Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Beyond Technicalities - The Importance of Soft-skills in Candidate Selection

When interviewing a new candidate to work in our team its easy to focus on the technical experience and knowledge s/he has. This is completely valid considering the candidate is intended to cover a position in the team that demands her/him to be as tech savvy as possible. However this in fact causes that we sometimes overlook on a set of skills that can prove far more vital to the general health of the project and to the development of the person we are interviewing than specific technical skills. I'm of course referring to soft-skills and general emotional intelligence. I can't overemphasis how critical it's for us to recognize skills that lay beyond technical knowledge during an interview. The ability to recognize those from those required technically means the difference between hiring someone who will be willing to learn and adapt to how we do things while eventually adding value to the team and hiring an otherwise apparently qualified individual with that turns into an intoxicated rabid weasel with keyboard abilities every time someone dares to speak to him/her.

Its important that we remember that developing software is primarily a trade that has to do with people interaction and deep communication not with good code. The trick here is that recognizing soft-skills and evaluating them is much more difficult due to its subjective nature (and the fact that people don't come with user guides).

We must be prepared to identify when a person fits the profile we are looking for with his/her technical profile and with his/her soft-skill profile. This are some of the considerations that you might want to take on your next interview:

Communication:

 

Communication skills are one of the most useful skills anyone who is on the consulting business as we are must have. In my experience, nothing has the level of destructiveness that could render an otherwise good project into a flaming Hindenburg like bad communication.One of the most insightful types of interviews is the one where the candidate communicates so well that you let him establish the pace and the direction of it. However communication comes in different flavors so if you find yourself in an interview where you basically need to pressure to get monosyllabic answers doesn't necessarily means that you are in the face of a poor communicator (although its very likely), it could be just that s/he is nervous or that her/his communication skills are more developed on asynchronous communication (which is extremely common to find among people on our trade) so s/he may be stuttering when speaking but could be able to write down his/her ideas like a poet, so try not to rush into conclusions, you need to learn you to distinguish between the to cases. A good way to clarify this point is to read his/her resume, specifically the part where most people describe themselves or their expectations, read between the lines, you have no idea how reveling a well read resumes are, they are just as reveling as family drawings from a kid.

A good exercise you can do during interviews are open questions that require the candidate to narrate a story. Like:

"What do you think was the most challenging event you have faced and how you dealt with it?"

This is a standard interview question that may look like you are interested in how good problem solver s/he is but instead pay attention to how well s/he can carry you through the events and how well s/he is able to make you empathize with the situation. Now, you evaluate how good they listen and comprehend you can use simulated scenarios. My favorite is the "elevator on the 100 stories building" design. It goes something like this:

"Consider you have a 100 stories building and you are required to design the software that will operate the elevator, how would you begin to design it?"

This exercise is extremely useful to evaluate OOP concepts and working methodologies but its also a great way to evaluate communication skills because people need to follow specific requirements and react to changing conditions. At some point you may interrupt and state that the building managers decide to add an extra elevator or that the power consumption is now a CTQ instead of the speed and so on and so forth.
So try to pay attention to how people answer and not just what they answered.

Interpersonal Skills:

 

This set of skills are probably the most overlooked of them all. Interpersonal skills have to do with how well someone is able to establish empathy bonds with other people.This is extremely important when working in team organized jobs like ours. People interaction depends on empathic bonds in a very basic level, this doesn't mean that in order to have decently performing teams all team members need to be BFF's(even though that this in fact increases team performance dramatically) but they certainly need to be able to spend 8hrs a day, 5 days a week (sometime even weekends) together without poking out their eyes.
Teams need to operate with a sense of harmony between their team members, beyond personal agendas and amalgamating a bunch of different personalities. In my opinion there is probably nothing more poisonous to team performance than a douchebag regardless of his/her technical skills, so treat this point with the care it needs. Try to perceive how likable people are during an interview after all you will spend more time with him/her than with your family or friends.

A good way to do that is to ask people related questions like:

"Who was your best boss so far?"
"How is you relationship with your current team?"
"What's the best and the worst to your opinion of working in teams?"
"How do you think your current team members would describe you?"

Interpersonal issues are almost always correlated to communication issues, people who are unable to interact with others don't communicate well either so expect to find them always in pairs. Also try to establish a friendly environment during the interview so that you help people open and connect which in term leads to a very fluid communication.


Multidimensional Abilities


We are very complex creatures that need balance on all we do to stay emotionally healthy.A very common way to maintain our emotional health is to grow interests that differ from what we do for a living.Try to inquire people about what their personal interest beyond their jobs are. This is a very good way to evaluate emotional health but also consider that multidisciplinary people add a lot of value to a team because they have a more varied set of perspectives and a acute insight in areas that might no one else know. A word of caution; this is probably the area where people tend to lie the most so it's important that you keep in mind that and try to go ad deep as you can.I have found that direct questions like "What you like to do on you spare time?" may lead to answers like "I love reading ,playing football and writing essays in scientific journals", but when you ask what was the last book they read you get no direct answer at all (you may call this the Peña-Nieto syndrome if you like).

I prefer a more indirect approach. What I do is ask them directly and dig into specifics, like for instance if someone tells you they like music you ask what kind and what is their favorite performer/band. Also I like to throw a hypothetical scenario that is great for mining this kind of information; it goes like this:

"Imagine that tomorrow you find out in the news that Bill Gates just passed away and he decided to inherit all his fortune to a random person in the world that turned out to be you. So you now have your financial future ensured for the rest of your life and probably for a couple of generations. Considering that you no longer need to work to live, what do you think you'll be doing for the rest of your life?"

You cant imagine how many times people have told me that they will drop everything relevant in their lives and spend the rest of their life in a yate, drunk and in endless orgies… but every now and then I get the very valuable and honest answers where people lets me know about their true passions in life like backpacking through the world, or founding their own software company or their own children baseball league. Is that doesn't tell you anything about someone, I cant think of anything that does...

Try not to dismiss the relevant information you get out from this questions, it may seem mundane and unnecessary to inquire about tastes in music, films, books and sports, but in fact that information tells you a lot of the interviewee personality which may be relevant to the interpersonal skills and multidisciplinary abilities; someone who likes to write is most likely an adobe average writing communicator, someone who's dream is traveling around the world is probably a curious person who is not afraid of changes, someone who perceives financial dependency as the only thing keeping them away of living a hedonist and senseless life may not be a very committed individual.

Remember that you build your teams, everyone is ultimately responsible, the overall environment you perceive in your team is never product of chance but it's the product of years of conscious selection, training and nurturing, everyone is accountable for keeping it the way it is. So next time you find your self on a interview bare that in mind and favor the inexperienced witty likable guy over the douchebag developer demigod.