How to hire good people

Many IT managers nowadays need ask potential hires only two questions: What do you know? When can you start?

Many IT managers nowadays need ask potential hires only two questions: What do you know? When can you start?

Still, in spite of record-low unemployment rates in the US and record-high demand for IT personnel, that quickie conversation isn’t in effect everywhere. At some corporations, hiring is still a complex and extensive process using a variety of techniques to select individuals who will be as right for the culture of the company as for the job itself.

At Capital One Financial, for example, a candidate’s development potential is as important as his ability to fill the current position. With an IT staff that has grown from 400 to 2000 in four years, “we often look not only at what the person can do now, but what [he] can do in the next job,” says IT recruiting director Jim Kutz, himself a hands-on IT manager just a few months ago.

Among the complex and interlocking methods used by the Virginia-based credit card company are a series of behavioural interviews. These are a key part of the process, Kutz says.

John Madigan, IT human resources vice president at Hartford Financial Services Group in Connecticut, says a behavioural job interview is designed to reveal a pattern of behaviour. “We actually ask what you did in specific situations,” Madigan says. “Concrete examples will demonstrate a person’s preferred way of dealing with those situations and give you a better idea of that person and how they’re likely to act on the job.”

Madigan offers several examples of behavioural interview questions that might be asked of IT professionals with different levels of experience. For a lower-level employee, he might probe for competency and teamwork skills:

“Tell me about the last time you were asked to help out on a project that you weren’t directly assigned to.” As follow-up questions, he suggests, “What was the project and what was your workload at the time? What did you do? How successful was your assistance, what impact did it have? Did you seek feedback on your assistance, and if so, what was it?”

For interviewers who are trying to assess a higher-level IT professional’s ability to lead a team, he suggests questions along these lines:

“Tell me about a time when you were most successful in leading a group or team toward accomplishing an important goal.” Then as follow-up questions, “What was the goal and who defined it? When did this happen? How were the steps leading to the goal defined? What was your role in implementing the process? How close did you come to meeting the goal?”

Behavioural interviews should be a key part of every employer’s hiring process, says Norman Scott, a senior vice president at Denver Associates, a recruiting firm in New York. “What a person knows technically is secondary to who they are ... and how they conduct themselves,” says Scott. “Genius isn’t all that counts. If the candidate is temperamental, can’t listen and doesn’t elicit the kind of behaviour that makes people comfortable enough to work with him every day, he shouldn’t be hired.”

Capital One’s Kutz describes his behavioural interviews as a series of who, what, when, where and how questions. “We’re really looking at how they think.”

Defining your company and what the job requires are the first two steps, according to Jill Ellingson, assistant professor of management and HR at Ohio State University in Columbus. She says questions that IT job interviewers should ask themselves include: “Is our culture disciplinarian? Is it autocratic? Autonomous?” And “Does our management team think employees should be an integral part of the decision-making process, or do we think employees should be at arm’s length?”

Behavioural interview questions are good for all types of IT positions since they ask the candidate to describe accomplishments and the work he or she has actually done. Of course, if the candidate describes ways in which they have used particular technical skills, it’s difficult to ascertain their level of proficiency without further behavioural probing. Though not impossible, it’s harder to get that type of information than it is to use behavioural interview techniques to assess “softer” skills like communication, negotiation and consulting abilities.

Once the company culture is defined, the next step is to identify the characteristics and competencies required. And then, says Madigan, you’d want to ask behavioural-oriented questions that address those competencies. For example, candidates for a job in R&D management might be asked how they handled an unstructured project where there were no clear guidelines. The answer they give would reveal their ability to deal with the ambiguity such a supervisory position often involves.

At Hartford, the HR department has compiled questions designed to elicit specific types of information and has posted those questions online internally. Managers can print out the questions for each competency they need. There are also specific online interview guides for positions that regularly need to be filled.

To be complete and accurate, behavioural interviews should be combined with other techniques. At Capital One, the daylong selection process follows two telephone pre-interviews that probe behaviour and technical knowledge. Survivors of this initial cut are invited in for a series of one-on-one meetings as well as personality, technical and business-problem tests.

“We really want to hire the best people,” says Kutz. “By the time the process is over, the candidate will have conversations with five to seven people involved in the hiring decision. ... We’ve got a lot of different views. It results in our hiring a better candidate.”

Testing the candidate

The profile for IT personnel is very much like the profile for marathon runners, says Douglas Jackson, president of Sigma Assessment Systems, a Michigan-based personality test publisher. Above all else, IT work requires endurance, especially in the programming field.

Technology jobs also require logical, sequential thinking. However, too much of a good thing also can be true, says test creator Kathy Kolbe, chief executive of Kolbe in Phoenix. The key to success for an IT team is to have a mix of people with the right instincts for the jobs they have and the right balance in terms of their approaches to problem solving. While the criteria are complicated, Kolbe says she finds that people’s instinctive approaches fall within the following general “action modes”:

  • Fact Finders: precise, data-driven individuals who are able to see patterns and organise systems.
  • Quick Starters: people who have the ability to deal with the unknown and innovate.
  • Follow Thru: employees who excel at planning, designing and programming.
  • Implementers: individuals who are skilled in the use of tools and in hands-on, 3D problem solving.

Kolbe notes that Quick Start is the instinctive style of most CIOs in the US. They’re leading-edge and visionary, and their sense of time is the future. That may be terrific, but — as in other personnel areas — a team with too many people with similar personalities could produce conflict — or equally destructive inertia. For example, if a group of programmers all want to hold off putting a system into effect until it’s perfect, the project would never get done.

Trotsky is a New York freelance writer.

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