Saturday, October 10, 2009

Hire for attitude

I was chatting with someone the other day (as opposed to chatting with myself - but that is another story...) about the state of talent in our industry. I relayed to him a quote I learned from Michelle Jackman ( many years ago: Hire for attitude and train for skills.

Given that I heard this from Michelle in 1988, it is among the most impressionable things I’ve learned in my career. Along the way, I’ve discovered a few things that help me assess a potential team member’s attitude. This is not an exhaustive list, and I welcome your thoughts.

Focus on principles, not tools
The best candidates (and subsequently, hires) have been the ones with whom I’ve had a conversation about software engineering fundamentals and principles. How do they view design? How do they view build management? Does the art and discipline of software development excite them? If none of this matters to them, I don’t care if they know languages and data structures.

You may be asking, “How do you know if they actually have skills, though? These sound like philosophical conversations.” You are correct - they are about philosophy. However, if you dig deeper, you’ll realize the candidate has developed their philosophy through their experience and learning. A candidate can’t talk to me intelligently about multi-branch, concurrent release management unless she has dealt with it in her career. I don’t necessarily care if she has used CVS, Subversion, Jazz, or ClearCase. What I care about is that she experienced the challenges with this and has developed principles about release management that are consistent with (or will add to) mine.

In addition to software engineering principles, a person must love to learn. I ask things like what websites and journals they subscribe to. I ask them what the last couple of books are that they’ve read. Candidates that come up blank are not asked back. If the candidate shows no interest in learning on their own, they aren’t going to be fit on my team.

Focus on customers, not process
I want to know if the candidate wants to be left alone to code or understands that we build software for people. If the candidate shows little to no interest in the customer, they don’t get on my team, regardless of talent.

I had a key senior architect who I wanted to accompany me on a customer visit. This was a key customer, with a team of highly technical staff. My guidance to my architect consisted of something like, “We are visiting customer ABC, to discuss our foo-bar capability. They are going to have several of their technical folks at the meeting. I want you to discuss our architecture with them. Take care; I’m on the road for the next couple of weeks. See you at the customer.”

He prepared customer friendly architecture drawings. He kept me posted on progress and asked my thoughts about the overall level of discussion and breadth of topics. In other words, he demonstrated the attitude that customers are important, and that we need to be prepared when meeting with them. That attitude, by the way, was infused into his designs.

His response was exactly what I expected based on our conversations during the hiring process. My faith in him was not drawn from his technical ability (although it was very high). It was drawn from knowing his attitude about software engineering and customers.

Concluding example
I once was approached by a person who wanted to join my team. He was a developer earlier in his career and then a manager for several years. He realized he was happier as a developer and saw an opening on our team. On the surface, there was no reason to hire him. He hadn’t developed in years and was pretty rusty with his technical skills.

Since this was an internal candidate, I took him to lunch as a courtesy. In the course of the conversation, I was impressed with his work ethic, empathy for the challenges of management, and his strong customer-centric approach to software development. Late in the conversation, I told him flatly that I loved his attitude, but had concerns about his ability to develop after being out of it for many years.

He assured me he would spend his own time re-learning languages and environments. This was one of those “look a person in the eyes and judge whether he is sincere or not” moments. I judged him to be sincere. He went through the rest of the interview process, and we agreed to hire him, strictly on attitude. After all, how often do you get a chance to bring someone with management experience and a customer focus onto your development team?

Results? He became one of our most trusted developers. He won company awards and frequently was asked to personally address issues with top customer accounts. His attitude of self-motivation, customer focus, and results were the keys to his success. Yes – I could have hired a person with a couple years of programming experience that on paper would have “coded circles around him.” But the results would not have come close to what this person delivered in his years working for me.

Think about how you acquire talent. Do you engage candidates in meaning dialogue about learning, customers, and principles of software engineering?

No comments: