September 14, 2020

How to Minimize Your Risk of Hiring the Wrong Person For Your Engineering Team

By Luke Whitson

Editor’s Note: This blog is a takeaway from our podcast, Scaling Software Teams. In our interview with Raman Ohri, we discussed how to hire great developers while minimizing the chance of a mis-hire. For a full write-up on this episode, check out this blog. For a full write-up on this episode, check out this blog. You can subscribe to our podcast on iTunes, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Hiring great engineers is hard, and the faster your organization is growing, the harder it is.

You need to get talented people in the door today in order to hit your product roadmap goals, but the U.S. Department of Labor estimates that the cost of hiring the wrong employee is at least 30% of their first year’s salary.

That puts a lot of pressure on software leaders to get the decision right, and no one is immune from mistakes. Even Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh once estimated bad hires had cost the company well over $100 million.

So, what can you do in your hiring process to minimize the likelihood that you hire the wrong person? We sat down with Raman Ohri, President of SEP (Software Engineer Professionals) – a software development shop that connects engineers directly with clients for in-house work – to discuss this exact issue.

Because these engineers are expected to represent SEP in front of clients on a regular basis, every new hire comes with huge risk for Raman and his team.

“At the end of the day, everybody loses if I convince a candidate to come here and they shouldn’t, or if a candidate convinces me to hire them and I shouldn’t,” Raman said.

Consequently, Raman’s team has built a hiring process that is designed to be incredibly risk averse.

Most standard interview and selection processes go something like this:

  • A candidate submits their resume
  • You do a phone screen where you ask them questions, mostly about their resume
  • You do an in-person interview where you ask them questions, mostly about their resume

But look closer – instead of extracting information that the resume couldn’t provide in the second stage, you’re just learning more information about what you already know, which hardly gives you a better view of the candidate.

Raman’s team, on the other hand, takes a different tact, using each stage in the process as a filter to learn something new about the applicant – answering three specific questions along the way:

Question #1 For Avoiding a Mis-Hire: Are They Smart?

Contrary to conventional wisdom, aptitude for a job is not the same as past experience. Raman doesn’t really care how much experience you have – he cares about how much skill you have and how well you can translate that skill into results for clients now.

His team partners with Woven to send custom-tailored work scenarios to each candidate early in the application process. This equips SEP with detailed information about each candidate’s technical, problem-solving, and collaboration skills. They also receive recommended interview questions for each candidate, so they can dive deeper on specific areas of strength or weakness based on their actual performance in a work scenario.

This is key to SEP’s hiring process, because it provides in-depth information about capabilities that go beyond coding ability. Unlike an off-the-shelf coding assessment that can only measure code quality, the scenarios that SEP uses have been custom-tailored to their specific needs.

Question #2 For Avoiding a Mis-Hire: Do They Deliver?

After SEP filters out candidates without the technical, communication, or collaboration skills required for the role, they’re able to focus on their next criterion of a successful hire: Do they deliver?

Raman admits on the podcast that this is the hardest thing for him to screen for in an interview, but it’s also among the most important.

“Are they the type of person who always finds a way to get there, or are they the kind of person that always finds a reason they can’t get there?” Raman asks.

One of the benefits of using an hour-long assessment in the early stage of an interview is that several candidates who don’t deliver on what they promise will self-select out of the process.

It’s not a foolproof filter, though, so here are a few litmus tests that you can use to gauge this in your own interview process:

  • Ask a behavioral-based question about a tough situation: “It’s 3pm on a Friday and a project is due at 5. It’s going to take eight hours to complete the project based on the scoped work. What do you do?”
  • Ask an experienced-based question about a tough situation: “Tell me about a time you were really behind the 8-Ball on a project and you managed to deliver. What happened?”
  • Ask an easy question about the company to see if they did their homework: “So, from your perspective, who do you think the typical user of our software is?”

Question #3 For Avoiding a Mis-Hire: Do They Align With Our Values?

This leads to the final criterion that Raman’s team screens for: cultural alignment.

By the time a candidate makes it to this point, they have proven that they can do the work by doing a work-based scenario. They’ve also provided enough evidence that they do what needs to get done and have the requisite grit to overcome obstacles.

Now, you’re picking from a crop of candidates that will all be able to do the job effectively, and it’s your responsibility to find the one that aligns best with your cultural values.

At this stage in the process, however, SEP looks beyond “culture fit” and focuses instead on a candidate’s authenticity. For Raman, being inauthentic is one of the fastest ways to get screened out of this stage of the process.

“Be yourself,” Raman advised. “You put the veneer on, and we might not figure out who you really are, but we’ll know you had the veneer on and we won’t take the risk.”

Additionally, they’re looking for individuals that are able to build on top of the SEP culture, not merely mesh with it. This is where pointed questions can be essential for a candidate to stand out.

Raman describes a top-tier “cultural addition” to SEP like this: “Within a relatively short period of time, someone who both champions and pushes our culture. I want them to question ‘I thought we were about this, and this feels completely contrary to that.’”

Conclusion: Avoiding Mis-Hires Starts And Ends With Smarter Screening

Each part of your screening process should be crafted to learn something that you didn’t learn in the step before, so here are a few ways you can implement a smarter screening process on your team today:

  • Use an evidence-based screening solution to prove capabilities: Raman starts his screening process with proof that candidates can do the work, allowing him to avoid screening out people who could be great fits for his team, but who don’t have the resume to back it up. Try using a custom-tailored solution like Woven instead of an off-the-shelf coding assessment to get better candidates into your interviews.
  • Ask a softball question about your company: People who deliver tend to do their homework. By asking questions that they can glean the answer to in ten seconds on your home page, you’re likely to screen out candidates that didn’t bother to do their research.
  • Hire for authenticity and honesty: At the end of the day, you’re hiring a person, not a skill set. It doesn’t matter how talented someone may be, if they’re not honest and authentic with you, they’re likely to be a nightmare for the rest of your team.

Are you planning on growing your software team this year?

If so, Woven could be a great solution to help you hire better developers. Request a demo of our software to learn more, and subscribe to the Scaling Software Teams podcast to receive discussions with high-growth software leaders every Monday.