Good software architects are not educated in classrooms they are forged in the “focus rooms” of catastrophic failure. This is a pessimistic view of professional development in IT, but I’d rather hire someone who has had a front-row seat to failure than someone who hasn’t.

When hiring senior technical talent don’t focus on success. Focus on failure. Your candidate might have scaled his or her previous employer’s systems by 10x, but what broke first and how did they deal with failure? How did your previous system fail and what was the most glaring oversight in your original architecture? Ask them if they have technical “blind-spots?”

A resume is a political document emphasizing the most positive aspects of a candidate’s career, and most of the people you interview have kept their budgets in control, scaled systems perfectly, and forged strategic alliances across cross-functional enterprise domains all while fostering win-win relationships with key customers. It is your job to read between the lines and get them to discuss the uncomfortable. What is something they don’t want to discuss? Failure.

Ask a few questions about failure, and ask them directly. If a job candidate gets a little uncomfortable discussing their own shortcomings this is natural, but you should persist and offer up some failures of your own. Look for the following:

  • Are they direct? If your job candidate can discuss a technical decision they made incorrectly during a job interview they are going to be direct when analyzing a system failure in production.
  • Are they confident? Anyone comfortable discussing failure in a job interview is exhibiting the kind of confidence you want in a senior technical leader.
  • Are they humble? Ideally you’ll have a candidate who points out bad decisions and who takes full ownership. This will be essential when they are debugging a software system at scale.

If the person your interviewing refuses to discuss failure or tries to change the subject. It’s likely time to end the interview and move on. This is a sign that you are talking to someone who wants to believe their own fictional resume, and if you hire a candidate like this they will bring this lack of honesty with them. Run, don’t walk.

Failure can’t be the only hiring criteria, the right candidate has a few successes sprinkled around these failures, but the only surefire way to avoid failure is to hire a few failures.

Written by

I write and I code. Not always in that order. I do infrastructure and architecture at Walmart. (Opinions are my own.)

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