find it useful or at least it will give you some food for thought. Bon appétit!

Hiring team

First and foremost, I believe that hiring is a team sport. The first verification - the sieve - is done by the HR department or an agency. Sometimes you get a recommendation from your employee or you have a good candidate in the network. At this point, you invite the candidate for an interview and the first crucial decision is made - who will be the interviewers?

Based on my experience, the best you can do is to invite three players:

  • HR/recruiter - to be the host and to take care of the formalities, passive through most of the interview,
  • hiring manager - the decision maker, the person who will work with the candidate, the person who knows what the team needs,
    • sometimes, this person may be replaced by a team lead or a senior team member,
  • a team member - a person who will work with the candidate, a person who knows the team and the project, a person who will be able to assess the candidate's technical skills.
    • usually, the team member is a senior or a lead, but it's not a rule, if you have a junior team member who is willing to interview candidates, invite them - initially to shadow the senior colleague and later to take over the responsibility.

A good rule of thumb is to keep the same team for all the interviews. If not possible, at least the hiring manager and the team member should be present at all of them.

Verification

The important thing to remember is that the interview is a two-way street. The candidate is verifying the company as much as the company is verifying the candidate. The first impression is crucial, yet it shouldn't be the decision point. Usually, even for experienced interviewers and seasoned candidates, the first 5-10 minutes are the most stressful. Even the best candidate can fail on basic questions if asked too early or in an inappropriate way.

For that reason, I always start with small talk and try to smoothly move to a conversation about their past roles and projects. If there is something in common between the candidate and the team members (would it be a technology or hobby, never mind) I try to use it as a conversation starter.

Soft skills

You can't teach people soft skills overnight. Developing people in this area is possible, yet takes significant time, and requires training and coaching. It's much easier to teach a person a new technology or a new framework than to change their mindset or their approach to work.

If you are looking for a customer-facing person, you need to pay a lot of attention to the details and all the annoying little things that may be a deal-breaker for the customer. Compare the candidate against your role models, the people who are already doing the job and are doing it well.

Independent of the role, I always to the so-called beer test. I ask myself a question: Would I like to go out for a beer with him or her? If the answer isn't a clear yes, I'm not hiring the person. I'm not saying that you should be best friends with your team members, but you should be able to consider it as an option. If this single quality is missing, the team will have a hard time working together. Trust, respect, and the will to cooperate will have to be earned by such a candidate, and it's not a good start. Besides that - if you don't like the person, you won't be able to work with them, and you won't be able to help them grow. It will be a lose-lose situation.

Fun fact

I'm not sure who coined the term beer test, but I heard it for the first time at hybris [y] - a Munich-based commerce startup that became a unicorn and was later acquired by SAP. It was a part of the company culture and it was a part of the hiring process. I have to admit one thing - I had the days of my life working with hybris [y] people before the acquisition!

Passed beer test means that the match is as good as between a weissbier and a pretzel. Prost!

Hard skills

Hard skills are easier to verify. They are also easier to teach. Usually, your team knows best what a person of certain seniority should know. Let them ask, let them verify. If you are not sure if the team members are ready to do it ad-hoc or if you need a more formal process - create a list of questions the recruiters will have access to.

tip

Good HR departments can use the phone call to ask some basic questions and verify the hard skills. They need to understand neither the question nor the answer, they just need to know if the answer is in the proximity of the expected one (used words, tone of voice). It's a good way to filter out the candidates who are not even close to the expected level.

The only advice I can give you is to do three things:

  • avoid closed questions, these are not checking much,
  • double-check the most critical hard skill or the show-stopper question - for me, this is usually fluency in English, as the companies I work for are by definition international,
  • the candidate is T-shaped - they have a broad knowledge and a deep knowledge in one area. The broad knowledge is usually easy to verify, and the deep knowledge is usually verified by the team member.

Mindset and Approach

Remote work is a new reality for many of us. Besides the tools and the processes that had to be adopted, the way of gaining knowledge - including onboarding - has changed. In the past, you could observe new colleagues and learn from them. Now you have to be proactive, ask for help, and you have to be able to work independently.

This situation is extremely difficult for junior team members. Making progress and learning is much slower, especially if the person is not a geek and works to live, as we used to say.

For that reason, I always ask the candidate about their approach to learning. It is easy to get the expected answer, so I always ask for an example from the near past. It is also important to ask deeper questions about the area they mentioned or the area that we suppose the candidate should know. For example, the latest advancements in generative AI - knowing ChatGPT is not enough to consider the candidate an expert in the field.

Summary

Hiring is a complex process, yet it is also very rewarding if you choose good teammates. The impact of a single person on the team and the project is huge, especially if the people work with modern tooling - for programmers that could be the GitHub copilot - and can get x10 productivity boost. Hire for the mindest, check the basic hard skills and demand for soft skills.

What are your experiences in hiring? How did the pandemic change the way you hire? Let me know in the comments below!