I definitely don’t keep the count but I believe that throughout my career I run more than a thousand interviews and hired way more than a hundred people. I have a confession to make: vast majority of these interviews were run poorly and many of those hires, even the right ones, were made on wrong premises.
I started hiring when I worked in a 150+ big company. Not much later we were absorbed by our big brother – a 3000 big organization. The hiring model I’ve seen there is something that you would have easily guessed. A set of questions aimed to verify technical skills, occasionally augmented by a couple of puzzles to show how the candidate thinks. That’s exactly the pattern I followed when I started running interviews myself.
I think it took me a couple of completely wrong hiring decisions till I started paying much more attention to non-technical traits. I mean, stuff like communication skills seem obvious. The question is how much weight you attach to the fact that a candidate is a good or a poor communicator. And of course communication is only one of a numerous so called soft skills.
Experimentation with the interview process made me focusing on tech skills less and less over time. I could still name hires, who eventually didn’t fit.
It took more than ten years and a bunch of people who I considered good fit in one organization but not in another to realize one crucial thing. There is such a thing as fit between an individual and an organization. The easier part of this equation is the former. We all can be described by our traits. At the same time, which is less intuitive, a company can be described in a similar manner. So what would we get it we written down all the company traits?
A company culture.
If there’s a mismatch between individual’s traits and a company culture there will be friction. You can tell that verifying past hiring decisions. You can tell that looking at people already functioning within the company as well.
OK, so again, what are we typically focusing on when recruiting? Technical skills. Does it help to figure out whether a candidate would cohabit well with the rest of a team / a company? Would “very little if at all” be a good guess?
It may be easier with a couple of examples. Imagine a small company where people are pretty open in front of others, rather outgoing, ready to help each other on the slightest signal that such help is needed. Imagine that an extremely skilled developer joins such a group. The guy is closed, not very sociable and feels that his contributions are best when he’s left to work alone without interruptions. Is the company well-suited to leverage the guy’s technical skills?
Imagine a team working on a kind of a death march project. No matter how miserable the future looks like the whole team feels they are in it together. They work after hours to save as much of the project as possible. Well, almost. There’s one guy who isn’t that much into this whole engagement thing and basically just punches his clock every day. He may even be the most skilled person in the team. Would he be valued by other team members? Would his contributions be really worth that much as his skills would suggest?
If we looked for a root cause of the problems in either case we wouldn’t discuss the guys’ technical skills. It’s the fact they’re misfits. What makes them misfits though? It isn’t a comparison to any single person. It is about how the whole group behaves, what values they share and how they interact with each other. It is about how the guys are perceived on this background.
These are parts you should focus on if you care about how the whole group performs. In fact there’s more into this. Hiring a misfit cripples performance of both the misfit and the group.
Unsurprisingly hiring for technical skills and technical skills only is a good way to hire a misfit.
My challenge for you here is to answer the question how you actually verify traits that go beyond technical skills. Feel free to share them in a comment.
There’s one thing I hear very frequently when I talk on this subject. It goes along the line: yeah, sure, go hire people who fit your company culture and know nothing about coding whatsoever and good luck with that. Of course I don’t advice hiring lumberjacks as software developers because of a simple fact of a cultural fit. I simply point how much we overestimate value of pure technical skills.
Most of the time there is some sort of a base technical skill set that makes a candidate acceptable. I also believe that the bar is significantly lower than we think. In other words there is a good enough level beyond which a hiring decision should be made basing on very different premises.
I don’t try to discredit tech skills here. Actually, I value them highly. I simply believe that it is way easier to develop one’s programming skills that to change their attitude. That’s why the latter is so important during recruitment.
That’s why I see so much value in hiring for cultural fit.
An interesting side discussion is how the existing culture influences individual’s behavior and attitude and how the individual affects the culture. This is something company leaders can use to steer (to some point) culture changes or to form (to some point) new hires. It works though only as far as the mismatch isn’t too big. Anyway, it’s a side discussion worth its own post.