In a recent interview, I was asked how I interview!
While interviewing for an opportunity to join a California med-tech startup as CTO, I was asked extensively what I consider important when hiring. I learned during the call that a major first priority, were I get to the position, was to assemble a strong engineering team, mostly from scratch.
I love this question! It allowed me to share my experience and priorities as a manager, while demonstrating the company’s emphasis on building a strong team. My answer was serviceable, though far from eloquent, motivating me to clarify my priorities in writing.
Technical Skills and Character
Technical skills are essential. Every new hire must have the necessary technical background to hit the ground running in their new position. A strong skill set is a useful indicator of a candidates early contributions to the organization.
However, I am adamant that the most reliable indicator of long term success is character.
Of every employee, I expect integrity, teamwork, curiosity, and delivery.
Interviewing for Character
Technical skills and achievements are the backbone of a resume and may be quizzed and challenged using a vast array of interview tools. Many engineers will recall whiteboard sessions, portfolio reviews, and case-studies.
By contrast, character will not not be found listed in any application. To reveal a candidate’s character takes great effort, time, and practice.
At the heart of character is integrity. A candidate must be honest and of strong morals.
I look first and foremost to honesty in a candidate’s statements during an interview. Small lies or misrepresentations are red flags that may indicate bigger issues down the road. I compare my discussion with the candidate against feedback from their references and past colleagues. Most often, these references will validate a candidate’s statements and any disparities are merely benign differences in perspective. On rare occasion, unfortunately, it becomes clear that a candidate is grossly overstating their skills and achievements.
A successful team mate is a collaborator with strong communication skills and focused energy.
An employee must remain ambitious in their own goals and career while recognizing that to help themselves, they must help their team. A successful team together remains focused on the mission at hand.
Realize though, friction is unavoidable in a fast moving work place; smart people with opinions are expected to disagree and butt heads. The challenge is to find those who channel their energy away from personal strife towards the problem at hand.
I aim to determine if the candidate is a strong communicator, asking references if the candidate clearly communicates the problems they are solving, the risks and benefits of alternative solutions, and their progress towards an implementation. Equally important is if the candidate has confidence to ask for help when struggling, and to say “No” when too much is asked.
Strong collaborators are not merely those who complete their tasks in a timely manner. Collaborators strive to understand the issues their team is facing, how their own work fits within that of their team mates, and to educate their colleagues in their areas of expertise.
Professional growth demands learning, and learning demands curiosity.
When interviewing a candidate, I provide ample opportunity to share examples of personal growth. Structured learning through coursework is not necessary to demonstrate this; working adults often lack the time and resources to continue their education while leading a balanced professional and personal life.
But, I expect to see employees with the initiative to go beyond their predefined roles and responsibilities. The candidate may have identified, learned, and implemented new tools to improve the quality and efficiency of their work. Even better are candidates who sought out opportunities to learn from colleagues in areas of the business outside their own, key opinion leaders outside the business, and potential customers who may be impacted by the business solutions.
At the top of my list are those candidates who have educated themselves by educating others. The candidate may have learned extensively of the problems the company is addressing and educated their team members in these issues. New tools and techniques may be difficult to learn, and teaching others may be the ultimate demonstration of mastery.
Work must be delivered in a timely manner, without compromising quality.
References should be able to speak to both the timeliness and quality of the candidate’s work. The candidate should have a reputation of completing their work on time and communicating their challenges when they are unable to.
I make sure to consider the complexity of the projects the candidate has contributed to. Early projects and those of even moderate complexity, where the unknowns far outweighs the known, delays may be frequent. The challenge is to determine, from your outside perspective, if those delays were systemic, or if the candidate was cause and contributor.