Jag Venugopal's Blog

May 21, 2009

Overlooked criteria for hiring project team members

Filed under: Project Management — Jag @ 5:46 pm

IT recruiting tends to focus only on knowledge of a specific toolset, while ignoring many other (significantly more important) attributes. This leads to substandard developers, business analysts and QA staff, who are putatively proficient in one specific version of a specific toolset, but lack the analytical, planning, and communication skills necessary to perform their jobs well.

A glance at Monster.com will reveal job positions for candidates in “C# programming using .NET 3.5, with ASPX and ADO.NET”, or the corresponding buzzwords in the Java world. Lip service is paid to a few soft skills in the job posting. The screening and interview process is oftentimes limited to validating that the prospective developer knows the desired tool set (he can identify a hammer, and given a nail, knows how to wield it). Today, companies will typically not train a new employee in their tool set, preferring instead, to hire from the market. Little thought is paid to other important criteria that are just as essential if not more so.

Some criteria to evaluate a developer:

  • How many domains has the candidate worked in? Can she talk intelligently about the business aspect of the solutions she has implemented, or is she just a code jockey? Can the candidate be trusted to understand the business problem that is being solved?
  • Given a problem, how does the developer candidate go about solving it? Does he make attempts to first understand the problem, and then develop a plan to address it, or does he dive headlong into coding? Specifically, can he break down a large task into a hierarchy of smaller tasks? Can he denote interdependencies between these smaller tasks, and estimate them? How good are his estimates? (To put it differently, how does he identify that the task needs a hammer to complete, and not a screwdriver or a saw?)
  • Can the candidate communicate well? Can she speak in complete sentences that are intelligible to others in the team? How good are her writing skills? Can she use a drawing tool such as Visio to illustrate a technical concept? (All these skills are essential in documenting a good design). Can she make a presentation to other members of the team in an intelligible manner?
  • Is the candidate teachable? Can she be taught new skills, or new ways of doing things that she already does? Or is it the case that any attempt at teaching or coaching is met with immediate resistance? Is the candidate manageable? Can they work with a project manager to plan and track the project, and report accurate status?
  • How good is the candidate’s Emotional Intelligence? Can he stay calm under pressure, or does he routinely hit the panic button? Can he get along well with other members on his team?
  • What is the candidate’s work ethic? Can they be counted on to pull through in crunch mode
  • Finally — and I kid you not — is the candidate presentable? Are they well attired? (No one expects a developer to wear a three-piece suit, but one could reasonably expect business casual attire in most IT shops, such as khakhis and collared shirts). I’ll not venture into the area of personal hygiene; suffice it to say that you’ll soon be aware of the lack if it when you’re stuck in a meeting room for two hours with no direct ventilation.

Clearly all these factors are difficult to discern in 4-8 hours of interviewing, which is typical for a permanent position and even less for a contract position. For many contractors, much of the interviewing is over the phone, making the process even more difficult. One potential approach to hiring would be to have a temp-to-perm arrangement, with an “up or out” clause. Either the candidate is hired at the end of the temp period (say, six months), or they are let go.

Additionally, businesses would do well to give thought to hiring relatively junior candidates with some of the desirable attributes mentioned above, and then growing them within the organization to progressively senior positions. After all, a toolset can be learned with some time and effort. Many of the above attributes are ingrained in a person, and not easy to change.


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