Part 1 of a 2-part post on what I’ve learned as a hiring manager. It’s difficult no matter which side of the table you’re on.
Part 1: Planning
Depending on your organization, most managers will have some say in who gets hired. You might have complete control from top to bottom, especially at a smaller company. At a larger org, you might have the final say, or at least strong influence over the final candidate. In any case, the hiring manager is charged with using their best judgement to determine the right fit for an open position and its applicants.
There’s plenty of advice, guidelines, legalities, and more to consider when hiring. Hiring is usually infrequent, but must be thoughtfully approached. After all, the right hire can make all the difference - and the wrong hire can completely blow up your team. I’ve been able to measure my growth as a manager in part through the evolution of my hiring process. When I was just starting out, I was nervous and would download trivia & “gotcha” questions, and would change strategies or questions with different candidates. This was an awful experience for me and the candidates. It took a slew of failures and hard lessons to impart the importance of proper planning.
When your interview process is well-planned and thoughtful, the actual execution is much smoother. It puts candidates and interview teams at ease when they know what to expect, which enables real conversations and evaluations to happen on both sides of the table. Planning for interviews should take place well before you need to hire, so be sure and make sufficient time for it.
Let’s get started!
Determine your goals
If your goal is to simply fill the position, you’re only partway there. Any personnel changes are going to have a tangible impact on your team and your work. Think hard about why you’re hiring:
- Are you backfilling? If someone left your team, you’re not going to find a drop-in replacement. Consider why your employee left, and what challenges that might present as you look to hire.
- Is your workload increasing? Your team might be a bit stressed out if there’s more work than people. How will that be reflected in your interviews?
- Are you hiring in anticipation of growth? What new skillsets will you need to hire for?
- Does your organization have an internship program? Is your team willing and able to mentor someone earlier in their career?
It’s never as simple as just filling a position. Bust out that crystal ball and think about what’s coming down the line. Maybe your team have specific goals for a new hire. Are there any individuals on your team who are looking to change their role, thus expecting the new person to take on the Charlie work?
Bring in your team
You might think the hiring process is entirely the manager’s responsibility, or that your team shouldn’t be burdened with such decisions. Maybe your team members are happy to delegate hiring completely to you. Even if that’s the case, you should work to get them engaged. After all, they’ll likely be spending more time with the new hire than you will. Your team should know, participating in the interview design & hiring process is an expected function of their role.
Especially for technical positions, a manager may not be the best person to evaluate a candidate’s approach to technical problem solving & critical thinking. Employees want to know that the person they’re evaluating either knows their stuff or is willing to learn. A good way to do this is to get them involved. Encourage your team to develop a technical interview that can be adjusted for various skillsets. Something we’ve done to measure real-time problem solving, critical thinking, questions, and using available resources is the following:
- On an existing EC2 instance, install a webserver of your choice. For most candidates, this is pretty straightforward. Either they’ve done it before, or can read the manual and figure it out.
- If the candidate had existing AWS experience, we might scale this to simply give them account access and have them create the EC2 instance themselves. Maybe we only assign a private IP, and have them troubleshoot adding a public IP and configuring the security group.
- To take it further, ask them to configure SSL on the webserver.
That exercise came from the team, which means they set the rules and are working directly with the candidate. They know what to look for in a potential co-worker, and you should trust them with designing something fair, repeatable, and scalable.
For employees who have never been part of the hiring experience before, this is a great chance to mentor them in the activity. Ask lots of questions about their process, or how they might like to be evaluated for a position. What did they like about their interview? What would they change? If they come up with something that doesn’t make sense, don’t reject it outright. Seek to understand their evaluation criteria, and suggest changes where it makes sense. For example, the activity I outlined above isn’t representative of our actual work in almost any capacity - but it allows the team to work closely with a candidate, gets them asking questions, and shows how they approach novel problems.
Make it yours, within reason
Most organizations do have some general, broad requirements for hiring. Certainly, there are laws & regulations which must be followed, and sometimes there are rules or processes for how resumes are screened & forwarded. At the same time, many organizations allow and encourage hiring managers to design their own hiring process. If they didn’t, the People department would have to do it all themselves. Use this to your advantage, but run it by your People people. For example, I found out my organization didn’t like the wording of “values interview” for one part of my process, and asked for a change.
If your organization or vertical has a strict process that you don’t especially agree with, don’t just blindly throw it out. Find out what others think of the existing process. Chances are, there will be room for improvement. If you spend time planning an interview process and can solve for some existing problems, perhaps you can lobby for changes or increased flexibility by showing you’ve taken hiring into serious consideration. Strict process is often the result of failures due to past careless hiring.
Once you’ve determined just how creative you can be, think through the general steps of an interview. My process looks like this:
- Initial screen with internal recruiter. They explain the HR side of things, salary, minimum requirements, etc. This is something I have very little control over.
- Initial 1:1 video call between me and the candidate. I want to understand why they’re interested and what they’re looking for.
- Pre-technical questionnaire. How might a candidate approach problems they haven’t solved before? Can they communicate effectively in writing? Did they blast through it in 10 minutes, or did they answer thoughtfully?
- Technical aptitude activity, with the team. Complete a technical activity, so we can assess how the candidate approaches contrived problems in a team setting. What resources do they use? Do they give up? Do they just paste errors into Google? Can they think critically?
- Panel interview. Get people outside of your direct team to interview the candidate. This serves as a “gut check” and can be especially useful if the candidate will be working with other teams in their role. If the panel doesn’t like the candidate, consider why that might be. What’s out of alignment?
- Final decision. Don’t dawdle or leave people on the line. Be swift in the decision, ensure your candidate has accepted, and send out the difficult rejection notices to your other candidates. (More thoughts on rejections & feedback in Part 2.)
Asking other teams & managers to sit in on your interviews in a panel format is a good way to explain your hiring process and get feedback, and to foster interest in organizational hiring practices. It’s a great way to network within your organization as well. Asking someone to participate in your interview process shows you trust their judgement and value their contributions. Make sure it’s reciprocal! You can learn a lot from participating in interviews for positions where you aren’t the hiring manager.
Write a job listing
Have you ever read an actual HR-provided job description? They’re dry as sand. A job description is often required, as it lists minimum requirements for education, physical ability, and skillsets. I’ve seen job descriptions posted as job listings, often with just a paragraph describing the actual work. Awful!
Instead of using the dry & uninspiring job posting, spend real time crafting a job listing, to be posted on your company’s job board and other listing sites. A job description might be mandatory…and so is a job listing. I think a good listing has the following:
- Who you are. Things like team values, mission statements, and culture go here. If I’m applying for a job, I want to know who I’m applying with. It lets your applicant ask themslves, “Is this who I want to work with, and who I might like to be?”
- What your applicant will do. These are your “big rocks.” I shy away from the “day in the life” approach, as often no two days are the same. Instead, provide some of the greater objectives that all the little day-to-day tasks are in service of.
- Who you’re looking for. Get into the specifics of the role. If you remember your goals, this is what you’re hiring for. Are you looking for someone skilled, who can hit the ground running? Do you want to mentor someone? Maybe you need to break the homogeneity and get some fresh opinions & ideas on the team. Let them know here!
- Relevant skills & technologies. In conjunction with who you’re seeking, this section can be negotiable. Either your candidate has these skills, or they’re interested in acquiring them.
- Responsibilities. You can combine the “what you’ll do” section with this, but I prefer to break it out and use this section for specifics.
- Minimum requirements. Often pulled directly from the job description, these are the credentials an applicant must possess to receive an offer. It’s okay to accept a candidate not meeting these requirements, but then the job description & listing must be updated to reflect the same.
- Anything else the candidate should know. Additional skills they might have or want, employer boilerplate, etc.
I’m really pleased with the job listing my team & I wrote for our SRE 1 position, because it checks all these boxes. It’s just over 2 pages and is (hopefully) formatted for readability. Job seekers go through a lot of listings. Make yours stand out and craft it with care, and you’ll receive higher quality responses. The best candidates will recognize when you’ve put real effort into writing a description, and it’s often the first point of interaction between you and your candidate. Make it count!
Oh, and this is another great spot to get your team involved. I remember drafting a job listing and asking my team, “would you apply for this job?” I got some great suggestions right away!
Document your hiring practice
Since you’re already in documentation mode, you really ought to document your hiring process as well! You could keep it in the same repo as your team’s charter/agreement/tao alongside other important team-related documents…which you definitely have, right? Just like a runbook or a team agreement, documenting the hiring process (and getting edits & comments via pull request) keeps your team involved and aware. This also helps with explaining your process to your manager or your People people, and can help ensure a fair interview process is granted to all candidates.
Consider things like:
- Job descriptions vs. job listings, to explain the reasoning behind both, where they are kept, the process to change them, etc.
- A paragraph or two on the meta-details. How often will you provide updates? What is expected of an interviewer? Does completing an interview step mean you automatically move on?
- Explaining each interview step, including questions that might be asked in each step to help candidates prepare.
- Set expectations. For example, I explain that our questionnaire has 5 questions and should take no more than 2 hours, but is not time-constrained.
…and share it!
When documenting your process, consider your audience. Your hiring practices doc is for general consumption by:
- Your team, so the process is known by everyone
- Your company, for reasons of audit, compliance, and sharing across teams
- Your candidate, so they know what to expect from the process!
I don’t usually share the full process right away; if the candidate doesn’t make it past the first round interview (which is described in Part 2) then it doesn’t usually make sense to send it along.
Start the search!
Alright! You’ve determined your goals, talked with your team, decided your process & documented the same. You have candidates actively applying, you’re sharing on Linkedin, and your internal recruiter is sending leads your way. Sometimes. If you’re at a large org, you’ll often have more resources at your disposal. Hiring managers at startups or smaller companies might have to do more of the legwork. Use your network, post on local job boards, get involved in meetups or Slack workspaces - you might have to get creative.
Of course, even if you’re at a larger org and candidates are coming to you, don’t underestimate hitting the streets yourself. The strategies that work for small companies work just as well for larger ones!
Only part of the hiring process is done in interviews. Careful consideration and thoughtful planning of your hiring process is a critical component of a manager’s work!
- Consider what you’re hiring for. You’re never just filling a position, you’re hiring for the future of your team.
- Using help from your team and your organization, create a process & plan for hiring which sets expectations for your interview team and your candidates.
- Thoughtfully craft a job listing aimed at getting the attention of job seekers.
- Plan out each step of the interview, from initial screening to final decision.
- Document your process for your interview team, candidates, and others in your organization.
Read Part 2, where I cover the steps of my hiring process in detail, including communication, getting candidates to open up, facilitating a team interview, making the final decision, rejections, providing feedback, and getting your new hire ready and excited!