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Engineering Leadership Guide – How To Build A Hiring Process for Engineering – Part 1

Hiring the right people is the number one priority for every business. The best leaders know they have to develop a game plan to focus on who they hire first before executing on the strategy of how they build their team.

The war for talent is still happening, especially in engineering. In order to be even considered on a candidate’s radar, employers need to pay attention to the landscape and build a modern hiring process that optimizes for speed and provides a differentiated candidate experience.

Some organizations have mastered this already while managing to maintain a high performing culture of engaged employees.

How is this possible?

If you’re in a situation where you need to hire engineers, here’s what you need to know. It’s not about the foosball tables, free food, or buses that shuttle you during your 90-minute super commute from San Francisco to Mountain View. That’s just par for the course. The most successful hiring processes emphasize creating a candidate experience that is memorable. Mainly, they highlight the mission of the company, the challenges at hand, and how the candidate’s career goals can be actualized underneath the stewardship of the leadership team.

Your goal is to create a compelling experience that makes every person walking through the door yearning to work there, even if they don’t end up getting the job. Why? Because organizations that invest in a strong candidate experience improve their quality of hires by 70%.

In part 1 of The Engineering Leadership Guide: How to Build a Hiring Process series, I’ll provide you with a step-by-step framework to build a successful engineering hiring process.  I’ll discuss strategies for defining character traits you’re looking for in employees, establishing your hiring bar, followed by creating a blueprint for the recruiting process. I’ve used these frameworks to help executives hire hundreds of engineers that are engaged and become ambassadors of your brand. Part 2 of the Engineering Leadership Guide will be focused on how to create onsite interviews that differentiate on candidate experience and tactics to close candidates.

Step 1: Define Character Traits

You might be surprised that the first step to an engineering hiring process isn’t something technical.

A lot of organizations start thinking about skill sets, coding languages, and libraries when they think about hiring. Sure, those are important and we’ll cover those soon enough, but it’s not what a successful hiring process focuses on first.

Ask yourself this: Who do you want at your company? It sounds like a simple question, but it’s not about someone’s name or some hotshot you’ve heard of in your network. What I’m talking about is what type of person you want at your company.

Think: What are the character traits that make someone successful here?

Some define character as having high ideals, standards of quality, skill attainment or aspirations.

But those are not enough. While skills are important, character traits take priority first. Here’s why:

It’s easy to say employees are motivated when things are going well. But imagine the reverse. When things take a downturn and 30% of the company is going to be laid off, will this person still be around? Will they have the strength to adhere to their standards in good and bad times?

“For me, the starting point for everything – before strategy, tactics, theories, managing, organizing, philosophy, methodology, talent, or experience – is work ethic.”

– Bill Walsh, The Score Takes Care of Itself

You need to find people that are self-motivated, are inspired by your mission, and have a track record of success overcoming adversity. You don’t want situational characters or bandwagoners that only show up when things are going well.

That’s why we focus on character traits. I used to hire servers in the restaurant industry before I started hiring for technology startups. What I learned early on is that hiring people that had a strong work ethic and derived pleasure from serving people wasn’t something easily trained.  Simply put, you can’t teach someone to enjoy serving tables. Any sort of service job requires long hours and is incredibly humbling.

Humility is one example of an important character trait that a company could look for. Top performers who have humility are modest, self-reflective, and will motivate through inspired standards as opposed to boastful character. This is the type of person that will ask a lot of questions when they don’t know a subject matter and admit when they may be wrong when presented with data that disproves their argument.  We’ve all worked with brilliant people who rationalize data and have an inability to receive feedback. These types of people create counterproductive team environments and will oftentimes cause your top performers to leave the company. Ask yourself, would you rather have someone be egotistical or modest?

As an engineering leader, you should start with identifying the character traits that make an engineer successful in your team. With a minimum level of cognitive ability, you can teach someone technical skills, but it’s much harder to teach someone a soft skill such as being curious or being collaborative.

Once you’ve defined the traits that you look for in your ideal engineering candidate, we move on to how you define your hiring bar or minimum requirements for considering a potential hire.

Step 2: Define Your Hiring Bar

Hopefully by now you have a better idea of the character traits you desire in an engineering candidate. That could be things like: humility, creativity, or persistence. Once you have those in mind, we need to start thinking about what signals we’ll identify to determine what your top talent looks like at your organization. 

Here are some common questions I’ve seen teams asking to determine their hiring bar:

  • Does this person need to have graduated from college to be qualified for the role?
  • What companies or programs are cultivators of great talent?
  • How many years of experience are you looking for?
  • What are the “must haves” to be qualified for a role?
  • What programming languages, platforms, frameworks, or design tools are required for this person to be effective in their job?
  • What does this person’s day to day responsibility entail?

The questions above are OK to start with, but you’ll need to answer even more specific questions to create a detailed blueprint of what your ideal candidate looks like and the measuring stick you’ll use during the assessment process:

  • What are the character traits of the best engineers you’ve worked with and what did you learn from her? How did she approach her job differently than others that made her successful?
  • Do years of experience equate to a higher seniority level?  Could someone have 10 years of experience programming and be a mid-level candidate?
  • What distinguishes a software engineer from a senior software engineer?
  • In an interview setting, what questions would you ask in order to assess an engineers ability to build backend services with quality and reliability?
  • What are examples of great products, projects, or teams that you’d like to see someone have contributed to?
  • How would you incorporate Github as a data point in evaluating someone’s experience?
  • What distinguishes good from great on a resume or LinkedIn profile?  
  • What are the types of side projects that you would want to see someone work on that would show signs of curiosity in our industry?
  • What key performance indicators do you use to measure high performing engineers?
  • What cultural factors contribute to successful and enjoyable software engineering teams?

Think: Focus on Consistency, Scalability, and Alignment

The reason we ask these specific hiring questions is that we’re building a consistent, scalable, and aligned framework for making decisions about who we want in our engineering organization from the hiring manager to the interview team to the executive team.

  • Consistency: We need to create consistency in our evaluation process to ensure that we unearth bias and evaluate candidates fairly.
  • Scalability: We need to design the recruiting process to scale as companies grow. It’s critical that you’re inclusive of your teams in how interview plans are created and remain open to feedback on how you can improve the process for candidates and interviewers. The process has to be nimble and allow for iteration of different functions and candidate scenarios.
  • Alignment: We need to inform candidates upfront of what’s required of the role. Recruiting teams will be sourcing candidates based on these specifications. Interview teams need to know what they’re looking for during the interview process. Executive teams should understand the business case for making a hire.

A key target for hiring that I’ve noticed from top engineering leaders is focusing on understanding the caliber of people they want. They stick to their standards that they create. Anyone can get a talented group of engineers together, but top engineering leaders replicate that talent with people they bring on and eventually those engineers go on and do great things.

So how do you actually know if people meet your standards? We’ll talk about that next.

Step 3: Create a Blueprint for the Recruiting Process

A good hiring process understands what things you’re looking for. A great hiring process knows how to evaluate those things reliably and looks to unearth bias so that you can have the best prediction of whether someone will succeed on the job or not.

Evaluation can come in many forms such as a phone screen, technical challenge, or onsite interviews. In Part 1 of this series, we’ll cover the first two: the phone screen and technical challenge (and stay tuned for Part 2 to cover the onsite interviews).

Developing a great hiring process means coming up with your evaluation process. While we’ll only cover a few things in this article among many (like how to interview), I wanted to dig into the ones that are the most important to do first.

The First Phone Screen

There are three main goals of the first phone screen:

  1. Uncover a candidate’s motivations
  2. Assess if they meet the minimum technical bar for a role on your team
  3. Assess character fit (will they play nicely in the sandbox?)

If you want to significantly increase your chance of closing a candidate at the offer stage, it’s critical that you ask probing questions to understand the candidate’s motivations to join your company.   Using open-ended questions to lead a conversation about someone’s career goals is a surefire way to develop trust in a relationship. Where do you see yourself in 3 years? What are the types of skills or tech you’d like to learn in your next job? What’s the type of work that gets you out of bed and motivates you most? What type of work would you like to avoid in your next role?  What type of leadership style do you respond best to? Illuminating how you will help transform someone’s career should be the focal point of every conversation you and your team have with a candidate.

It’s also important that you ask questions to ensure that they meet the minimum technical bar.  What programming language are they most proficient in? Are they using docker for containerization? Deploying in AWS?  Can they articulate the tradeoffs of using React vs. Angular? See, what we’re trying to do is assess is if a candidate has the minimum technical background and the right motivations to be successful at your company.  

Will they play nicely in the sandbox?

Remember those character traits like humility we discussed above?  During your phone screen it’s important to have a discussion about a candidate’s cultural values and operating norms up front. If you have a distributed workforce where half your engineering team is in Romania or India, you should vet candidates for their interest and ability to collaborate across different time zones and adaptability to working with people from different parts of the world.  You’re looking for people that will amplify your culture, increase productivity, and bring a diverse set of ideas on how to solve your toughest challenges.

The Technical Challenge

You may be asking yourself, what is a technical challenge and how is it different than a first phone screen? In the first phone screen, we asked high-level technical questions that just touch the surface about someone’s technical team. Before we commit to bringing a candidate onsite to meet with the rest of the team, it’s important to gather evidence that they are strong technically by reviewing their ability to code.   That’s where the technical challenge comes into play. We’re lucky in that the number of technology tools and data available to us is much more accessible than it was ever before. The unfortunate part is that we don’t see enough companies leverage these tools to their benefit even though they are proven to help evaluate candidates in the hiring process.

There are a lot of popular technical challenge tools out there today, but the one that I use and recommend to engineering leaders is HackerRank. HackerRank is a platform that allows you to choose what technical skills you want to asses (i.e. API, web interface, or a distributed system), in your desired programming language (Python, Go, JavaScript) and then send a technical challenge to your candidates through your applicant tracking system of choice.

For senior level candidates who will need more selling and will be turned off by the idea of being sent a technical challenge before talking to an engineer or hiring manager, you can choose a code pairing option that provides the same functionality as the technical challenge but in a live environment.  

This is a game changer for modern engineering hiring practices.

A tool like HackerRank is one of the smartest things you can adopt because it operationalizes your hiring process whether you’re hiring 1, 10, or 100 engineers. It scales indefinitely as you look for more engineers or different levels of engineers because you can “test” candidates on whether they’re qualified or not depending on your hiring bar.

It effectively makes screening candidates much more objective and reliable because you can define the coding challenges based on what we talked about before: your hiring bar. It will help nullify bias in your interview process by assessing a candidate’s ability to code as opposed to their writing skills when you read their resume (which are notoriously poorly written).

Think: Once you’ve defined your technical hiring bar, you can employ a tool to match your criteria to do the work for you.

That way, you are always bringing candidates onsite to interview that meet your hiring bar so you don’t have to waste the candidates time and yours.

Top engineering leaders not only know what they’re looking for, but they know how to repeatedly hire for those qualities and using a technical assessment tool is just one part of their toolkit.

Getting Your Hiring Process Off The Ground

We’ve covered three key stages that engineering leaders need to think about first when creating their hiring process from scratch, and hopefully these helped you think about how you can take your first steps in creating your own hiring process for engineers.

When you focus on these fundamentals, the rest of the hiring process becomes easier because you’ll be able to communicate your standards for character, technical skills, and interview process to assess those factors. And that’s one of the most important things when you’re just starting this process: communicating your intentions and goals to the rest of your team.

The next part of the series will continue further on the tactical pieces of the hiring process after the technical challenge. We’ll cover more about phone screens, onsite interviews, and touch a little bit on closing the candidate.

If you have any other strategies or experiences you’d like to share about engineering hiring processes. I’d love to hear them.


 

Derek Ling is Director at Talent Accelerator, a consultancy that helps startups and early-stage companies grow their most valuable asset – their people. He’s helped startups and executives hire hundreds of candidates by building meaningful talent experiences.

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