Technical Interviewing – Part 2: Requirements

This is part two of a series on technical interviewing. Reading Part 1 will give you a good introduction to technical interviews and the pitfalls many interviewers fall into. Part 2 gives advice on creating a job description that makes finding a great technical candidate much easier.

Job Description

A great technical interview starts with a great job description. Great job descriptions are hand-crafted by the people who care the most about the success of the newly hired person: the gaining supervisor and team. The supervisor should put some thought into crafting the description of the responsibilities of the new hire. The new hire’s team members should check the supervisor’s vision and give feedback. Finally, the senior managers or human resources folks should take a quick pass at the description to confirm that the technical team put together something that’s comprehensible to humans. If anything is unclear, it should be explicitly spelled out. A job description should accurately describe what the person will be doing, the environment they’ll be doing it in, and, most importantly, what they must do to succeed. A lot of thought goes into the description. The description crafter needs to convey information accurately to a candidate so that they can visualize themselves in that environment. Obscuring parts of your company or the responsibilities of a candidate is a great way to waste a lot of time interviewing and producing no results, or even worse, hiring and firing candidates that just don’t seem to fit in. Interviewing can take some time as you find the person that will spend a lot of time with you and contribute to and thrive off of the culture you’re developing. The last bit of a job description is a list of technologies the candidate will be working with. I purposefully leave this to the end. This may seem like the easiest part, but it does need some thought before you pen the list of technologies you’re using.

Expressing A Technical Skill

There are a few ways to list a skill on a job description that are clear and concise. These are all useful for different purposes. The most concise way is to just prefix the skill with a qualifier: Requires 3DS Max Experience. Another way is to have 3 blocks in the job description that show all the skills that fall into the categories of Qualifiers below.

Qualifiers

  • Requires – A candidate must have technical experience in this skill.
  • Preferred – We’d really like a candidate to have experience in this skill.
  • None – Leaving of a prefix is just a way of saying “we use this technology”.

As a rule, prefer the less restrictive qualifiers unless you have very good reason to have a preference or a requirement. Why? Because most people see a requirement and back off if they don’t feel confident by their own self-measure, and that’s not a good thing. A lot of folks I’ve talked to are okay with using high requirements as a gate to weed out potential interviews. The problem with that is that you’re being vague. You’re enforcing your idea of what a required level of skill is without communicating that explicitly to the candidates. The person that evaluates their skills more humbly than you do might be the perfect fit for your team, but they won’t even apply because they don’t think of themselves as “ninja”, “guru”, or “master” of a skill. Some of you might also be asking, “What’s a good number of years of experience to put on these skills?” or “Where do the degree requirements go?”. To those folks I say, “Nowhere”. Talent isn’t measured in years of experience, degrees, or credits. Just look at the game programmer applicant with 7 years of experience in the industry who’s done nothing but UI scripting who wants to move on to AI development. He’s got the 7 years in C++ on his résumé and experience closing on 3 shipped AAA titles, but he’s fallen into the paradigm of UI scripting. Chances are he’ll apply while the guy with 1 year of indie development experience that has killer insight into AI processes is going to pass on your position that requires 2 shipped AAA titles, 5 years of industry experience using C++, and a doctorate in Applied Artificial Intelligence.

Common Cases

Take a breath and think about what type of person you want to have on your team. I’m going to generalize here for the sake of example. Below are a few common cases where you might need to hire a technical person. These cases need to represent the required skills in a completely different way to the prospective team members.

Back-Fill

The team that’s mid-project and needs to back-fill a position can’t just snatch up a body from the street that has all the right buzz words on their résumé. These teams still need to care about their company’s culture and the people they allow into their team. That means a “quick” back-fill might take longer than you’d like. A technically competent person that joins a team and siphons efficiency and destroys team cohesion will be much more costly than a person that’s a great fit that joins later. I’d rather move a deadline than destroy a team. The skills of these quick-joiners will be evaluated based on their skill with the technology the team is using. What you need at this point is someone who can come into a project and immediately pick up the slack left by a missing team member or add some velocity to a lagging project. This is the only case where I recommending listing a “Requirement” for specific technologies. If you’re making a JavaScript game (WHY!?) and you have a 3 month deadline, you need someone who knows JavaScript. There isn’t time to train someone who may be an excellent overall developer in the finer points of JavaScript game development.

The Junior Candidate

The junior candidate positions exist somewhere between the extreme position above and the general rule below. Junior candidates are great to talk to when you’re considering the future of your company or team. Junior folks generally have a lower price tag and can be more easily molded into your culture and technical standards. They most likely haven’t had time to learn great technical truths yet though. They either have the basics they’ve been taught in college, which are difficult to ascertain from college to college, or they’re self-taught technical people who are driven enough to solve the problems they’ve faced and may have holes in their general domain knowledge. When crafting technology listings for these types of positions the relevant technology should be listed listed as “Preferred”. When hiring a junior candidate you know that there will be mentoring required. You know that the innate knowledge of your technology may or may not be there. The uncertainty of the quality of knowledge these candidates have with a particular technology is okay. What you really want from these candidates is not their technology experience, it’s their raw talent. You get to cultivate a talented person and give them the skills you need for both of you to succeed. Competency will be tested, so don’t think that junior developers are exempt from analysis, but you don’t want to try to find someone with the knowledge of 5 years of experience with Photoshop for a junior position – you want an intelligent person that can learn and that is flexible enough to use wherever technical skill you require of them.

The Subject Matter Expert

Sometimes you really need someone who has experience in a technology or specific set of domain knowledge. If you’re making games and you need an engine programmer to lead your team, go ahead and add “Experience with engine Development” as a requirement. Just don’t require 5 shipped titles, post-graduate work in AI and 20 years of experience. Let people surprise you with their knowledge. Test for technical knowledge, don’t filter on time-in-domain.

The Permanent Hire

Now that the exceptions are out of the way, let’s get to the rule. I don’t want to see someone hiring a full-time long-term developer and requiring a specific language or an artist requiring a specific set of tools. I want to see what tools and technologies you’re using in the job description, but it better be at most a “Preference” and not a “Requirement”. Why? Because you don’t really want a Python developer even though you’re developing in Python. You don’t want a Photoshop artist even though you’re creating content with Photoshop. You want someone who views tools or languages as a set of clothes that are worn for particular occasions. The people who are able to change those “clothes” more frequently than a character in Downton Abbey are the ones that have true skill and talent at their core art. They understand the concepts and problems that the tools solve. What you really want is a great skilled candidate, and that’s the point of this article. A competent developer/artist/technical person is going to easily switch from one tool to another. Now, make sure that you do indicate all the technologies and tools that you use. It’s frustrating for a person that only likes to develop in C# to get through an interview only to find out that the company only develops in VB.Net.

Traits

Traits are different from the skills identified in the previous section. A skill can be acquired by simply reading a book or taking a class and then developed over time. Traits are much more difficult to acquire. These are generally developed over time with experience. That’s not to say that junior people lack traits. A passionate person can invest the time necessary to develop a trait. Since traits are difficult to train, these are much more important than skills, which can be taught easily. If you want to hire quality people and build a world-class team, you’ll hire people for their traits and mold their skills. Traits may or may not make it to a job description, but the traits you find relevant to the position must be evaluated. These Here are some examples of critical traits for technical people of various types:

  • Willing Learner
  • Passionate Technologist
  • Clear Communicator
  • Critical Thinker
  • Abstract Thinker
  • Plays well with Others
  • Spatial Awareness
  • Calm Under Pressure

Technical Interviewing: Part 3

This part of the series has been all about the job description which will prepare both you and prospective candidates for part 3: The Technical Interview Process. Part 3 lays out a structure for how to handle the process of funneling applicants through a pipeline to the interview table.

Resources

EntreLeadership: 20 Years of Practical Business Wisdom from the Trenches