What to look for when hiring

Being effective means so much more than being skilled at the job

A while ago, I found myself in the enviable position of having to rapidly grow my team. By then, I had done a large number of technical interviews, so I had an idea of what to look for in strong candidates for Software Engineering positions. However, I felt like I lacked a framework for understanding how likely a given candidate was to succeed if they had joined my team, beyond a very loose definition of “culture fit”.

As I was trying to better understand what I was looking for, I started to think about what I value in the people I work with and to reflect on traits I found to be quite common among some of the most successful people I have worked with over the course of my career.

While I would not expect every person I work with to exhibit all the qualities I list here, I am always positively impressed when I come across someone who exhibits more than a few and equally concerned when I see no hint of any of these characteristics.

Over time, I became quite sensitive to some hints that suggest someone could possess one of the these traits and I learned to probe further whenever I see them.

Here a list of the most important characteristics I learned to value in anyone I work with, regardless of job function.

Intrinsic Motivation

Many of the best people I worked with are motivated by their own desire to improve, regardless of the environment around them. Certainly, having a great team and a lot of attention from their manager will help them as well as it would help anyone else, but being intrinsically motivated means they are able to find satisfaction without relying on artificial nudges from the system around them.

I tend to enjoy working with people who think this way because they are often pushing themselves to get better every day, react better to difficulties and challenges and, as a result, push me to get better as well.

I know I am looking at someone who has this kind of attitude when they show they are driven by things such as:

  • learning something new every day
  • mastering a skill or a craft
  • accomplishing something they thought of as difficult

Having hobbies and non-trivial side-projects (for those of us who are at a point where they can afford the time required) is often a sign of being intrinsically motivated.

Relentless Focus

Success often requires from focusing on the most important things first and almost ignoring everything else.

Effective executives concentrate on the few major areas where superior performance will produce outstanding results. They force themselves to set priorities and stay with their priority decisions. They know that they have no choice but to do first things first—and second things not at all. The alternative is to get nothing done. Peter F. Drucker, The Effective Executive

I found it hard to gauge how good anyone is at focusing on top priorities based solely on casual conversations. One decent proxy, at least for technical roles, are open ended system design interviews. Many good questions involve asking to solve a problem too large to be tackled within the allotted time or with the given constraints. That forces the candidate to narrow down the scope and focus on the most important aspects of the problem and set everything else aside.

Independent Thinking

A couple of the best people I worked with have a way of asking questions that sometimes can come across as blunt or excessively direct. In their case, I have never had a problem with it, since it is tied to what I believe to be one of their strengths: they are not afraid to question a line of thought if they do not fully understand it or if they disagree with it.

In cultures where it is more comfortable to agree with others than to challenge their thinking, it takes courage to express dissent.

I wrote before how much I value a culture where anyone feels free to voice their disagreement: I value even more individuals who are comfortable speaking up regardless of what the environment surrounding them looks like.

This is another trait that is be hard to spot in casual conversations, I have seen this come across as a set of pointed, specific questions aimed at developing a stronger understanding of a topic and then thoughtfully suggesting there might be a different way to approach a problem.

However, there is a fine line between being willing to challenge ideas when they are not rock solid and being contrarian by default: it is hard to work with someone who disagrees with everything on principle.

Fast Learning

The ability to learn quickly and adapt to changing circumstances is one of the most critical skills to have in this day and age. To me, it means that I can trust someone to be able to be asked to do something they have not done before and rapidly get up to speed.

I generally see this through evidence of high rate of improvement; whether it shows as gaining mastery of many technologies in a short time, working across a number of different domains or being promoted repeatedly while at the same company, this shows an ability to adapt to changing circumstances.

Responsiveness and Follow Through

One of the main differences between working with a team and working by ourselves is that when we are part of a team others tend to depend on our output for their own progress.

Oftentimes, managers end being stuck having to play the role of the persistent nag, reminding others of their prior commitments and making sure that any work that was agreed upon is eventually delivered. Clearly, this is a way around a fairly common problem: the average person is not great at following through.

By contrast, the most effective team players I have worked with hardly need any nudges: they will stay on top of their to-do list and consistently deliver anything they agreed to do by the time they said they would, without you ever needing to ask again. If you do ask something of them, they respond right away.

Sadly, I do not know of a way to assess how well anyone would do on this point without speaking to anyone who has worked with them before.

Decisiveness

Many people struggle with decisions, for fear of making a mistake, being proven wrong and fallible or committing to the wrong direction. Whatever the reason, shying away from decisions is rarely helpful.

“In effect, the lack of a decision is the same as a negative decision; no green light is a red light, and work can stop for a whole organization.” Andrew S. Grove, High Output Management

The truth is that many decisions are relatively easy to reverse if necessary but the cost of paralysis is too high for most teams and organizations to afford. High-stakes decisions are rare, but when facing one it is important to treat it as a priority and not linger too long. The worst thing we can do is simply dwell on it and get stuck.

Decisiveness is often the driving force behind the responsiveness in the previous section.

Curiosity and Inquisitiveness

Beyond being a fast learner or being passionate about the specifics of someone’s own job, being curious and inquisitive can be invaluable in understanding one’s own teammates, manager, users and competitors.

By wondering about the “why” behind anything we observe, we develop a stronger understanding of the problem we are trying to solve or the parties and organizations we are working with. An understanding that inevitably helps us be more effective.

“When you get curious and learn how to turn that disagreement into honest questioning, you can learn more about other perspectives on the issue because your team will open up.” Camille Fournier, The Manager’s Path

Oddly enough, at least based on my own experience, it is fairly common to find engineers who are extremely curious about technical topics but tend to be less interested about understanding less technical subjects (such as organizations and other humans). People I worked with who are truly inquisitive tend to demonstrate it by being uncommonly interested in the motivation behind the status quo or previous decisions. They often ask questions such as “Why do we do things this way?”

Communication

So much of teamwork is communication, yet communication skills are often overlooked. It is hard to overstate the importance of communication in teamwork. Effective communication means, among other things,

  • being able to make one’s point of view understood,
  • resolving conflicts,
  • selling our own vision,
  • making sure others are aware of our work (and why it matters)

Of all the traits I learned to appreciate, this is perhaps the most visible. If you spend even a few minutes speaking with someone and they are an effective communicator, you will notice.

Going the Extra Mile

Many successful people consistently overdeliver. It is quite difficult to have any sort of success by just doing the bare minimum. Sure, one can get lucky once or twice, but solid careers are built on strings of consistent achievements.

I often see this in coming through from people’s passions. It often shows as side projects (work-like activities they chose to do in their own time1) or initiatives at work that they started without anyone asking them to do so (e.g. 20% projects at Google).


  1. Note that this is not always possible for people to do, depending on their situation. ^
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Alessandro Bahgat
Software Engineer & Manager

I am an engineer and manager of engineers, I sometimes play with side projects and write about my experiences in my spare time.

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