The story of a tree: an anatomy of candidate skills
One of the new hobbies that I picked up during the pandemic is taking a long walk around my neighborhood and observing the shapes of individual trees. It’s fascinating to see how many trees there are around us, and how unique each tree looks.
My days are spent a lot interviewing candidates these days, and often I reflect on my thoughts on candidates during the walk. I thought there were some interesting similarities between how I think about the candidates’ skills and the anatomy of trees.
Just like I used the analogy of a hike in my previous article on career journeys, I’ll use an analogy of a tree to describe the skills I look for in candidates. I want to note that this analogy is function agnostic and can be applied to any role or team, and I hope it helps you with your hiring process.
The roots = attitude/mindset
Let’s start with the roots, which are the most fundamental elements of a tree. They’re the foundation that the rest of the tree grows upon and determine its growth trajectory.
In hiring, the most fundamental element of a candidate that I look for is their general attitude and mindset. This determines someone’s cultural value and aptitude and provides the foundation upon which their skills and outlook are built. I look for positive signals like optimism, humility, self-awareness, work ethic, and a proactive attitude, and look to avoid negative signals like negativity, victim mentality, and ego.
Just as a healthy root system is critical to a tree’s development and health, a healthy attitude and mindset are critical for candidates regardless of level and function.
Trunk and branches = hard skills
The next element of a tree is its trunk and branches, which represent the tree’s overall framework. They also act as their long-lasting, defining characteristics. Without the trunks and branches, we can’t call it a tree.
For candidates, the hard skills required to get the job done serve the same function. Hard skills can be assessed through their portfolio or during interview panels like interactive working sessions, but regardless of method, candidates should be able to demonstrate their craft, problem-solving skills, and breadth of technical capability.
Of course, it’s important for the hiring teams to define “must-haves” versus “nice-to-haves’’. Some hard skills are more critical than others and may be more difficult to learn on the job.
For example, visual design sensibility is a key skill for a product designer at any level, but it is hard to learn on the job quickly. A candidate who hasn’t honed this skill may struggle in a new role.
But a hard skill like familiarity with a specific design tool is much easier to learn and train, so it could be less critical for hiring teams when making a decision.
Leaves = soft skills
The next layer I consider is soft skills, which include things like communication, storytelling, and stakeholder management. Just like more leaves on the tree will power more effective photosynthesis and help the tree flourish, soft skills are critical to a candidate’s effectiveness and development within their role and team.
Soft skills are particularly important for managers and senior ICs because it makes up the largest part of their day-to-day duties. Aside from the skills I noted above, managers and senior ICs also need to have high relatability/EQ, leadership presence, and rich experience in conflict management. Leading people is both difficult and nuanced, which is why adequate soft skills are so key.
All of the aspects I’ve noted so far are fundamental and foundational across the board, but I want to note the importance of looking for qualities that are unique to each individual.
Every tree has something special about it that gives it a unique aura. It could be the way the ray of the sun filters through its leaves, the way it attracts all kinds of birds or butterflies or the beautiful way it changes colors throughout the seasons.
Similarly, I’m always looking for each candidate’s “special spark”. These aspects help them really stand out as individuals and are critical in helping them achieve their own success. Here are a few examples of this that we have on our current team at DoorDash:
- Entrepreneurship/go-getter mentality
- Extraordinary creativity/vision
- Extreme intellectual curiosity
- Deep T-shape on a rare skill
- Passion for the company’s mission
Of course, there are many different ways this “spark” can manifest, so it’s important for hiring managers to keep an open mind. When it comes to personal development and training, it’s also important to foster each person’s “spark” and find opportunities for them to express it in their work and collaboration on a regular basis.
I’d like to end this article with an image of my favorite tree in my neighborhood. This tree resembles how I aspire to be as a leader and a person. It’s a plain everyday tree — not so flamboyant and extraordinary. However, its warm presence with big tenured arms provides meaningful value to other people’s lives. It creates a special space where people can find comfort and create life-long memories. Its surrounding is always filled with happy people and laughter.
I hope this article is helpful for both hiring teams and candidates. I am always curious to hear others’ different approaches and philosophies about hiring. Feel free to comment away or reach out to me for more discussions!
Special thanks to Tae Kim, our amazing UX Content Strategy lead at DoorDash, for helping me with this article.
Helena Seo is the Head of Design at DoorDash. We’re actively hiring seasoned talents in all UX functions. Please visit our career page and check out the Design section!
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