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Additive Hiring: Looking Beyond Common Technical Interview Practices

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15 March, 2022

Dan Johnson
Dan Johnson

Senior Software Engineer at Netflix, Inc

Dan Johnson, Senior Software Engineer at Netflix, Inc, shares additive hiring practices that he uses to make decisions about candidates, focusing on what they can add to the team vs. just whether they meet a technical bar.

Are Technical Skills the Most Important Hiring Measure?

Almost every company I’ve worked for has put most of the focus during an interview on technical skills and ensuring that candidates meet a similar bar as others hired before them. While technical skills are important to day-to-day work, often, what is more important is what a candidate can bring to the team that doesn’t currently exist. When I think back through engineers I’ve hired over the years, very rarely is it technical skills that stand out; it’s almost always something else that impacted the company.

Previously in my career, I was hired by a startup as the first engineer and then quickly looked to hire the next engineer. At the time, the company was in a very chaotic state, and the key trait I ended up hiring for was the ability to bring a calming influence to the team. While we needed basic coding skills and interviewed for those, I put more weight on how candidates interacted with our CEO and founding team. Could they take an even-keeled approach to multiple ideas passionately being thrown around on a daily basis?

Given that interview time is limited, the risk of focusing less on the technical skills is that you hire somebody that ends up not working out due to technical skill gaps, but in my experience, this is the smallest reason for attrition, yet most companies over-index on trying to avoid this rare case instead of focusing on the much larger risk of hiring somebody who doesn’t fit in or doesn’t add value to the team in other ways.

Get the Team Involved

When I start to hire new team members, I ask the team to think about the gaps within the team and organization. It’s important for them to be aware of the team’s blind spots – as this self-awareness usually leads to better interviews and hiring decisions.

I recommend reading the book The Ideal Team Player: How to Recognize and Cultivate The Three Essential Virtues. The book talks about some of the key principles for candidates: hungry, humble, and smart. While the first two are pretty straightforward, the last principle is about being people-smart and understanding how to read a room.

The Right Interview Mindset

Regardless of whether you are conducting an initial screen or a final in-person round, technical or cultural-based topics, you should always be thinking about bringing out what the candidate can add or what they are strong in, even if it’s not exactly in line with the interview topic. Often this comes down to knowing when to dig deeper on an answer or knowing when to redirect the conversation if the candidate starts to struggle.

Many companies use rubrics or checklists to score candidates, and while this can be beneficial related to creating an equitable process, the danger is that it becomes focused on “did they check all the same boxes like the last hires,” so as an interviewer and hiring manager it’s important to keep the bigger picture in mind of “what could this person add to the team that will help us be more successful,” and except for a few rare cases where you need very specialized technical skills, this is usually not based what they can do in a coding interview.

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