Archive for January 24, 2010

How to look for “you earn your reputation by trying to do hard things well” in a candidate

January 24, 2010 2 comments

Every growing software company can remember the time when the software engineering team consisted of a few, phenomenal software engineers who were well-rounded superstars with “failure is not an option” perspective.

Then came success:  revenue growth, profits, new customers with different needs, escalating pressure to deliver new releases faster than the closest competitor, urgent calls from the sales team to incorporate new functionality.

Then came our challenge:  grow the software engineering team – but without its size becoming an inhibitor.

How do you identify software engineering candidates that can  join the team, quickly assimilate, and help maintain the same product development velocity and code quality?

Is there a unique quality in a candidate that can hopefully serve as a predictor of success, i.e. someone joining a high growth organization and becoming the next superstar?

Is there an approach to identify this quality?

The answer to both is yes.

This quality can be best illustrated by what Jeff Bezos – founder and CEO of – said, “You earn reputation by trying to do hard things well”.

The approach is simple yet effective:  structure the interview process to determine what the candidate knows and does not know.

Last year, I was able to find – with help of a great recruiter – one candidate who became the next superstar.   The following interview process was very helpful:

1.  First phone screen:  after introductions, learn about specific accomplishments.  Take notes.

2. Second phone screen:  the second phone screen should be very technical.   Focus on the accomplishments the candidate mentioned during the first phone screen.  Ask him / her to explain technical terms, concepts, and techniques within the context of these accomplishments.

3.  Onsite interview A:  this is a team interview with 3-4 people present + the candidate.  Describe a real problem that the team is facing today.   The problem should be familiar to the candidate, perhaps one of the accomplishments mentioned during earlier discussions.  You want to see how the candidate …

– Draws upon prior experience

– Structures one or more solution options

– Proposes and defends one specific approach, while considering risks, timelines, testing complexity

– Interacts with the team and considers other points of view

4.  Onsite interview B:  again – this is a team interview with the same people.  However, the goal is very different.  Describe another, real problem that the team is facing today, knowing well in advance the candidate has very few chances of solving it during the interview.   You want to see how the candidate …

– Deals with uncertainty fueled by lack of experience and lack of knowledge

– Begins to look for answers although being in a very unfamiliar territory

– Engages with the team while being very uncomfortable and uses the team as one of the sources of strength

If the candidate has this quality – “You earn reputation by trying to do hard things well”, it will be easily seen at this point.