How to Hire a Great Engineer

By Soo Somerset, Green Mars CEO and Dave Jackson, Green Mars Founder & CTO

Consider the “Engineer” versus the “Coder”

When you want to hire someone to write software, you start by looking at their resume for the technology you need. However, their real skills are in their ability to design a maintainable solution, to set and manage expectations, to communicate clearly and promptly, and to deliver quality on schedule. If you can find a candidate with those skills, you can hire with confidence! But, how do you find them?

Solve the Technical Interview Problem

Technical interviews are a time-honored tradition for software engineering positions, and they’re as quaint as a rotary phone. Typically technical interviews consist of logic puzzles, re-implementing well-established algorithms, or solving esoteric problems that have nothing to do with the work — they’re often a mirror-fogging waste of time.

This is a genuine problem, as the cost of hiring (and replacing) engineers is extremely high, and the technical interview is often an overlooked opportunity to maximize the chances that the hire is going to be a fit.

Use Real World Examples

At Green Mars Consulting, our technical interview practices for software engineering are “ripped from the headlines” by comparison — including anonymized coding projects from our real-life clients. We set our challenges with intention, looking not just for accurate content, but telling indications of how the candidate works. Do they ask questions if the prompt isn’t clear? Do they craft an elegant, maintainable solution? Do they document the solution concisely?

Embrace the Power of Pairing

Pair programming, that is, working directly together by phone and screen-share or in the same room, provides the most value for the time spent in the hiring process. Spending that hour with a candidate to see how they approach a problem, what they look at, where they search for solutions — there’s no substitute for that real-time experience with your candidate. Is this someone who would work well with your team? Can they face the challenges that you’ll be handing them?

Build a Library

One of the best parts of this approach to technical interviews is that it’s often very cost-effective and easy to set up. We keep a small library of examples in different technologies that were real client problems and coding challenges, and depending on the candidate’s skills and background, we select an appropriate problem from that library to challenge them. Some may test their ability to refactor for maintainability, some may solve a multi-faceted bug, some may extend a feature to use a new open-source component — it all depends on the technical experience the candidate brings, to fit the right set for them individually. It’s code we already have — challenges we’ve already faced. We don’t need to concoct abstract coding problems or stray from the daily reality of the job to determine if our candidate will thrive in the role.

Feed the Team

When adding a new candidate to the team, you are adjusting the alchemy of your productivity. The better you know how the new hire will work with the team, the more energy your team will have to work with, and the less likely your productivity will flag. The fit with the team is potentially the more important aspect of hiring than pure technical skill assessment. We prioritize the culture fit by having a non-technical introductory call between each candidate and our CEO to get a sense of their personality, their motivations, their sources of enthusiasm, and their experience with the work that we do. This call comes first, because it is even more important than the candidate’s ability to write code.

Commit to the Investment

Technical interviews can be powerful tools in hiring, when you use them well. We spend several hours with each qualified candidate before we hire them, which is higher than the industry standard. Without a doubt, it’s more work than the old-school technical interviews, but the quality of our team is evidence of its value and effectiveness, making the decision to commit to this new method of interviews a no-brainer.

Learn more about Green Mars at our website.