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Why the first phone interview with the hiring manager is the most important one

I wanted to share my advice with all great engineers who are seeking a rare opportunity.   Lets begin.

You noticed that Company A is looking for a Principal Software Engineer.   The job description is perfect and the company seems like a great place to work.

You applied.  The internal recruiter called you immediately.  Good news – your resume generated interest.   More good news!  The hiring manager scheduled a phone interview with you.

Your primary objective:  make the phone interview the most convincing discussion where future in-person interviews will be only a confirmation that you are the right person for this position (not a candidate – more on that later in the closing argument).

First – take the phone interview very seriously.  Prepare, prepare, prepare.

– Create time and environment where you can be 100% focused on the discussion.   Standing outside on a busy street while trucks are passing by is not a good idea.

– Ensure that your phone works.  Taking the call in a building where your mobile phone is guaranteed to have very poor reception is not advisable.

–  Research the company.   Read the last annual and quarterly reports (if the company is public).    Research competition, business milestones (acquisitions, divestitures), product lines, revenue by product line.  Is the company growing?  Is the growth slowing down?   Which products may not be competitive?  Which product YOU may working on and what kind of problems YOU may be asked to solve?  Would you rather work on a product which generates 10% or 80% of the company’s revenue?

– Do not be late if you have been provided with a conference call number and a specific time to dial in.   My suggestion:  dial 2 minutes before and wait for the hiring manager to join.  As a hiring manager, I dial in 3 minutes early and try to learn whether the candidate is prompt.

The hiring manager is looking for 3 things, although not every hiring manager will clearly explain these 3 things to you or even ask questions in a manner indicative of these 3 things.

These 3 things are nevertheless essential for you to prove beyond any doubt that you are the right person for the Principal Software Engineer position.

1.  Are you a methodical problem solver capable of dealing very complex problems?

2.  Are you a master of your craft (technology) and do you believe that your code speaks for yourself?  Hint:   if asked to participate in an unscheduled code review, do you welcome it or run aware from it?

3.  Are you good enough to lead by example and teach others by example?  Will you fit in the team?

Even if the hiring manager does not ask you about the last particularly difficult problem you solved, volunteer to discuss it in a manner relevant to the business of the company you are hiring.

Talk about technology like you designed and built it.   Go deep.  Discuss advantages and disadvantages of solution approaches you proposed recently. Share why you made a certain decision.  Defend it.  Your ability to make balanced decisions in an imperfect environment is what the hiring manager is looking for.

Get excited about sharing knowledge and replicating excellence.   The right hiring manager will look for more than just your technical depth.  He / she will also look for your ability as a Principal Software Engineer to lead by example and help grow the team by sharing knowledge.

The next in-person interview will be just a confirmation that you are the right person for this position.   Stop being a candidate.   Be the very best in what you do and share it with passion for delighting the customer because the customer is using a software product you built – AND signed your name on it.

If you follow these suggestions and get the job you want, drop me a line.   I will be glad to hear from you.

 

 

How to determine if you are ready to manage – or ready to lead

In not so distant past, “N” was one of the most capable principal software engineers.  “N” could solve any technical problem, deconstruct something very complex into a series of simple solution steps, and commanded respect from everyone in the organization.

“N” and I had a regularly scheduled lunch every month.  The topic of the day was “N”‘s prior request to be considered for a promotion. “N” felt strongly about being promoted to an engineering manager role during the next 6 months.

“Tell me why you are ready to become an engineering manager”, I asked.

“N” responded, “I am ready.  I am already acting as a manager of an important initiative where engineers from other teams are virtually reporting to me”.

“Do you know the difference between a manager and a leader?”, I asked.

“N” paused and acknowledged that difference was difficult to define.

“Why don’t you do some research and then let’s talk again”, I asked.  “N” agreed.

Our next lunch was one of the most memorable experience I had as a leader with an opportunity to identify and develop the next leader.

“N” researched my question well.  “N” also provided many examples.

“That’s very good.  In your opinion, what is the single most important difference between a manager and a leader”, I asked.

“N” took time to provide an answer, clearly uncertain about the single difference. “N” also felt that the answer would be one of the reasons the promotion would arrive sooner than later.

“N” finally provided the very answer I was looking for.  “The manager does things right; the leader does the right thing”, N responded with confidence.

“But can you do things right if the objective isn’t the right objective?”, I asked.   ‘N” said, “No, I can’t execute something that isn’t right by definition,  I also can’t follow a leader who doesn’t do the right thing”.

“N” proved to me that he was ready to be a manager.

Managers do things right.  Leaders do the right thing which inspires managers to execute the mission correctly – or do it right.   Every manager is a leader in training.   Help your leader to do the right thing by asking the right questions.

Managers who simply do – lose their privilege to to be a managers of others.  These managers will also never become leaders who inspire others by doing the right thing.

“N” became a great engineering manager and later one of the best engineering directors I had the privilege of managing in the past.

2014 New Year resolutions for everyone in a CTO role

December 31, 2013 Leave a comment

This year, I will only focus on  ‘people’ component of ‘people, process, and technology’ equation for success.

Sustainable competitive advantage can only become an achievable goal when an organization is being built – by design – to operate at the highest possible level.  Without it, sustainable competitive advantage is only a dream.

Retain like you attract.   

Attracting a star performance is exceedingly difficult.   Once hired, the difficult work continues.   Are your star performers happy?  How do you know they are working on the right tasks?  How much time are you spending developing your organization?  Is the vision clear?  Is the plan to realize the vision clear?

Employees do not leave companies.  They leave managers.   Know your managers.

When was the last time you took the time to assess your own management team?  What should the bar be for the management team?   Do your managers know the “Right Side Up” organizational principle where managers work for their own employees, set clear objectives & measures of success, empower & equip, and then get out of the way?  Do they know the difference between leading and managing?

Plan without action is futile.  Action without a plan is fatal.   Plan well. 

The best plans enjoy the support of the entire team.  Even the most difficult plans with clear business outcomes will be supported by your team.  Yet no one will follow you if the plan doesn’t explain how all the hard work ahead will create sustainable benefits for the business.

Simplify.

It’s very easy to describe something very complex. It’s incredibly difficult to transform a very complex topic (or goal) and make it simple.   Once simplified, the effort to build viable plan becomes equally simpler.

Only happy people build great software.   Build a dialog with every team member.

Happy people are happy at work and at home.  They are free to create and innovate.  How well do you know every team member?   Get to know them again in 2014.

Is your talent acquisition process working?

November 24, 2013 Leave a comment

While waiting to board a delayed flight from Dallas, TX to Washington, DC, I had an opportunity to speak with a fellow software executive about what works and doesn’t work in his organization.

“I cannot hire great people fast enough”, he said.

“How do you know if you talent acquisition process is working?”, I asked.

“Well – we have internal recruiters who are working very hard to find the right people”, he countered.

“What is your rejection rate after in person interviews?”, I asked.

“Hmmm … it’s quite high but I don’t know the details”, he answered with a touch of disappointment.

The number one problem – by far without an exception – why talent acquisition process is not working is inability to build a funnel of candidates that show potential.

This is especially true in companies that rely on internal recruiters who haven’ spent enough time with hiring managers or – when hiring managers are too busy to provide meaningful feedback to internal recruiters.

Talent acquisition problem – by the numbers:

– 1 principal level engineer role open
– 4 weeks later:  100 candidates in the pipeline;  20 candidates in the “funnel”
– 6 weeks later:  10 phone screens and 5 candidates reaching in-person interview phase
– 10 weeks later:  all 5 candidates fail in-person interviews

Almost 3 months later, the process continues and a critical  position remains open.

What  anyone can do in the same situation to begin solving the talent acquisition problem:

– Develop a practical interview guide for internal recruiters who can ask specific questions and capture answers.  The questions have to be 100% relevant to what a new hire would experience on Day:  problems he / she solved, using the same or applicable technology and tools, and how he / she worked with everyone in the organization.

For example:  if the new hire will be working on critical production support problems, ask about similar efforts in the past.   Don’t just ask about common Java questions.  Ask how the candidate used specific Java relevant technology to solve problems of interest.   Did he / she used a profiler?   What was the problem?  What did the profiler identify?  What was the root cause?  How did you verify that the problem was solved?   Was 6 hour soak test sufficient?  Why?

This will help identify candidates who will advance to in-person interview phase with a much better chance of success.

– Develop a broader interview guide for in-person interviews.  This guide should simulate how someone could engage with the team without being hired.   Make these interviews as long as needed to spend enough time with the candidate while working on a specific problem.  Get a conference room with a whiteboard.  Ask multiple team members to attend and simulate a team meeting where a candidate is expected to contribute to the problem solving process.  Continue to ask probing questions to determine what the candidate knows and doesn’t know.  Determine learning style:  self motivated or something else?  Can he / she learn?
Can he / she advance in the organization and become an asset in the succession plan for key roles?

The success of your talent acquisition process will directly influence your own success as an engineering leader.  Do not “outsource” it to someone else.

Why a safe candidate may in fact carry the most risk

August 13, 2013 Leave a comment

We are silent witnesses in an executive meeting of a very real software company.

“Need a new CTO”.   Got it.

“He / she must be capable of driving innovation and disruptive change”.   Makes perfect sense.

“He / she should fit neatly in our culture”.   Got it but with reservations.  More on that later.

“We want someone who has been there  / done that”.  Agreed – to a point.  More on that also later.

“Let’s hire an executive search firm.  We need someone fairly quickly”.    That’s where “the safe candidate” trap presents itself.

Why don’t we define Innovation first?  What is Innovation?

The definition I like (and it certainly stood the test of time) is the one which helps illuminate why many executive searches for a CTO do not produce the right CTO.   I speak from experience as a CTO-for-hire.  Many of my clients are technology companies who hired the wrong CTO or realized the current CTO cannot deliver an effective fusion of “people, process, and technology” to support the next wave of business growth.

Innovation is the ability to see the future and define a practical path towards it, where practical path means building a world class organization (people), doing things right the first time (process), and using technology in a truly transformative manner (technology).

Highly innovative CTOs live and breath the above definition.   Highly innovative CTOs also realize there is no innovation without disruption.   Disruption is healthy but presents many challenges.  One very common challenge is how existing business unit leaders – and P&L owners – may see innovation (and diversion of resources)  as a risk in achieving revenue and profitability objectives.   Planning for disruption and building a culture around it is the only way to nurture and foster innovation.   

There is an rarely spoken term used to describe candidates during the executive search process:  a safe candidate. Safe candidates are typically from the same industry / possibly a competitor with the same revenue, held the same role for at least 5-6 years, similar revenue / profit, led an organization of a similar size, and sponsored and led very similar initiatives.

Safe candidates are seemingly perfect.  Yet they are not.

Imagine running one of the world’s largest airlines.  It’s an incredibly complex business with an immense investment in technology and systems to run the business effectively and in a competitive manner.  You are the CEO and you need a new CIO (or CTO).   Do you look for a CIO (or CTO) from another airline?

In 2000, Delta Airlines hired Charles Feld, a former CIO at Frito Lay, to lead Delta Airlines technology organization.  Charles Feld was instrumental in accelerating introduction of many technology enabled, innovative solutions at Delta Airlines.   Does it make sense to hire someone from the leading manufacturer of salty snacks to lead a technology organization of a large airline?   It makes perfect sense because innovation gene is highly portable.

It’s tempting to hire someone who is a safe candidate.  If the job description calls for someone who can clearly demonstrate innovation gene,  identifying and selecting the right candidate – not just a safe candidate – becomes much harder.   The outcome however will be very much worth it.

This company will not have to hire me to fix things later.

There is of course much more to hiring the right CTO.   The right, highly innovative CTO may unexpectedly come from a completely different company with a completely different background.   It literally pays to keep this in mind.

The war for talent – Part 3: “Where are all the great candidates?”

It’s 9am.

This is my first meeting with client’s engineering managers.  The objective is simple (CEO’s exact words): “I want to see a world class software engineering team generate world class return on investment and fulfill the promise that technology is an enabler of sustained competitive advantage.  Do whatever it takes.  Nothing and no one is sacred”.

I interviewed all senior engineers first – not managers, to the surprise of many managers.   Common theme from these interviews:

– “Almost every new hire is somewhat average;  no passion or drive.   The most recent hire did not care much about a broken build until we reminded this person how a broken build defeats the work of everyone else”.

The Interviews with all managers were more revealing.  Common theme from manager interviews:

– “Our recruiters seem to present candidates that are good, but not exceptional.   We don’t have a choice but to hire one of these candidates”.

The interviews with recruiters were more revealing – again.  Common themes from recruiter interviews:

– “We get very uninspiring job descriptions from hiring managers.  These job descriptions do not resonate well with exceptional candidates”.

– “Compensation is below market.   It’s too hard to obtain an exception for a higher compensation.  We stopped trying.”

– “Many hiring managers do not respond quickly and better candidates are hired by another company.”

– “We rarely receive feedback why certain candidates have been rejected.  Very difficult to improve the recruiting process.”

What’s not  very difficult to see is the root cause of what happened to my client’s software engineering organization over time.  The managers forgot that their first and foremost responsibility is to the organization:  attract, recruit, hire, and retain the very best.

I asked every manager to watch a movie called “Miracle”.  It’s a true story of Herb Brooks (played by Kurt Russell), the head coach of  the U.S. Olympic hockey team in 1980.  The U.S. Olympic hockey team played the against the heavily favored USSR team and won.

This movie highlights what every manager must live and breathe:  never give up the responsibility for building, managing, and improving a great team.   It’s a difficult, often hard, but a very rewarding process.

I asked every recruiter to stop reviewing resumes and made every manager responsible for the initial review and subsequent phone screen.   The results:

– 3 managers out of 6 did not see value in this process and told me that that’s what recruiters are for.   I asked them to consider a very simple fact.   If someone cannot identify a terrific candidate from a stack of resumes, why should this person be given the responsibility to manage, coach, and mentor any hire?

– 2 managers agreed and became better managers.  1 manager left within one week.

– The other 3 managers fell in love with the new process, despite the additional workload.   The new process allowed them to build very close relationships with recruiters who began to receive detailed feedback about each candidate.

In addition, more changes have been made:

– I asked everyone to review all previously rejected resumes – over 1,200 – and look for evidence of three critical items:  ability to learn, ability to blossom in adverse situation, and ability to solve problems while never giving up.

– This process produced 60 potential candidates.   7 were eventually hired and quickly became highly respected members of the team.

– Compensation inequities have been addressed within one budget cycle.

After 12 months, I provided a report card to the CEO with 4 metrics:

– “No more complaints from the management team that there are no great candidates’

– “Employee participation in the HR survey increased from 55% to 87%.   The management team in a 360 degree survey received B+.”

– “The last 3 major releases had a total of 3 regression issues vs 213 regression issues same time last year”.

– “Customer survey – NPS or Net Promoter Score – also showed substantial improvement.”

“Where are all the great candidates” is the wrong question.   Are your managers engaged 150% to attract, recruit, hire, and retain the very best?

The war for talent – Part 2: “Are you the same person I hired?”

This blog post has been long overdue.

While hiring a senior candidate, it’s not uncommon to spend 4-6 months searching, attracting, recruiting, negotiating, and finally witnessing the perfect and long awaited new hire arrive.

For you, a very senior executive, the time invested to learn about the new hire during the recruiting process wasn’t insignificant. In addition, you asked other executives and members of senior staff to interview this candidate. The decision was almost unanimous. Other than one concern, everyone cheerfully suggested to proceed with an offer.

The first 90-120 days passed quickly.

Yet something isn’t right. The new senior hire isn’t enjoying the kind of support throughout the organization you had expected. Critical initiatives being led by this individual aren’t advancing beyond the polite discussion stage. In other words, very few see value in working with this individual.

What happened? All the right questions have been asked during the recruiting process. 360 degree evaluation became 720 degree evaluation with multiple interviews from other executives and members of senior staff. Clearly, the due diligence did not produce desired results.

“Things would be much simpler if everyone listened to me and did exactly what I prescribed”

Not every candidate or later employee will say it. Some do and can never take their words back. Some are sophisticated enough not to say the above words, but practice these words in action every day.

In my earlier post, I’ve written about the need to put every candidate in the position of extreme hardship and work with him / her while observing whether he / she can …

– Build a shared agenda in a difficult situation? Or – will he/ she simply prescribe what to do and become frustrated if no one listens?

– Realize that in difficult times he / she needs the support of the direct as well as indirect team members more than ever?

– Recognize that no amount of dictating from a throne will convince an all-volunteer army to go to battle that no one understands

– Recall reading a book titled  “Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High” by Kerry Patterson

“I accomplished amazing things in my past. I will continue to remind you of that every chance I get”.

At some point, the above words – or words phrased differently but with the same meaning and intent – will also begin surface from the candidate that isn’t meeting high expectations. How does someone, clearly capable and smart make this mistake? They forgot that prior medals mean very little when joining a new position with much to accomplish and high expectations.

It’s essential to learn about the business first, win respect from members of senior staff, and only then lead while using prior accomplishments as lessons learned.

Imagine someone who is a very experienced plumber, working with mainly builders who construct single family houses.

During the interview, ask the candidate to consider plumbing design issues on an aircraft carrier where 5,000 people work together as a team in three shifts around the clock. The right candidate will start with many questions before providing a meaningful answer. The wrong candidate will suggest a conclusion far too early.

“I don’t know the answer but want you to accept my answer even if it shows lack of clarity in understanding and next steps”

Once the seemingly perfect candidate crosses this boundary, their success is no longer possible. The overwhelming desire to provide an answer instead of finding an answer together with his / her team or other colleagues will lead to organizational equivalent of alienation. Very few will follow a poorly thought path to success and elect to work on other urgent, but more clearly defined, objectives.

This is why placing a candidate in the position of extreme hardship during an interview will easily reveal whether the candidate can find an answer together with his / her team. It’s impossible to design an effective sanitation system for 5,000 people on a vessel without asking the right questions from other contributors.

Jeff Bezos said, “you earn reputation by trying to do hard things well”.

Make your best candidate earn their reputation by asking them to do extremely hard things well during an interview.

Still reluctant to place senior candidate in a difficult situation during the interview?

“Somebody once said that in looking for people to hire, you look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy,” says Buffett. “And if they don’t have the first, the other two will kill you.”

Someone’s integrity will always shine in a difficult situation.