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Engineering Leadership Guide – How To Build A Hiring Process for Engineering – Part 2

In Part 1 of our How to Build a Hiring Process for Engineering series, we introduced you to a 4-step framework for building a successful hiring process.

By now, you’ve identified which candidates meet your minimum standards, so it’s time to take it to the next level: figuring out if they’re the best fit for the role. After reading Part 1, you’re already halfway there.

  • You’ve defined the character traits that you look for.
  • You’ve defined the standards that you want in an engineering candidate.
  • And you’ve come up with a process to conduct the first phone screens and technical screens with a code challenge tool.

Now you need to conduct a deeper assessment of a candidate’s technical skills and evaluate the chemistry you have with the candidate. Think about it:

You wouldn’t invite a stranger into your home without knowing a little bit about them.

You wouldn’t buy a car without test-driving it.

You wouldn’t take a road trip without your phone or GPS system.

And you wouldn’t spend six figures on an engineer without knowing what you’re getting.

Why should your hiring process be any different?

Whether you’re considering someone fresh out of college, self-trained, or with significant experience, you need to create an assessment process that evaluates these candidates in a consistent and unbiased manner. Every hire needs to be able to play a specific role on your team and have the ability to help you ship software quickly, reliably, and scalably.  The question you have to answer is what type of players are you looking to help you build a 10x team?

Every hire should have the ability or potential to do what you need to accomplish in your engineering organization. Hiring is not a game where you throw darts and hope for the best.

Getting the Most out of Your Phone Screen

In the first two phases of the Evaluate Your Hiring Bar, we covered the first phone screen and the technical challenge. Here’s a quick recap.

The three main goals of the first phone screen are:

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

The goals for the technical challenge are:

  • Gather evidence that they are strong technically by reviewing their ability to code
  • Screen candidates objectively and reliably

These two activities can be largely automated with support from your recruiting team for phone screens and technical challenges.

Here’s the thing, hiring is still a people-oriented activity. It’s not a task that you can execute with a formula and get the exact same results every time. However, it is something that can be structured to increase your probability of getting it right. With the right framework and mindset, you can make sure you’re always evaluating the best potential people for your team.  

At the same time, we’re facing an unprecedented amount of competition for the best candidates so you’ll have to go above and beyond to get that 95 percent NPS score in your candidate experience in order to attract the best people to your company once you’ve identified them.  The Wall Street Journal reports:

“Workers are choosing to leave their jobs at the fastest rate since the internet boom 17 years ago and getting rewarded for it with bigger paychecks and/or more satisfying work.”

So how does that affect your hiring process? I recommend that hiring managers perform a second phone screen before committing to an onsite interview.

The Hiring Manager Phone Screen

Two phone screens may seem unnecessary at first glance but the Hiring Manager phone screen is one of the most important parts of the hiring process. It’s your first opportunity to build a connection with a potential new hire on your team.  With this phone screen, hiring managers get a chance to to see firsthand if a candidate’s working styles will mesh well with them and the rest of the team. You’ll also be able to get a better grasp for the candidates career aspirations and whether the opportunity on your team is a match.

Essentially, you’re looking for “work chemistry.” It’s what happens when you get a group of people who effectively collaborate and work well together.

A 2017 report on job satisfaction found that 50 percent of employees found relationships with supervisors were “very important.” But, only 46 percent of employees were satisfied with their current relationship with their supervisors. That’s concerning.

Luckily, that’s solvable by asking questions that give you a sense of what it would be like to manage this person, which is exactly what we’re doing in this phone screen.

Ask broad questions and go deep

Here are a few open-ended questions that you could ask to evaluate three distinct areas for a Senior Backend Engineer: technical expertise, work chemistry, and career/role fit. Start off with a broad question like, “What’s the most impactful system or project that you built at your current company?”. Then, follow up with a series of open-ended questions from the list below.

Technical Competence:

  • What were the goals of the project?
  • How did the project integrate with existing systems?
  • What were the implementation details?
  • Can you provide me with details on the architecture of said system and how decisions were made?
  • What deployment process did you use and how was it established?
  • What unforeseen challenges did you encounter during the project and what did you learn from them?

Work Chemistry:

  • What was your role vs. others on the team like product management, marketing, and sales?  How did you help contribute in areas like product roadmapping, defining feature requests, and prioritization of tasks?
  • How long was the system projected to take to build?  Did the project ship on time? If not, why not? What would you have done differently in retrospect?

Career / Role Fit:

  • What does your ideal role look like in your next job?
  • In the next three years, what programming languages (e.g. Python, GO, and Java) and industries (e.g. machine learning, AI, and genetics) would you like to be an expert in?
  • What are characteristics of the engineering culture at your current company that you think all teams would benefit from? What are characteristics that you think detract from productivity or empowerment of employees?
  • What management style would you say you perform best in? Ask for examples of instances where their manager was able to mentor them in an effective way.

Goals for the Hiring Manager Phone Screen

Like the “Blind Men and an Elephant” parable, you are shining a light on how the candidate works with others, the role he played on the project, and why they made specific technical decisions. You’re also unearthing the vision they have for their career and developing a priority list of the their motivations to join a new company. A leader on the team will have thoughtfully articulated responses and reflections on how they would improve their approach if they were to undertake a similar project. A bystander on the other hand will have difficulty providing strong reasoning and framing in the discussion.

Think: What’s in it for the candidate? ABC…Always Be Closing

Another reason we do a phone screen with the hiring manager is to connect on a deeper technical level. You can describe the technical challenges and projects on the product roadmap along with cutting edge technical solutions.

The Hiring Manager phone screen is also a great opportunity to further convince the best candidates that your company and the role you’re hiring for is a great fit for them. You can sell the vision of what her career can look like in such a way that no other company can compete. It’s critical that you discuss your track record of success developing both technical and non-technical skills in your team members to differentiate your value proposition as their career sherpa.

It’s a balance. To make our hiring process efficient, we want to have a clear understanding of the motivating factors that captured the candidate’s attention and convinced her to get on a call with both you and the recruiter. It’s only after you’ve identified those motivating factors that you can start soft selling the right incentives that will hook her into proceeding to the onsite interview. This phone screen does that while also digging deeper on a technical level. It allows you to get context around how she works and what it would look like if she worked on your team.  

If you feel confident about the candidate, it’s time to move them to the on-site visit.

In the next part of this series, we’ll cover tips and frameworks on how to prepare both candidates and your teams for the onsite interview.  Are there tips or frameworks that you use during your phone screens that increase the probability of success? Share them below to help others get an idea of what makes your company’s hiring process great.


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.

Comments (2)

  • I am excitedly waiting for the second part of the “How To Build A Hiring Process for Engineering”? Thanks for the nice information.

  • That was a really awesome article.

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