2 Major Mistakes Technical Managers Make When Hiring


What do engineers and hiring managers usually get wrong about the interview process? originally appeared on Quora: the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Answer by Aline Lerner, Co-founder & CEO of interviewing.io, on Quora:

There are two mistakes engineers and hiring managers routinely make that I find especially objectionable and which matter all the more because we’re currently in a hiring climate where labor demand vastly outstrips labor supply.

  1. That pedigree (having attended a top school/having worked at a top company) is a necessary condition for hiring… or more subtly, that pedigree, even if it carries imperfect signal, is fine/OK/good enough to get the job done.
  2. That the interview process is just about vetting and that hiring can almost entirely be delegated to recruiters (I know these don’t look like they belong together, but I’ll explain below).

Or, in other words, that you can adopt Google’s hiring process and expect the same results.

Both of these mistakes show a fundamental misunderstanding of market economics. I’ll talk about each of the mistakes in some detail, but first, let’s lay down the framework for thinking about hiring in economic context.

By 2020, there will be 1.4 million new computer science jobs in the U.S., but only 400,000 new computer science students, and the number of computer science jobs is growing twice as fast as national average. Anyone who has tried to hire great engineers has felt this squeeze empirically. What happens when there’s a shortage of something? Its value goes up! This means that 1) unless you’re paying a ton of salary or have a stellar brand, you can’t expect to be successful if you go around chasing the same 10 MIT/Stanford alums as everyone else and 2) that, at least for the time being, candidates have the power.

Pedigree isn’t everything

So, because of the engineering shortage, it’s clear that leaning on pedigree exclusively is not a pragmatic decision and that anyone who can uncover an alternate credential will have a great arbitrage opportunity on their hands. But, the sad truth is, pedigree doesn’t even carry that much signal in the first place.

I used to run technical hiring at a startup and was having a heck of a time trying to figure out which candidates to let through the resume screen. Over and over, people who looked good on paper (had worked at companies like Google, had gone to schools like MIT, and so on) crashed and burned during technical interviews, whereas candidates without pedigree often knocked it out of the park. So, I decided to examine the resumes of everyone who applied over the course of a year as well as those of past and current employees. After looking at hundreds of resumes and looking at everything from years of experience and highest degree earned to G.P.A and prestige of previous employers, it turned out that the thing that mattered most, by a huge margin, wasn’t any piece of information about the candidate. Rather it was the number of grammatical errors and typos on their resume.

Don’t believe me that screening for education and experience doesn’t work? Then consider the following experiment. A few years ago, I showed a set of anonymized resumes from my collection to 150 engineers, recruiters, and hiring managers and asked them one question: “Would you interview this candidate?” Not only did participants, across the board, fail at predicting who the strong candidates were (the odds of guessing correctly were roughly 50 percent, i.e. the same as flipping a coin), but, much more importantly, no one could even agree on what a strong candidate looked like in the first place.

Most recently, at interviewing.io, we analyzed our interview data and found that what mattered most for strong interview performance, more than school attended or past employer, was whether candidates had taken Udacity or Coursera classes in the past.

Until recently, we had to use pedigree to decide whom to interview, but with the advent of a new wave of HR tech startups focused on getting signal from other sources, we’re no longer constrained by this noisy, inefficient measure, and I hope that the resume and everything that goes with it dies a fiery death.

Hiring in this climate requires employers to expend more effort/sell at every stage/sell in a way that’s actually meaningful to candidates

When thinking about companies’ hiring processes and whether they’re in line with the idea of candidates holding the real power, I always think about value asymmetry, which is just a nice way of saying “what nonsense are candidates will to put up with?” Here, I made a picture.

What is brand strength? Imagine a tiny 2-person startup that no one’s ever heard of that also happens to be working on ad-tech on the left. And Google/Facebook etc. on the right.

When your brand isn’t a household name, candidates are going to be less likely to want to jump through hoops. So when you’re considering resume alternatives, think about how strong your brand is and how much value you’re giving to candidates vs. how much value you’re trying to gain from them before giving something back. For instance:

  • Don’t make people do lengthy, canned coding challenges. The best ones won’t… because they don’t have to. You might get some diamonds in the rough, but you can’t build an entire hiring strategy around them.
  • Tailor your interview questions to be specific and interesting so they give candidates a preview of what it’s like to work with you/solve your kinds of problems and so they stick in candidates’ minds after the interview is over. I can’t stress enough the power of two people clicking when they collaboratively problem solve… which is the best sell that there is!
  • Recruiters can be great, but they’re not equipped to have meaty, high-signal discussions with candidates about the actual work, which means that they will never be as good at selling as you are (see the previous point).

Companies like Google can ignore all this stuff because they have a revolving door of candidates, even in this market, and those candidates go there not because of their process, but despite it. As Erin Ptacek wisely once said, “The definition of insanity is doing things the way Google does and expecting them to work for you.”

If you’re not Google but still want the best engineers, you have to accept that your path to hire will be more windy and harder and that in order to succeed, you’re going to have to shake things up.

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