Hiring Top Talent: It's the Process

In August 2008, I was tasked with beefing up our User Interface Engineering staff for the AutoTrader Classics project.  Up until that point, managers had always been in charge of hiring new engineering staff; however, our director agreed with a suggestion that several of us made that engineers were more qualified to hire new engineers than managers.  This belief is not an indictment of our talented management team--it's only a statement that people in general are not qualified to hire for a job they don't truly understand.  So, I set about not only to hire the engineers we needed; but also to redefine our process for recruiting new talent.

37Signals suggests today that the resume is less important than the cover letter.  While I agree with their points, many companies use staffing vendors and don't generally receive any cover letters.  In the absence of such a letter, we're left with only the resume for a first impression.  These are reviewed by one of a team of Senior Engineers who focus primarily on your work experience.  Giant lists of skills with years of experience will tell the hiring company nothing that work experience will not.

Recommendation 1: Staffing vendors will want you to add a "laundry list" of skills to your resume.  Recognize that this list is for the vendor's benefit--not the hiring manager at any company.

Years of experience are downplayed; what we really look for is: "Does this candidate's resume read similarly to how our own resume looks."  This fact is a great advantage of having engineers hiring engineers--we know what it takes to be successful in our roles and can spot it far easier than someone outside the role.

From there, it's on to the phone screen. As they say, "time is money," and conducting several phone screens is far less time consuming than conducting tons of face-to-face interviews.  In our case, this screen is typically a 10-20 minute phone call where very directed technical questions are asked.  Most of them are fairly basic, but they serve two very important purposes:

  1. Resume Validation We want to see that you can actually answer questions that your resume suggests you should be able to answer easily. It is truly amazing how many people "pad" their resume so much that they quite honestly don't know what's on it.
  2. Gap Fill Your resume isn't going to hit on every point we're looking for in a candidate; we're going to use this chance to "fill in the gaps" and see if you bring more to the table.

Recommendation 2: Request a copy of the resume a staffing vendor sends to a prospective employer.  Often vendors will pad your resume themselves in hopes of making you appear more marketable.  Do not work with any vendor who insists on this practice.  You must be prepared to answer questions related to what's on your resume so you need to know exactly what's there.

Past the phone screen, it's time to move to the face-to-face interview (though this could be conducted via a web conference, it is easier, and in my opinion better, to do it in person).  We choose the panel interview as our format, 3-5 Senior Engineers (depending on the level of the positon we're hiring for) will ask questions, provide coding questions, and you'll be asked to do at least one fairly simple free-form coding exercise.  Again, there are reasons for this format:

  1. Panel Pressure Sitting up in front of a panel of Senior Engineer interviewers is daunting to say the least.  We strongly believe that grace-under-pressure is a characteristic of truly great people, and the panel is a truly organic way to see it in action.
  2. To do the job, you have to do the job I hear a lot of people saying, "I don't like coding tests in interviews." I've said it myself.  What I don't like are coding tests that are more like code reviews than exams.  We provide coding questions to see whether or not you really can jump in an work in our world.  If you can't debug some simple Javascript on command, you're likely not ready for this position.

This "grilling" typically lasts from 30-45 minutes.  The truth is, after even 15-20 minutes, we're already starting to form an opinion.  Nothing we require in an interview is truly difficult (at least, it shouldn't be for even a moderately competent engineer), and we see a lot of candidates either shine at it or fail miserably.

Recommendation 3: You may find yourself "on the bubble," you didn't breeze your way through the technical part of the interview--but you did quite well.  Personality is key!  A person on the bubble who we like will be more likely to get hired than a drone who knocked out the technical questions but bored us all to death. Never underestimate what your personality can buy you!

Those who succeed in our screening process join us as contractors for 3-6 months.  And that time period is the real interview.

Recommendation 4: Ultimately, represent yourself honestly. If you don't and you manage to sneak through a process, you will be discovered and you will be out of a job without even a quality reference to show for it.  It's better to get a job that you're qualified for and can love then to find yourself overwhelmed.