By Chris Andrasick, CEO

I recently watched a recruiting video series created by a start-up intended to pitch potential hires with the notion that theirs was the door behind which all the hidden talent of Silicon Valley was waiting. Each segment evoked that hipster hubris of the bygone dot.com era, beginning with an introduction by the founders – typically two or three dudes in their early thirties – espousing the next-ness of their start-up’s mission, also typically involving social and/or mobile and/or cloud with a twist they were reluctant to get specific about. These missives were followed by the inevitable shots of relaxed, loft-like office space coupled with with a continuing narrative of “play hard and work hard” (cut to foosball or Ping-Pong table in action). “You will develop mad Ping-Pong and foosball skills,” cites one of these companies in their “top ten reasons to work here” promo video. “You will get rich,” declares another.

How history repeats itself. I still remember interviewing a developer candidate during my four-year stint as a hiring manager at high-flying dot-com in 2000. I asked him, “Why do you want to work here?” He looked back at me and replied, “Well, it’s my market…so you tell me why.”
I smiled politely and ended the interview.

The software developer who will end up being your best technical hire wants three things:

  • 1. To work on interesting software projects.
  • 2. To collaborate with other software developers from whom they can learn and be challenged.
  • 3. To appreciate that the position in question fits within their overall career path.

That’s it. Everything else is superfluous and a distraction. If a candidate comes in overly concerned about stock options, the work-from-home policy, or the state of the felt on the pool table, pass.

There’s a lesson for tech companies here and it’s counter-intuitive in a market where engineering talent is scarce: now is the time to raise your hiring standards and increase the rigor of candidate evaluation. As a hiring manager competing for talent, it’s tempting to relax the process – after all, how else do you meet those headcount goals and subsequently please your over-lords? How else can you adequately staff the projects that are understaffed?

Resist the urge, because good hiring demands the art of the long view. It is expensive and time-consuming to find the right potential candidates, let alone the right fit – and even the best hires can take time to ramp up. Hiring real talent involves some of the most important decisions a technical manager can make.

At our company, we’ve developed a hiring process with these sequential requisite steps:

  • A questionnaire and coding exercise to initially evaluate writing quality and development acumen,
  • A phone screen to assess communication skills, consultative ability and general cultural fit,
  • A follow-up screen for skills competency,
  • A top-grade interview that can last hours, often covering in detail a candidate’s entire employment history,
  • A day of follow-on interviews that include paired-coding exercises and solution design sessions.

Initially, we were concerned that this type of process would be a huge turn off for candidates– why run the gauntlet when there are so many easier options available? It turns out that the opposite is true: the best talent recognizes that we approach recruitment with discipline and maturity, that those who have made the cut have been thoroughly vetted, and that we care passionately about software as craft.

There are three types of interviews that we find are pivotal to selecting qualified software developers.

The first is topgrading. As there are books dedicated to the subject, I will simply say that topgrading is an excellent technique to gain insight into a candidate’s prior job performance with questions like, “When I call So and So who was your manager at your former company, and I ask her what overall rating she would give you on a 1 to 10 scale, what do you think she will say and why?” It also filters through the resume fudge factor and gets to the core of a candidate’s prior experience. The process exposes the listed technologies and programming languages a developer really spent a lot of time working with versus those that they were adjacent to.

The second kind of interview is a paired programming exercise. An employee and the candidate sit down at a shared computer and work on the assignment together. The employee’s job is to be helpful with suggestions should the candidate get stuck on an issue for too long. The exercise demonstrates the candidate’s ability to solve real-world problems, programming instincts, use of programming tools, and ability to communicate with their fellow humans.

Finally, there is the solution design exercise. An employee plays the business stakeholder, and maps out a problem statement with the candidate that requires a software solution. The next hour is spent at the whiteboard, exploring solution designs, asking questions and getting feedback. The stakeholder politely challenges aspects of the approach by asking questions, “What if I want this solution to support a second international market next year? How much rework or extension would be required by the approach you’re advocating?” This exercise tests the engineer’s ability to interpret requirements, architect solutions and effectively communicate the thinking behind the decision-making.

Now contrast that overall impression with a VP rolling into an hour-long interview on his scooter – he’s so swamped, he’s reviewing the resume in real-time, and he’ll decide whether or not to make an offer once that hour is done. What should be a formal assessment instead becomes a crapshoot.

One key to making this all work is the respect afforded to both the candidate and the internal staff participating in the interview process. Being rigorous is not antithetical to being thoughtful, and this exercise isn’t about a company asserting itself to send a message to the entitled or to cruelly weed out mediocrity. It’s about two parties making an important, informed decision together. Candidates that don’t work out leave with clear feedback on what was missing and how they might attain some of those desired skills. These are conversations not interrogations, and even those exiting the process take with them a strong sense for your brand and your values. And that kind of viral advertising is far more authentic and appreciated than any recruiting video, as evidenced by candidate feedback during closing interviews.

And the end result? Perhaps not surprisingly, the close rate for candidates involved in this process is much higher than it was prior to our adoption of this approach, and there is a palpable sense of accomplishment discerned within those candidates who have been offered positions. After all, how many recruits do you think make it all the way through Navy Seal training only to decide to look for a career elsewhere?

About the Author: Chris Andrasick is the CEO and Founder of Tacit Knowledge, a digital commerce consultancy that delivers Silicon Valley innovation to retail organizations around the world.