Saturday, September 1, 2007

Recruiting for Passion

As I mentioned, in my recruiting I’m looking for six key characteristics: passion for quality, skills, break-it mentality, potential, fit, and intellectual horsepower. How can you tell if a candidate has these traits, for sure?'

I think of the six attributes, passion and fit are the toughest to measure—they are soft skills and thus they’re challenging to measure. I can gauge a candidate’s coding skills by having them write code. I can probe for IHP with a few challenging puzzle questions. I can count the test cases a candidate comes up with, and I can see how far a candidate will go in their career. But knowing their true passion and measuring how well they’ll fit into my organization are much more difficult to determine. But there are a few keys I use in my interviews, and I feel I’ve been right many, many more times than I’ve been wrong.

When I look for passion, I’m looking for a candidate who’s thrilled about technology. As my current CIO pointed out recently, a passion for quality isn’t necessary a good thing – it’s putting the passion in the right place. Engineers are geeks – we get into weird things. We like to program to relax; need I say more? We’ll spend an hour arguing over the purest object-oriented method to serialize an object! That’s passion, but it doesn’t necessarily make for a good tester.
The passion I’m looking for is applied technology. Great candidates are just as excited about pure object-oriented code or simple implementations, but they want to see them put to use in a setting where technology is solving a problem. That’s the key to me – can the candidate recognize the value of technology in a given situation. I once had an acquaintance who took time from his family to head into the mountains and write haikus—then burn them. Poetry that’s never shared is a waste, and technology that has no purpose is a poor use of a department’s time and money.

Questions I like to use to probe for this passion give candidates an opportunity to talk about a problem they see and how technology can solve it. Some questions I use to get candidates talking include “What’s your favorite software product?” or “If I gave you a million dollars (or a blank check) to form a team and build a software product, what would it be?”. I’m going to pay particular attention to the problem they set out to solve, and less about how they’ll solve it.

For instance, my favorite application is Microsoft Visual Studio 2005. Look, I’m not the greatest coder in the world—I’ll admit it. But VS 2005 gets even someone like me moving quickly. The IDE environment helps me get everything done quickly – I get squigglies when I mess up, I get F1 help on pretty much any code snippet I highlight. And finally (finally!!!) I get help lining up my curly braces. The productivity contained within that application is amazing—it is to development what Word was to document processing. My productivity increases hundredfold (literally…). Pure coders will scoff at me, and that’s fine. There are a ton of engineers in this world who are highly productive with a bare bones coding environment – more power to them! But when it comes to getting the masses to get their work done, nothing can compete with VS.

Now, you can take issue with my passion for Visual Studio. But hopefully it’s a great example for passion for technology. The problem? It takes a long time to code up applications. The solution? Visual Studio, .NET frameworks, and all the other productivity tools that come with the application. There’s a clear problem and a clear solution.

What if someone offered me a blank check and told me to build any product I wanted to? It’d be a dream! The biggest opportunity (which is a key word for problem) I see for technology is small business. Enterprises have a ton of great software out there, but small business owners suffer terribly. Most solutions for their business are garage-built one-off applications which have been distributed widely. Applications are characterized as procedural spaghetti code built on proprietary technologies with little or no ability to adapt to modern technologies such as Internet technologies or handheld devices. The company that comes up with a method to apply common code and technologies to various small-biz verticals will have really solved a major problem. (BTW: if you want to talk further about this opportunity, contact me via e-mail and let’s chat – I have some answers…).

Hopefully I’m making my point clear. A candidate who goes on and on about the latest extreme programming examples or who talks about the purest object-oriented code might be a brilliant developer, but can they actually contribute in the real world? There’s no telling. But a candidate who can see how technology can be applied to day-to-day business problems is someone I want on my team.

I’ll give you a couple real world examples. I don’t remember the problem I presented him with, but I hired a tester in India for an engineering team I ran. This guy is a super-geek! I once asked him if he had any hobbies, things he does outside of work… His answer was “Yeah, I like to read up on coding on the Internet.” To be frank, I think he can code circles around most of the developers on our team, and I’m sure glad he chose test because he single-handedly took us from 15% to 90% automation on our test cases in a matter of weeks. He has a code answer for every problem we faced in testing. He’s passionate about applying his coding skills.

Another example is my SDET lead on Education Products. She is a brainiac—one of those people you’re afraid of because she’s so smart. I could hit her up with a problem we faced with testing and she’d literally build a solution in a matter of hours. It doesn’t hurt that her code looks like poetry in C#, either. She is methodical and organized in her coding and produced consistent, reliable solutions.

So the best candidates out there combine hard skills with a real-world application. Finding candidates like this to join your team makes a world of difference because they’re using their skills to solve problems – whether you’re out to make money in product software or cut costs and increased efficiency in a business, you’ll only benefit from applied technology—and hiring people with a vision for applying technology to solve real problems.

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