Looking to Hire the Best Tech People? Focus on Non-tech Skills First

When I started managing teams 15 years ago, I didn’t anticipate how difficult it would be to build and nurture a tech team.

In my experience, software engineers are often, by their nature, a particular breed of people unlike other employees at a company or in other industries.

Because the tech industry is so competitive for top talent, engineers know that they are in high demand, and they can be picky about their roles and assignments. As a result, if a work environment is not the right fit for them, they can seek and find other employment faster than people in other fields.

Software engineers also possess a unique set of skills: They create value for businesses on a daily, if not hourly, basis.

Like all tech managers, my focus has always been on finding and attracting the best engineers, and to introduce them to and incorporate them into our teams. But one thing I think is undervalued, especially in the early stages of the interview process, is how essential the fit within a team is to the long-term success of the individual and the team overall.

Someone’s technical skills are relatively simple to assess compared with whether this person will gel with other team members. One bad hire can set you back heavily and also prove rather costly to a company. Especially when you’re a lean team, you have to consider carefully whom you bring aboard, and what kind of impact, across the board, they’ll have on the status quo. If you find yourself having to manage personalities or infighting, you’ve gotten way offtrack.

Most interview processes have at least one person screen candidates for so-called culture fits, however that is usually a superficial part of the process that doesn’t hold much sway at many organizations. These behavioral questions are usually delivered and responded to in a vacuum. Oftentimes, they’re predictable, redundant and easy for a prepared candidate to sidestep.

I decided there had to be a better way to convey what we were looking for in all of our workers. Instead of making getting-along-with-others skills an afterthought, I decided these qualities should actually be at the forefront of the job description. Learning a new coding language or tech skill is arguably easier to take on than reshaping someone into a person they’re not. After all, we’re looking to hire people who are curious, lifelong learners.

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And it begins with the language you put forward in your job descriptions. Recently, we posted for a new role that I’ve titled, “All Around Great Human Being That Knows Tech.” It’s our sincere hope that not only will this ad catch someone’s eye, but also that interested candidates will be drawn to the prospect of being recognized first for what others might refer to as their “soft skills.” Over the time I’ve been managing, I have grown to appreciate these skills and values as crucial to success of any project or of any team. With something so vague, here is what I’m searching for in candidates:

1. Passion for learning

You will know right away form a short phone interview whether someone is looking to grow. I ask them about the last thing they’ve learned from what they’re accomplished at work and from other outside disciplines. I listen carefully, too, for the method of learning — Do they cite a co-worker as someone they’ve learned from? If they only speak about themselves the whole time, you know you’re in trouble.

2. Humble

Some amazing, talented engineers can work faster and better than most, but it comes at a hefty price. We have working teams in place, and any new, viable candidate should ask how they can fit into the existing structure to help everyone succeed. I must consider how each new hire will complement and augment a team’s DNA. I don’t want to bring someone in whom will disrupt the workflow, no matter how fast they can churn out some code.

3. Genuine

Trust your instincts on people. If they’re someone you’d want to spend your time with over lunch or after work, that’s a sign they’ll get along with others. If their energy sounds fake, dig deeper and try to understand where they’re coming from. Lead the interview with questions that will demonstrate who they are, not what skills and experience they can bring to the table. This approach can catch them off-guard, which is good and will most likely be illuminating. Only after you’re confident they’ll fit the temperament and temperature of your team and organization should you begin to ask about what they can add and produce, technically.

Jean-Philippe Leblanc is the VP – Product Engineering at Shutterstock.