Hiring as a Core Competence
by Sean Landis
July 1, 2010

Sean Landis, author of Agile Hiring, describes why he thinks hiring should be considered a core competence of software organizations and an important skill for software professionals.
This article is inspired by
material from the book
Agile Hiring
by Sean Landis,
from Artima Press.

Be honest. Hiring is a chore and a distraction. Your job is developing and testing software, not hiring other software professionals. Hiring is better left to HR and management. Anyway, it is so tedious sifting through hundreds of bad resumes looking for one person worth calling. And then the call. Phone interviews are such a nightmare. You can't even connect with the person on the end of the line, much less tease out whether she is competent. It seems like no matter the question, there's a misunderstanding. Then there's the on-site interview: All those uncomfortable interactions; all those repetitive questions; all that time and money wasted on unqualified candidates. And finally, when there is a spark of hope, there are those terrible uncertainties with the offer. How much should I offer? What if it's not enough? What if the candidate makes a counter offer? Hiring is such a pain.

Why hiring is important

How important is it to achieve excellence in hiring? Many companies build and maintain software to generate or manage income. Yet software is not always recognized as a core asset: an asset without which the business cannot carry on its main activity. This is demonstrated when companies fail to hire the best full-time software professionals to write and maintain mission-critical software. If software is a core asset, then it makes sense to have the best people working on it.

If your company is small, then you know that every hire is critical because one bad employee could break the company and one great hire can mean success. Small companies must hire the best to make every hire count.

A growing company can shape its future by who and how it hires. Intentionally seeking and hiring specific skills and behaviors will create momentum toward a desired organizational capability and culture. Every new employee initially creates drag on the organization but great employees soon will lift an organization. If those great employees embody the skills, behaviors, and principles your company desires, each one you hire will move you closer to that ideal.

On the other hand, every poor hire will weaken organizational skills and deteriorate the culture. A bad hire requires more support from others, erodes moral, and reduces productivity. Strive to increase your organizational IQ through great hiring.

Hiring the best software professionals should be a top priority of a software organization. It should be a core competence. But how do you identify the best? Certainly the software professional's primary job is to deliver business value through the production and maintenance of software. After that, one of the most important jobs of a software professional is to help hire the best. HR and management have a role, but it is a support role; the front line lead developers and testers are the best equipped to evaluate others like them.

Conviction, commitment, and skill

So the first impediment to great hiring is conviction: the deep belief that great organizations begin with great hiring. The second impediment is commitment: that hiring is a major part of the software professional's responsibility. The third impediment is skill: Great hiring is hard and most companies simply do not know how to hire well.

Hiring is a difficult skill that requires education, practice, and mentoring. You didn't become an accomplished developer in a few months. Why would you quickly be able to hire at an expert level without hard work and practice? Anyone can hire poorly, but it takes skill to hire well.

Since most companies and individuals do not recognize the importance of hiring, they fail to invest the effort necessary to do it well. Hiring is often perceived as a chore or a distraction. It is often avoided because it is hard, uncomfortable, and there is so much uncertainty.

Unfortunately, for those companies that do realize the importance of great hiring, the conventional wisdom has fallen short of the task. Too often companies have the wrong people vetting resumes, thus allowing the wrong candidates through. Popular advice on how to manage a high volume of inconsistent resumes often leads to similar collateral damage.

There is little good information on how to identify a great resume in a pile of good to average resumes. Doing a great job with resumes has a huge impact on the cost-effectiveness of the rest of the hiring process. If most of the candidates in later phases of hiring are solid, things go much more smoothly than if there is a lot of variance.

The old guard of hiring has almost no useful advice on conducting phone interviews, possibly the most difficult of all the hiring tasks. This is so critical because the cost of a phone interview is small compared to the cost of an on-site interview. The bang-for-the-buck is found in quality phone interviews.

The conventional wisdom may be strongest with regard to on-site interviews. Still, there is much left untold. The great candidates need to be convinced your company is The Place To Work. A highly competent hiring team impresses the best software professionals. Likewise, great candidates are turned off by mediocrity. If you find you just can't close the deal with the best candidates, you are probably blowing the on-site interview.

Lastly, there are some unintuitive ways to improve the offer-making process. This may be one of the most dysfunctional areas of hiring, yet it is the most important. A poorly executed offer will usually fail. Maybe surprisingly, the offer doesn't have to be the richest one for it to succeed. If the other phases of the hiring process work well, making an acceptable offer is easy.

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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