“Just good?” inquired one of the session’s facilitators.
Nickelsberg, president of Orchid Technologies Engineering &
Consulting in Maynard, Mass., said he certainly wouldn't turn away
excellent talent -- “but I’ll take good.”
Such is the state of hiring for talented techies these days at least
in New England, where firms such as Nickelsberg’s are challenged to
find fresh talent that is open to working in the ‘burbs rather than in
Boston or bustling Cambridge (though he’s intrigued by the idea of
opening a satellite office in a hip location).
Speaking up about hiring challenges during one session at the
conference earned Nickelsberg the duty of actually moderating a
follow-up breakout session on the topic. As the Unconference's name
implies, this is not your typical industry get-together. Attendees
suggest and vote on session topics on the fly at this (interpersonal)
networking-heavy confab orchestrated by the Massachusetts Technology
Leadership Council (other sessions focused on topics such as
microservices and the Internet of Things).
The session on how to hire good tech people that Nickelsberg
moderated proved to be a lively one, as participants chimed in on what
it takes to hire people who fit into an employer’s culture and who have
the technical chops to contribute.
Nickelsberg kicked off the discussion by citing a scene from the
movie The Social Network featuring a booze-fueled code-off, hoping that
wasn’t the best way to try to find the sort of talent his team could use
“The problems we’re trying to solve are pretty difficult,” he said.
“Making the wrong hiring choice can really be a disaster.” He added that
with a staff as small as his, “the next person hired is a major
One MassTLC representative cited a hiring practice at another
Massachusetts firm, MathWorks. She said the company is known for seeking
out engineers who aren’t necessarily the entrepreneurial types from MIT
or Harvard who are always looking to move on to their own startup.
“They look for hires who will be loyal to them,” she said.
A key to finding good talent is making sure your job description is
precise, so that you don’t waste your time or prospects’ time, said one
participant. “Your job description better reflect on what they’ll
actually work on,” he said.
Though one attendee noted a company that has no job descriptions,
something that he said he liked, although others in the crowd were
shaking their heads and rolling their eyes. “I do like that because I
can’t focus on anything for too long…that’s why I like going to this
Unconference,” he said, drawing a laugh.
How to Interview
This all led to a discussion of the best techniques for interviewing
job candidates. Some were sour on coding tests, emphasizing that job
interviewees need to be treated like humans. Interviewers need to have
real conversations with candidates, getting a feel for their “learning
velocity,” their ability to pick up new things quickly.
One popular suggestion, by an attendee named Bill, was that if you
are going to put recruits through a coding test, having them write code
on a board, that you might want to do the test with them. That
would simulate more realistically how a company actually works, and
perhaps uncover whether the candidate is good at communicating (not that
programmers typically use boards at all for coding).
To further that point, Bill recommended the “beer test” – in
conversing with the candidate, can you imagine having to talk to the
person for more than 5 minutes over a beer? If not, the fit probably
isn’t right for your business. “You’re going to be around this person
for 8 to 10 hours a day….It kills any benefit the employee brings from a
technology skills standpoint if you can’t stand to work with the
One attendee named Scott, a director of database architecture, admin
and business intelligence, said his company has used an American Idol
type of audition, where candidates found via LinkedIn and word of mouth
are sent problems to solve, and are then invited to present their
solutions to a panel of company employees with a say in the hiring. It’s
a good way to see if candidates have street smarts, not just book
smarts, as the panel grills them.
This attendee also warned against trying to compare prospects to
your top employees: “It’s so hard to find the clone of your best people,
your rock stars.”
How to find good young rock stars is a challenge for managers who
are on the older side. One young woman in the crowd mentioned Twitter
being used, with grabby hashtags, to sniff out fresh talent. Another
participant mentioned his company’s website's use of a term along the
lines of “opportunities maybe” attracted one ambitious 22-year-old who
was hired after it became obvious her ambitions were in sync with those
of the company.
Other suggestions for drawing talent that were tossed out by attendees:
- Offering referral bonuses if you can afford such a program.
- Considering alternatives (Hired.com, Drafted.us, etc) to better known job hunting sites Monster.com or LinkedIn
- Reaching out to paper authors, open source project leaders, etc.
- Attending and getting
involved at meetups and other networking-oriented events such as the
Innovation Unconference (which kicked off with a speed-dating format to
introduce attendees to each other).