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Interview and Book Excerpt: Hiring Geeks that Fit

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Author, consultant and practitioner Johanna Rothman has written a book: Hiring Geeks That Fit. The book is available on Leanpub.

The book is squarely aimed at team leaders and managers who need to employ technical people on their teams.

The author provides advice on employing cultural fit, skill and knowledge.

The book includes a whole section of templates and tools to assist with the end to end hiring process.

An excerpt from the book can be downloaded here

Johanna is offering InfoQ readers a special discount on purchase of the book. Use the code InfoQReaders. Recently she spoke to InfoQ about the book:

InfoQ: Firstly, thank you for taking the time to talk to InfoQ about your latest book.

Johanna: Shane, it's always a pleasure to speak with you!

InfoQ: What is the problem this book is aimed at solving?

Johanna: Technical managers and teams often have a difficult time hiring the right people. You might think when it's a "buyer's" market, as it is now, that it would be easier. But it's not. HR gets in the way, even though they are trying to be helpful. Hiring managers don't know how to source people. Too often, we think, "It must be about the technical skills." But, technical skills, while important, are not the differentiator we think they should be. They are rarely the reason we want to fire people!

When you think about the reasons we want people off our teams or out of our organizations, it's about cultural fit--Sally doesn't share common values of what done means, and more importantly doesn't care. Joe can't bring himself to ever keep core hours, and doesn't care. When Tranh got hired into management, he didn't care enough about team rewards to fight for them, even though that was important to the team and to management. Those are the kind of cultural fit problems that kill an organization. They just kill you.

InfoQ: Why are you the right person to write this book?

Johanna: When I was a manager inside the organization, I hired about 100 people. That's experience most people don't have. I hired developers, testers, writers, project managers, and managers.

Early in my consulting career, I took on interim management positions. One of the services I provided was hiring my own replacement. Since I was only an interim manager for four to six weeks, I was very good at hiring quickly. My clients were quite surprised that I could hire a manager--even a middle or senior manager--that quickly. I start writing down my secrets, and that was this book. They weren't really secrets at all. But most people don't do them.

InfoQ: In many organizations there is a "Human Resources" department - surely hiring people is their responsibility, the department manager just needs to write a good job description and leave it to HR to do the rest?

Johanna: HR doesn't understand what technical people do. They don't understand the activities and deliverables, so they can't analyze the job, which is what you do *before* you write a job description. If you leave this work to HR, you get a "laundry-list" or a "shopping-list" job description. It has everything you could ever want, except possibly a human being. It doesn't differentiate among levels. It has too many "ands" so you can't tell what you're really looking for.

Unless you, as the hiring manager, are willing to educate HR on what your group or team does, you need to analyze the job yourself and write the job description yourself. You can bring HR into it. But, never leave this to HR.

Hiring someone is your greatest point of leverage as a manager. Why would you delegate that to someone not in your group?

InfoQ: You spend a lot of time in the book talking about the importance of cultural fit - what does that mean, and why is it so important?

Johanna: Culture is all around us: it's about what we can discuss, how we treat each other, and what's rewarded. We have a corporate culture, and every manager puts his or her own stamp on that culture. You and I have taught together. We've seen cultures that enhance projects. We've seen cultures that didn't. And, the project teams still have to get the work done.

It's the same thing in hiring. Each manager who hires people needs to find people who fit *enough* of the culture so that they can get the work done. This is tricky when you are trying to hire a change agent! You want someone who can fit well enough so that people can hear that person, but that person can still change the culture.

I have had to fire people in my career as a manager. But I only had to fire two people because they didn't work. The other people I had to ease out of the companies because they didn't fit the culture. And notice that I said I eased them out. Once we realized we didn't have a good cultural fit, we addressed the problem. I could say, "Something's not right." And the other person said, "You are right." I said, "I need to help you look for another job, not here." By that time, we'd already done feedback, and we were laughing about it. We could problem-solve. We could work together on this problem.

InfoQ: The book is specifically about hiring technical people ("geeks") - why should they be any different to employing non-technical people?

Johanna: The book is really for any knowledge workers, salaried workers. But all the examples are in software.

Hiring salaried workers is different from hiring hourly workers. When you hire hourly workers, they might be interchangeable. If you need a different waitress for another shift, you call another one.

When you hire knowledge workers, you hire unique people with unique qualities, preferences and non-technical skills. They are nowhere near interchangeable. If you need a different software person for a different project, you need to know if this person can work with that team. Does this person have the capability to deliver those deliverables? Can this person adapt to that project's needs? No one ever asks if a waitress can do that, or if an electrician or a plumber can do that. Of course they can. Those jobs are not knowledge worker jobs. Sure, there might be some introduction those folks might need, but nothing like what we need.

InfoQ: What makes a good geek?

Johanna: Good geeks come in many varieties. It depends on whether you are asking about an agile team or not. Are you asking about a team lead or a new person just out of school? This is too open-ended a question, even for me! Read the book, and then analyze your open position. It really depends on your culture.

InfoQ: Today's knowledge workers are expected to be team players and cross functional - how do you interview or select for these traits?

Johanna: You can ask a question such as, "On your most recent project, tell me how you worked." Stop there and see what you hear as an answer. You want to ask that as a behavior-description question, which is an open-ended question.

If the candidate can't answer that question, try this, "Did you work on a team?" That's a closed question. "Tell me about the makeup of the team." That's also a closed question to help you understand what kind of a team it was. "Did you release the product?" Also a closed question. Shipping anything is good, and your candidate might not have! If the candidate did, ask this, "How did you go from requirements to release?" If the candidate did not, ask this, "What happened that prevented you from releasing?" Now, sit back, relax and prepare to hear the story of the project. Ask questions where it makes sense to interject.

You'll notice these questions are brief. You want to ask brief questions that help the candidate tell his or her story.

InfoQ: How do you craft a job description for a role where one of the most important aspects is constantly learning new things?

Johanna: If ability to learn is essential to your job, you would write that as part of the job analysis. See the templates here.

You would then ask about that in the interview. You might ask in the phone screen, "What's the most recent thing you learned or read?" followed by, "What did you get out of it?

InfoQ: How can a hiring manager make these decisions on their own?

Johanna: Well, a hiring manager can make decisions on their own, but I don't recommend it. I recommend a hiring manager use limited consensus with the team. Software is a team sport. Hiring should be a team sport, too.

Sure, the hiring manager can overrule the team, but you should do that at your own risk. The hiring manager is not the person who is going to work with the candidate all day every day. The team members are. So the team members should have a say in the hiring decision. I explain how to do this in the book, in a way that makes sense.

InfoQ: What is the most important factor in the hiring process?

Johanna: The job analysis. If you do a job analysis, everything falls out of it: the job description, the ad, the phone screen script, the questions to ask, everything. And, you can iterate. Even if you don't like your initial analysis, you do it, you look at a few candidates, you say, "oops, not quite right," and you go back to the drawing board.

InfoQ: You present a set of templates and tools - why? Surely most organizations already have their on standards and templates?

Johanna: Most organizations have generic job descriptions. I have never met a generic person. I want people to think about how to hire, and with just a little bit of guidance, they will have enough information to hire well. That's why the templates are free on my site. They can pick up the templates and then say, "Oh, these are helpful!" They can then buy the book.

InfoQ: Thank you for taking the time to talk to us!

Johanna: Thank you! It's been a pleasure.


About the Interviewee

Johanna Rothman, known as the “Pragmatic Manager,” helps organizational leaders see problems and risks in their product development. She helps them recognize potential risks, seize opportunities, and remove impediments. Johanna was the Agile 2009 conference chair. She is the current technical editor. Johanna is the author of these books:

  • Manage Your Job Search
  • Hiring Geeks That Fit
  • Manage Your Project Portfolio: Increase Your Capacity and Finish More Projects
  • The 2008 Jolt Productivity award-winning Manage It! Your Guide to Modern, Pragmatic Project Management
  • Behind Closed Doors: Secrets of Great Management
  • Hiring the Best Knowledge Workers, Techies & Nerds: The Secrets and Science of Hiring Technical People

She is writing a book about agile and lean program management. She writes columns for Stickyminds, Dice, and projectmanagment, and writes two blogs on her web site, jrothman, as well as a blog on createadaptablelife.

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