As we’ve grown, and hired to fuel that growth, I’ve been asked how we’ve been able to create such an exceptional team. Most people are expecting the response to involve some technical requirements, specific experience, or educational achievement. That’s what companies with mediocre teams do— don’t be like them. Here’s what I actually look for, and why.
Everyone on your team must:
- be smart
- learn quickly
- try hard
- be a good teammate
Nothing groundbreaking there, right? Who wouldn’t want someone with those traits? But the catch is…
Most people don’t structure their interviewing process around actually evaluating these four critical traits.
Even fewer are realistic about how difficult it is to improve those traits where they might be lacking.
The order of those four traits listed above is intentional. It’s the order of their priority in hiring, primarily because your ability to influence each trait as an organization (even an excellent one) is very limited at the start of the list, and gets a bit easier towards the end.
However, even if you know you can positively influence the last ones, the starting bar for them all, especially the first must be high.
You really can’t do much to make someone smart. By the time they are applying to work for you, they are either smart enough or not to do the job. The trick is figuring that out quickly, screening them, and moving on to more qualified candidates.
Writing is one of the best mechanisms I have found to evaluate this.
Clarity of writing is a great indicator of clarity of thought.
It’s almost impossible to write well if you can’t think well. Of course conversation in person or on the phone is also helpful, and has the benefit of being in real-time but you run the risk of being influenced by someone’s personality. You might enjoy talking to them which is important, but that’s not what you’re trying to evaluate at this stage.
Start your process by asking for a writing sample. For software engineers you want code too.
Our industry is fueled by change. We’re constantly on to the next thing. Not because we chase fads or trends, but because iterations on technology generally lead to improvement. If your team can’t learn that new thing quickly you’ll have a hard time leveraging their smarts.
People demonstrate their ability to learn by sharing what they know, how they learned it, and explaining it to you.
Did they learn on their own without a formal curriculum? Do they understand their tools at a fundamental level? Have they built tools of their own to make a job easier? Did they learn things they don’t technically need to know in order to do their current job simply because it interested them? Can they break problems down into their abstract components and explain them to others? Those are all good indicators of someone’s ability to learn.
Coasting is contagious. I know because I used to be a coaster myself. What I mean by that is getting up to speed on a technology or skill and then leveraging it for as long as you can without needing to “pedal”.
You don’t want people who enjoy coasting, they will regress to the mean more quickly than they think they will, and will find pedaling again a struggle.
People that don’t coast will have a variety skills they are actively developing, but don’t yet feel confident in. If your candidate isn’t currently learning something new or exploring new areas of interest and is just an expert in everything they know they may enjoy coasting. Pedal away.
Be A Good Teammate
With the exception of works of art, very few things of consequence can be made individually. Being able to work within a larger group is critical to the success of any non-trivial project.
Just having been part of a larger organization or even part of a team (sports or otherwise) doesn’t actually make you a good teammate.
You must learn from the candidate what their role was within that team, how they felt the team functioned, and what they have to say about their fellow teammates. It’s especially important to try to gauge how their position within a team changed over time and learn their opinion of how their contribution affected the team as a whole.
Oh and yes, we’re currently hiring smart people, who learn quickly, try hard, and want to be part of a winning team.