Our industry is one of big pictures and details, breadth and depth. Depending on where you work, you may wear many hats, or you may focus on only a single facet of a single environment. People can be Generalists_(as covered in previous VIP Perspective blogs) or you can be Specialists. Yet, at the end of the day, many job descriptions for roles across the internet look the same. Interviews are often conducted similarly - whether you are speaking with an individual, or a panel of prospective co-workers, engineers that conduct interviews focus on what they feel comfortable with, technology.
Existing technology competence is 1/4 of the equation when it comes to finding the right people.
Let me repeat that again - it is only 1/4 of the equation. I've been doing interviews on a steady basis for several years now - I average 20+ a quarter. In my company’s line of business, finding the right people is tantamount - as we are a customer-facing Systems Integrator. I do not have all of the answers but I'd like to share a few opinions and what I've found to work in recruiting high-quality engineers for high performance teams.
While this should go without saying, unless you are an axe-man, you have to get along with the people you work with. Personality is a major facet, but also consider the person's value systems. I am not talking about religion or political belief - I am talking about an individual's priorities and why they want to work for you.
- Do they value being part of a team?
- Do they enjoy collaborating openly?
- Are they more interested in individual recognition or team success?
- Are they an egoist or are they a selfless contributor?
- Do they enjoy both learning from and teaching others?
- Finally, do they show a healthy respect for everyone regardless of technical competence?
High performance teams are built around great people all bringing unique skill sets to the table, then allowing the team to form bonds and exchange knowledge. Without ensuring the individuals’ possess the right cultural motivations and priorities, this can become quite difficult.
A little secret for those of you new to this industry - everyone has something to teach you. Even if you are a quadruple CCIE with a Ph.D. in astrophysics, there will be a server admin, HR rep, or Sales rep that will teach you a profound lesson somewhere in your career. Ensuring you build your team with people open to those experiences is critical in forming the correct culture.
This goes far beyond the ability to read and write English_(or your locale's predominant language) - it also involves the candidate's ability to formulate coherent talking points, ability to create presentations, and the ability to articulate complex concepts in a straight forward way. You can always find experts who can stand up in front of a group and proceed to write what amounts to WingDing on the whiteboard. This is not effective communication if their audience is C-level project sponsors with business backgrounds. Whether you work for an enterprise and your customers are internal, a Service Provider, an OEM or a Systems Integrator/VAR, you will need to communicate with other human beings in their language, bridging potential technical gaps to find a common ground.
- Do they employ inquiry to engage their audience?
- Are they actively listening or just tolerating others while they speak?
- Do you feel a genuine sense when you finish your conversation with them?
- Do they write eloquently enough to avoid sounding like a 4th grader?
- Do they tend to use proper grammar and punctuation?
It does not matter if you can make a router do the Waltz if you cannot have a constructive conversation with project sponsors, customers, your boss, team mates, etc. The days of engineers getting locked in closets to be hidden away from customers to be a mad scientist is quickly going the way of the Dodo - adapt or perish!
Poorly written communication is a pet peeve of mine, I will admit that right now. For all of the investment engineers make into their technical capabilities, written communication is often grouped in with "documentation", which is an evil term for most. Do not underestimate the power of hiring eloquent engineers!! Any perception of professionalism can be lost when proper grammar and punctuation is not used in email, letters, documents, etc. Text messages are one thing, but to let that behavior become the standard for all written communications is a great opportunity to ruin first impressions. As an example, people should not be regularly inserting local colloquialisms, slang, or locality-specific language diosyncrasies when producing written work. Leave that to verbal conversations where they belong.
One last thing on this particular topic - healthy conflict is good. Great in fact. It can be the source of great ideas, resolution of issues, and can often build a great deal of cohesion within a team. Without productive and healthy communication skills, healthy conflict can be impossible to attain. There are other variables that come into play, yes, but these are foundational skills.
Learning Capacity and Adaptability
This is where the bread and butter of a good engineer comes into play - but is often overlooked! I have been the interviewee on many an occasion where they are interested only in what I know, not what I can learn or become. Extant knowledge is perishable and it’s shelf life is roughly six to twelve months in our career field. The challenge can be in a time-limited phone call or in-person meeting, developing strategies to challenge the candidate to learn a new bit of info on the fly and apply it on the spot.
Does the candidate openly enjoy learning new technologies? Do they have a history of branching out and conquering new realms of IT? Do they ask the right questions during the interview to show they are actively investigating the opportunity you, as an employer, will present?
As far as adaptability goes, business needs change over time. Is the candidate a diva and only wants to do one thing, or are they willing to lean-in and do what it takes to make the team successful? A term I’ve come to embrace from an talented colleague of mine is “doing the dirty work well”. Your team members need to be willing to do what it takes, regardless of their personal title or job role. That is what adaptability is all about.
Putting It All Together
After reading through all of this, you may be thinking "this is not a technical interview! I did not sign up to be a self-help activist or psychologist!". That can be a natural reaction from someone not used to all of these "touchy feely" subjects. This is often a responsibility left to management and HR - but to enable your technical experts to evaluate for these traits cannot be over-emphasized. The co-workers of the candidate will know what dynamic the team requires to fit into the existing culture. If the management/team leads desire to change the dynamic of the team, coach the engineers. Do not hijack the future of the team, instead mentor the group to steer the culture and team dynamic internally.
As engineers, I challenge everyone to embrace the opportunity to actively participate in shaping your workplace and your daily work experience. Whether you interview dozens of people a month or just a few a year, this time investment will pay off in spades if done correctly.
I truly hope this topic brought a few ideas to the surface for you and to help drive conversations about your interviewing process. If there is sufficient interest in this topic I can write a follow-on post to describe some specific strategies and techniques to identify these traits in candidates.
Thank you for reading!