Fit or Future? Which is More Important When Hiring?
by Sean Landis
June 29, 2011

Sean Landis, author of Agile Hiring, discusses how much weight to give to skills match when evaluating a candidate.
This article is inspired by
material from the book
Agile Hiring
by Sean Landis,
from Artima Press.

One of the more nuanced aspects of hiring well is deciding how much weight to give to skills match when evaluating a candidate. The resume shows that the candidate is clearly talented, but she doesn’t have some of the key skills the job opening requires. Should you pursue the smart candidate, or should you look for someone with a better skills fit?

This problem seems to come up all the time, whether you are working in a large company, or a start up. I’ve got several tips to consider that can reduce the stress and agonizing involved in making hiring trade offs like this.

The first and most important tool you have is a good job description. Without a target to aim at, you have little hope of hiring effectively. A good job description should include a description of the company and its culture, the nature of the work, and the valued behaviors. Most importantly, the job description should list the skills and knowledge both required, and desired. The “required” skills are those things you will have a very hard time compromising on. In the required list, indicate the level of expertise you need. The desired skills should be considered a bonus.

I quoted “required” because even here, it pays to be flexible. The more required skills you list, the less likely you are to find a fully qualified candidate. Understand which of the “required” skills are most important. You may not want to be flexible on these. Your job is to seek out a good fit, not a perfect fit. You may get lucky and find exactly what you are looking for, but don’t count on it.

With a good job description in hand, you now have a target. Now lets talk terminology. I use skill to mean an acquired ability. This could be mastery of a programming language, a use of a tool, or the ability to collaborate. Skill is measured in degrees of competence. There are masters and novices and everything in between.

I use knowledge to mean the acquaintance with facts, truths, or principles. In hiring software developers, knowledge might be core computer science concepts and principles, or the details of a particular architectural style. And finally, I use intelligence as the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills.

These basic definitions give us some help right off the bat. Do you want to hire someone who is less able to acquire and apply knowledge and skills? Of course not! So it is always good to hire intelligent people. Me? I try hard to hire really intelligent people. You can’t teach intelligence so you have to hire for it. If you hire for intelligence, the trade offs then focus on skills fit and knowledge.

Knowledge in the hands of an intelligent person is like compound interest. The more knowledge you have, the easier it is to gain more knowledge. Generally, a person with the right knowledge base is starting at a better place when attempting to learn a new skill. What right means is mostly context specific; it’s something you’ll have to figure out for your situation. When making a decision on skills fit, the candidate’s knowledge becomes more important as the fit becomes less perfect.

With those basics down, lets explore some of the forces that should influence your decision regarding skills fit.

Urgency If you need something done as soon as possible, you don’t have time for a candidate to learn the required skills. Fit is critical. If you are building a start-up, you are in a race to be first to market with your novel idea. Hire those people who can take you there right now. If you can’t seem to find a good skills fit for your urgent need, focus on capturing intelligence and knowledge, and do the best you can on the most important skills. Keep in mind how difficult the lacking skills will be for a candidate to acquire.

Longevity How long do you intend to keep the person that you hire? My default position is to hire for the long term because that’s where the payback is. All other things being equal, hiring for the long term makes room for learning. You can relax the skills fit and the knowledge somewhat.

Risk Always consider the risks involved in hiring someone with weak skills fit. Start-ups usually get one chance to succeed. Should your candidate not learn the necessary skills in time, your risk may be company failure. That’s probably too high a risk to absorb. On the other hand, in a big organization where the deadline is soft, the risk may be an acceptable schedule slippage. When thinking about risk, think about mitigation too. In a big company, if the intelligent candidate doesn’t work out for a particular position, he is likely to find success in another role; you are likely to be able to find another employee to do the job. In a start-up, there may not be anyone else to do the job!

Supply When there is a healthy supply of good candidates, you can afford to be patient. When good candidates are few and far between, you may need to compromise. If you seem unable to find good candidates, you may have another problem. Review your sourcing strategy, your job description, your offer package, and your company’s reputation. There may be other reasons you are having trouble finding good candidates.

Demand If you have many people to hire, you probably shouldn’t be too picky regarding skills fit. You will hire some good fits, and less good fits. Try to establish how far you can drift from the ideal.

Support Understand your organization’s ability to support a candidate in acquiring the required skills. Do you have training available internally or externally? Do you have tasks that won’t be compromised by a dose of on-the-job training? Do you have employees with the ability and willingness to mentor? If you don’t have any of these things, then you must rely entirely upon the candidate’s intelligence.

These forces are not mutually exclusive. Risk can increase, for example, if you do not have support for learning. You will want a better fit. If you urgently need someone and don’t intend to keep the position long-term, you are going to want a good skills fit. If you have a large demand, you hire for the long-term, and you have good learning support, you can be quite flexible with skills fit. If you are a small, rapidly growing company, you aren’t going to have the bandwidth to mentor up employees. You want people who can hit the ground running.

You should now be able to evaluate where you stand on skills fit. But you aren’t finished. There are a few more things to consider.

The skills fit of a particular candidate should influence how you interview. Usually the interview focuses on the degree of mastery the candidate has on the required skills (along with knowledge and intelligence). But when you know the candidate lacks certain skills, you need to shift more focus onto the candidate’s capacity to learn the required skills.

Next consider the importance of communicating to your hiring staff. Everyone interviewing the candidate should be on the same page regarding the degree of skills fit required. Likewise, when a candidate’s skill set demands you to modify the focus of the interview, the plan must to be communicated to the hiring staff.

Finally, monitor the new hire to see how she is developing the required skills. Review, in some form, is a best practice, but it’s particularly important when you’ve hired someone that isn’t an ideal fit to the job description. Clearly communicate the expectations to the new hire, the hiring manager, and team. Be proactive in providing learning opportunities so the candidate can rapidly develop the required skills.

In summary, always hire for intelligence because you can’t teach it. Understand the knowledge required for the job and how it can provide a foundation for new hires that don’t have all the required skills. Consider the key forces you face when deciding how close a skills fit you require. And then monitor new hires to ensure they effectively grow to fit the jobs you have.

About the book

If you are convinced that hiring is a mission-critical activity, and you are committed to becoming great at hiring, I suggest you read my book, Agile Hiring. It is strikingly different from what has been written before on hiring. Much of the hiring wisdom is still there, but many of the ideas are new. These new ideas have been developed and tested in companies that are committed to hiring great software professionals. They work. I describe the key technical parts of hiring: resume reviews, phone interviews, on-site interviews, and making the offer.


Sean Landis is author of Agile Hiring, which is available at:

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About the author

Sean Landis, a software architect with over twenty years of experience hiring software professionals, has hired in companies with less than ten developers and ones with thousands. He successfully retooled hiring practices at three companies, leading to significant improvements in the quality and quantity of new hires. Sean is a practicing software professional who today practices agile development and has innovatively applied agile principles to hiring.