Don’t hire team members like they’re consultants

4 minute read

There’s a problem I keep seeing when helping my clients, providing career coaching to job seekers, and participating in interviews myself: Tech companies consistently take the wrong approach when hiring for new team members.

Let’s set up a couple of use cases…

Comparing apples…

Your product has an urgent technical need. Maybe you need to integrate with a new system which uses unfamiliar protocols. Perhaps a creaky old legacy system needs shoring up or replacement. Or maybe you’ve acquired another company and need to convert their billing system over to use your tooling. Whatever it is, it has to happen and it has to happen now.

What you need is a consultant: Someone who’s intimately familiar with the technology causing your immediate problems. Someone who can dive right in, change some code, then get right out. Someone who’ll take a month or six, make the technical pain go away, and then leave for the next gig.

That’s use case number one.

…to oranges.

Now let’s say your company has an open req. Maybe you’re replacing someone who’s moved on. Maybe you’re expanding the team as the company grows and scales. Or perhaps you’re moving into a whole new product or market area. Whatever your reason for hiring, it needs to happen and it needs to be done right rather than right now.

What you need is a team member. Someone who’s able to collaborate, communicate, innovate, and deliver. Someone who’ll commit to the team and the company, who’s in it for the long haul. Most importantly, you need someone who’s able to learn and adapt along with the company’s needs.

That’s use case number two.

Two use cases, one hiring approach

When the differences between these two hiring use cases are so stark, and when the costs of hiring/firing/replacing a poor choice are so high, why does nearly every tech company hire team members as though they’re hiring a consultant? Job postings focus on the current tooling and products rather than factor in future plans. Interviews focus on the immediate technical knowledge and abilities of candidates, rather than on the candidates’ capabilities for learning and adapting. Companies hire the wrong people for the wrong reasons, then are surprised to find they can’t scale or adapt to meet strategic goals.

There are several reasons why this continues to happen. For starters, very few tech companies are equipped with people who have experience with a proper hiring process. Rather than approaching the process like the complex project that it is and gathering requirements before taking action, hiring managers do the best they can with the little information they have. When faced with an unfamiliar situation, we fall back on what we know. In the case of hiring, this typically means copying and pasting a job posting rather than considering the strategic requirements for a role.

It also means interviewing people for skills they have now rather than for the skills they’ll need in order to move the team and company toward their goals. If you’ve never been trained to think strategically about hiring, you’re unlikely to ask strategic interview questions. Again, we fall back on what we know, and what we know is our own tech stack and our own immediate problems. We ask questions about the things foremost in our minds rather than considering the long term needs of the group. This makes it much easier for untrained interviewers to determine a thumbs-up/thumbs-down on a candidate. Do they know our tech? No? Then they’re not a good fit. The question of whether they can learn your tech never even occurs to us. We’re focused on the now rather than the future.

This short-sighted interview strategy is employed in nearly every tech team regardless of industry and makes a expensive trade: the team’s long-term success for the immediate comfort of the interview committee. Otherwise exceptional candidates are rejected in favour of mediocre ones who have more familiarity with the technologies used but less ability to communicate, learn, and adapt. They interview for consultants rather than for team members and the long-term health of the team suffers.

We can do better

It won’t be easy to do, but this is a fixable problem. You can start it in your team today.

First, give more thought to your job postings. Don’t simply copy and paste from the last time you were hiring for this role. Consider not only what the person hired will do in their first month but also how you’ll need them to adapt and make a difference in their first year and beyond. Craft a posting to reflect the long-term needs of the team, not simply seeking someone to scratch an immediate itch you’re feeling.

Next, take the time to seek out and provide training for those performing the interviews. You probably wouldn’t let your brand new intern make changes to a vital production system without a lot of training, yet we regularly have untrained people perform interviews. As with many other elements of software development, interviewing is a skill and must be learned and practiced. There are people who can provide this training, or you can take the time to learn interviewing skills yourself then pass them on to the rest of the team. Experiential interviewing, bias limitation, and strategic thinking are just a few of the skills required for effective interviewing.

Naturally there are other steps for improving the tech hiring process, but these two would be a very good start. Hiring well requires both intention and attention. Don’t throw away the precious opportunity to build something great by phoning it in and treating a long-term investment in the team like a short term investment in a consultant.