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This chapter is from the book

Making the Decision to Hire a Programmer

As each round of interviews completes, get timely feedback. Our experience is, unfortunately, that you will likely have to remind (even hound) your interviewers to give you their feedback. You need to get it the same day, at the latest the next day, while it’s fresh and memorable, and also because, if you like the candidate, you want to take action, whether to bring the candidate back for another round of interviews or to make an offer.

Ask your team to look for indicators and for red flags. An indicator might be a candidate who has programmed in a lot of languages. It’s a rule of thumb: The more languages, the better the programmer. On the other hand, red flags might be that the candidate arrived late for the interview, took a call during the interview, never seemed to establish eye contact, was sharply critical of former managers and former companies, arrived knowing nothing about your company or your products, was unable to explain a previous design, didn’t show interest in the work you do, didn’t share anything from which you could learn, or didn’t follow up with a note or e-mailed thank-you.

Will the candidate be able not only to contribute to the current need, but can you anticipate their skill set contributing for years to come? Make sure you’re not hiring a narrow fit for a short-term task that, when complete, will leave you with a long-term problem requiring that you either train or terminate.

Weight the feedback from your interviewers. Some interviewers’ feedback is worth a lot more, whether because they know the technical hiring requirements cold, or because they have proven themselves to have a great feel for hiring, or for one of a dozen other reasons. Think about the weighting before you hear the feedback.

While dismissing candidates as not appropriate is easy, making a decision to hire is often difficult. Be clear with your interviewing team that the decision will be yours. (Actually, it will likely be yours in concert with your boss and HR.) It is not a consensus decision.

Sooner or later, you’ll find yourself convinced that you have a stellar candidate, and every interviewer is on board but one—an interviewer who is adamant that hiring the candidate would be a mistake. Listen carefully to that person’s feedback; it’s possible the feedback is dead-on. It’s also possible the interviewer is not looking at the same criteria you are. If you make it clear you’re taking input (not looking for consensus), and you bring all your reflective listening skills to bear so that the person feels heard, you’re likely on solid ground to hire the candidate based on all your other feedback that says “stellar.” On the other hand, if the interviewer, or worse, your entire interview team, gets it in their heads that it’s a consensus decision, you’ll never break a meeting deadlock without bad feelings, very possibly not only from the one person who demurs but from the team as a whole.

A quick meeting of all interviewers can be useful; a discussion can prompt memories and ahas that had been only subconscious. But meetings can also communicate to interviewers that they have more say than they do. And going on the record with one’s input can make it more difficult for an interviewer to give you the power to make your own decision. These days Ron tends to get feedback one-on-one with each interviewer, ideally in person or by e-mail or phone.

You need to learn not only to listen to others who interviewed, but to trust your gut about what you heard and saw. At one company, Ron let his team talk him into hiring a candidate when all his internal signals were saying no. The candidate, who wanted onto the team for all the wrong reasons, turned out to be mediocre. While she in fact made some good project contributions, she never really fit in with the rest of the team and was at the top of the layoff list when times turned bad.

Ron made the first hiring decisions of his career at Apple, at a time when the company couldn’t interview and hire fast enough. So it was memorable when CEO John Sculley, speaking to a full auditorium of Apple managers, urged everyone to hire carefully. His sage advice: “Hire people you want to sit next to, both tomorrow and a year from now.”

Different organizations have different customs and practices around hiring. When Steve Jobs’s NeXT Computer company hired technical staff, the decision to hire someone had to be unanimous; every person who interviewed the candidate had to agree that the candidate should be hired or they would pass (thumbs-up or thumbs-down). This led to some very intense interviews, and many of those who were hired survived grueling programming problems, one-on-five interviews, and a process that lasted many hours. The approach led to a team of extremely bright and talented members—but they were not that diverse. Make sure you clearly understand the culture you are working to staff.

To help you understand other hiring cultures, we suggest that you research some of the top technology companies to get some insight into how they work. Try Googling “interviewing at” and you’ll get suggestions for several companies to review. There are some very interesting stories about interviewing experiences you can easily access online. Don’t feel compelled to copy them, but learn from the good and the bad that are painted in these stories to help mold your own hiring culture.

With a candidate chosen, it’s time to check references. Ask the candidate to provide you with a list of references you can call. You’re going to ask for at least two peers and two former managers, with phone numbers and e-mail addresses. If you’re hiring a manager, also ask for two former employees. Pick and choose to call at least one from each category.

To the candidate’s list you’ll add your own “back-channel” references. The candidate presumably listed colleagues who will all deliver praise and recommendations. What you’re looking for are random others to corroborate that feedback but also to fill in gaps. You may know someone or have a teammate who worked at a company at the same time the candidate did. The shortest route these days is to search LinkedIn to identify whom you know who worked there when the candidate did.

HR may volunteer to take care of reference checking, but you should always have at least two or three of the conversations yourself. After introducing yourself, begin by asking how and when the reference worked with the candidate.

Like interview questions, the best reference-check questions are openended. You want to know about the work that candidates did and about their skills, teamwork and collaboration, work habits, initiative, thoroughness, follow-through, reliability, need for supervision, ability to learn, strengths and weaknesses, and values and ethics. Ask for examples. Get the reference to be descriptive, to draw verbal pictures for you. Ask about any red flags that came up for you or your interviewers. Ask references where they would rank the candidate with the others on their team. Describe the job you’re hiring for, and ask references whether they think the candidate is a fit. Ask former managers if they would hire the candidate again, former teammates if they would gladly work with the candidate again.

We suggest you use a reference checklist like the one we’ve provided in the Tools section.

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