Monday, May 3, 2021

How to hire well

How I've learned to hire

I’ve done a lot of hiring and I’ve learned what works and what doesn’t work to make a good hire (someone who performs well and stays). I’ve come to trust my judgment but only within the confines of a hiring process that covers my blind spots. Here’s a description of what I typically like to do, but bear in mind this is an amalgamation of processes from different employers.

To be clear: what I say in this blog post might not reflect current or previous hiring processes at my current or former employers. I'm presenting a mix of processes with the goal of giving you insight into one amalgamated hiring process and how one hiring manager thinks.

Principles - caution, excitement, 'no', and decency

The hiring process is fraught for both parties. We're both trying to decide if we want to spend extended amounts of time with each other. The hiring manager wants someone who will fit in, perform well, and will stay. The applicant wants to work in an environment that suits them and rewards them appropriately. No one enjoys the interviewing process and everyone wants to get what they want quickly. This suggests the first principle: caution. It's easy to make a mistake when the pressure is on and the thing that will save you is having a good process.

Once the process starts, I try and follow an ‘excite and select’ approach. I want to excite candidates by meeting the team and by the whole interview process and I want them to feel energized by what they experience. I then select from enthusiastic and excited candidates.

My default position is always ‘no’ at all stages. If I’m in doubt, I sleep on it and say ‘no’ the next day. On occasions, I’ve been under a great deal of pressure to make a hire, but this attitude has saved me from hiring the wrong person. Even in the US, unwinding a bad hiring decision is extremely painful, and in Europe, it can be almost impossible. It’s far better to be sure than take a risk. I’ve only changed my mind after a ‘no’ once, and that turned out to be a good decision that I stand by.

My next principle is being humane. The interview process is stressful and I want to treat candidates well and with respect at every stage. Even if they’ve been rejected, I want them to feel good about the process. Let's be honest, sometimes there's just a mismatch of skills - I've said no to some really great people.


(Interviews should be friendly and humane, not an interrogation or a stress test. Image credit: Noh Mun Duek, license: Creative Commons, source: Wikimedia Commons.)

The hiring process

The job ad

I like to think very carefully about the wording of the job ad. It has to excite and attract candidates, but it also has to be honest and clear about the job.

I've had a few candidates who've misunderstood the job and that's become clear at the screening interview. To stop this from happening, I've sometimes created a longer form job description I've sent to candidates we've selected for screening. The longer form description describes more about the role and provides some background about the company. Some candidates have withdrawn from the process after seeing the longer form description and that's OK - better for everyone to stop the process sooner if there's no match.

Resume selection

This is an art. Here are some of the factors I consider for technical positions.

  • A Github page is real plus. I check out the content.
  • Blog posts (personal or company) or content for marketing is a plus.
  • Mention of methods and languages. Huge shopping lists of languages are a bad sign. I also want to know what they've done with languages and methods.
  • Clear descriptions of what they've done, with a focus on the technical piece. I prefer straightforward language.
  • Training courses. Huge shopping lists are again a no for me.

I don't tend to select on the college someone went to but I know lots of organizations that do.

The screening interview

The first interview is a screening interview with me as the hiring manager. I do this via video call so I can get a sense of the person’s responses and their ability to interact. I always have a script for these calls and always follow the same process. I work out the areas I want to talk about and create the best questions I can to differentiate between candidates. The script gives me a more consistent (and fairer) way to compare candidates and also enables me to learn what works and what doesn’t. For example, if candidates find a question confusing, or everyone answers a question well, I can change the question. For behavioral questions, I ask for examples of the behavior and my technical questions are usually around experience. Here are some examples:

  • Can you give me an example of how you dealt with conflicting demands?
  • Can you tell me about a time you managed an underperforming employee?
  • What’s the largest program you’ve written?
  • What are the biggest limitations of Python?

These questions are launch points for deeper discussions.

The technical screen

Next comes a technical screening. Again, this must be the same for all candidates. It must be fair and allow for nervousness. 

I'm very careful about the technical questions that my interview team asks. I make sure that people are asked relevant questions that reveal the extent of their knowledge and skills. For example, if my team were interviewing someone for a machine learning position, I would ask about their use of key libraries (e.g. caret), but I wouldn't ask them about building SVMs or random forest models from scratch unless that's something they'd be doing.

Cultural fit and add

Finally, there are in-person interviews. I like to use teams of two where I can so two people can get a read. Any more than two and it starts to feel like an interrogation. Each team has a brief for the areas they want to probe and a list of questions they want to ask. 

Team selection is something of an art; I’ve known interviewers who are unable to say ‘no’ to any candidate, no matter how bad. If I have to include someone like this on the interview team, I’ll balance them with someone who can say no.  

I’ve heard of companies doing all-day interviews, but this seems like overkill to me and it stresses the interviewee; there’s a balance here between thoroughness and being human. For in-person interviews, I ensure that every team offers the candidate a drink or time out to visit the restroom. 

Where I can, I have the very last interview as a discussion with the candidate, asking them what went well and what went badly in the process. Sometimes candidates answer a question badly and use the discussion opportunity to better answer the question. Everyone makes mistakes and interviews are stressful, it seems like a good opportunity to offer the candidate a pause for reflection and an opportunity to correct errors.

I always look for the ability to work well with others and I value that over technical skills. A good technical person can always learn new technical skills, but it's very difficult to train someone not to be a jerk.

Decision making

Before we go to a decision, I find people the candidate may have interacted with who are not on the interview team. Many times, I’ve asked the receptionist how the candidate treated them. On one occasion, a candidate upset the receptionist so badly, they came to me and told me what had happened. It was an instant ‘no’ from that point.

To decide hire or no hire, I gather the interview teams together and we have a discussion about the candidate. If consensus exists to hire, most of the time I go ahead and make an offer but only after probing to make sure this is a considered opinion of everyone in the room. On a few occasions, I’ve overruled the group and said no. This happens when I think some factor is very important but the group hasn’t considered it well enough. If the decision is a uniform no, I don’t hire. I reserve the right to overrule the group, but it’s almost inconceivable I’d overrule a uniform no. If the view of the group is mixed, I probe those in favor and those against. In almost all cases where views are mixed, I say no - this is part of my default ‘no’ position.

The benefits

I know this process sounds regimented, but there are important benefits. The first is fairness for candidates; everyone is treated the same and there’s a consistent set of filters. The second is learning; if the process is wrong or has failed in some respect, we can fix it. Thirdly, the process is inclusive - the team has a huge say in who gets hired and who doesn’t.

If hiring and retaining good staff is important, then it’s important to have a fair, decent, and thorough hiring process. Through years of experience, I’ve honed my process and I’ve been pleased that the companies I’ve worked for have all had similar underlying processes and similar principles.

Good luck

If you"re searching for a job, I hope this post has given you some insight into a hiring process and what you have to do to succeed. Good luck to you.

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