What Does It Take?

Looking for a new job can be stressful.  But it can be just as stressful on the people performing the job interviews.  What questions should you ask?  What questions will your employee relations department allow you to ask?  What characteristics make a good hiring choice?  These are all good questions.  A lot of people are willing to offer you advice when you find yourself responsible for hiring additional staff.  For example, in an article last April, Forbes suggested that there are only three true job questions:

1) Can you do the job?

2) Will you do the job?

3) Can we tolerate working with you?

How do you determine if you can tolerate working with someone during a short half hour or hour interview?  Well sometimes the candidate helps you out.  This is a true story of a candidate a few years ago.  About midway through the interview, we asked the candidate what they would do if they found themself blocked from doing something by their supervisor.  The candidate without blinking an eye said, “Well it’s like when you are trying to take a hill during a battle and your lieutenant is blocking your progress because they are going too slow or they are just scared.  I’d shoot them to get them out of my way and take that hill.”

We just sat there stunned for a few moments not knowing what to say.  The candidate sensing our uneasiness corrected his statement.  “Oh, I would not shoot to kill. I’d just shoot him in the leg just to get around him.  I certainly wouldn’t shoot him to kill him.”  Oh that makes it soooooo much better.

That candidate did not get the job.

I’m not going to suggest that these questions from Forbes are not good questions because in fact they are, but I maintain that they are a bit short-sighted.  Of course you want someone who can do the current job and will do the current job and who wants to work with someone they cannot tolerate (or someone you are afraid might shoot you in the leg).  However, what happens when the current job finishes, changes, or morphs into something else?  Will the person be adaptable?  Are they willing to learn new things, new applications, new ways of doing things?  Unless you are hiring for a single and short-term job, these questions are just as important as whether the applicant can and will do the current job.

So how do you know if an applicant can not only adapt to change, but can grab new opportunities, master them and propel your company to new heights?  This is when you need to look at the candidate’s job history and what types of things they may have done before.  Then you might ask a very generic question such as, “What was the biggest job challenge in your career where you have had to learn something new and how did you manage to adapt to that change?”  It’s a very open question and allows the candidate to answer with as much detail as they choose.

An answer like the following could be a big warning sign, “I’ve always worked in pretty much the same area so I’ve always been able to make the best use of my past skills.” Another warning sign is negative words or phrases such as, “I really had no choice but to learn the new foobar language and I’ve always hated it.  That is why I’m looking for a new position.”

On the other hand, hiring someone with no obvious passion for what they have done in the past could mean that they will have no passion to do a good job for you.  For example, “I’ll do whatever you want me to do.  It really doesn’t matter to me.  Just tell me what to do.”  People like this can be led step by step through simple processes, but if they have to apply critical thinking to solve a problem, they are totally lost. 

Equally problematic is a person who appears to jump from one technology to another, never staying in any one long enough to develop any real expertise.  This might indicate a personality that is actually afraid to become an expert in a technology because they might then have other co-workers depending on them for complex tasks.  They figure that rather than hang around long enough to become the go-to person for tough problems, it is easier to jump to a different organization, a different technology so they can start all over as a newbie and not have others depend on them.

People who have worked in specific and relatively narrow technology areas for five or more years and have made two or three switches in their career to new technology, new languages, new ways of working are in my mind the gems regardless of their age.  In the computer industry, if there is any one constant, that constant is change. 

When I taught classes at the local community college, I would tell students that if they think for even a minute that what they learn in school now will last them their entire life, they are kidding themselves.  Changing programming languages, even simple changes such as going from Visual Basic 6.0 to Visual Basic, FoxPro 2.6 to Visual FoxPro, or SQL Server 7.0 to SQL Server 2000 or 2005 has seen the attrition of many otherwise good people.

So ultimately, I submit to you that you need to determine if the candidate has shown a willingness to adapt to the inevitable change or whether they try to cling to dying technologies to avoid having to learn anything new.  Isn’t that just as important to you and your organization as whether the person can and will do a specific current job and who you feel will fit into your corporate culture?  While I think so, you need to decide that for yourself before you begin your next hiring cycle which could be right around the corner as the economy improves.