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Hiring for Talent vs. Hiring a Skillset

Different Skillsets
Building A Team
Hiring

10 May, 2021

Jean du Plessis
Jean du Plessis

Director of Engineering at Sourcegraph

Jean du Plessis, Director of Engineering at Sourcegraph, is refining his sense of value when weighing his options while hiring. Passionate talent will always be able to grow into the desired technical skillset.

Problem

What I’ve become more convinced of lately is this: smart people can be taught skills. What I’ve recently started doing is changing what I’m looking for in the candidates that I consider bringing onto my team.

In this line of work, we tend to look for people who already have the skills that we want instead of hiring for potential and the talent that the person has. In an industry that’s obsessed with building over buying, why do we insist on buying the most expensive thing, which is a skillset that already exists in a candidate instead of building that skillset in somebody less established? When hiring for a position, why do we always try to find somebody who is already “perfect” for the role? There are other attributes that are better indicators of long-term success aside from “fitting the bill”.

Actions taken

There are a couple of things that I’ve started doing to combat this tendency. I check to see whether or not the person has a hunger for learning; I ask them to share the most recent thing that they’ve learned, and that can be technical or non-technical. I then ask them to explain it to me as if I were somebody who has never heard it before. This gives us input in terms of their ability to understand the things that they learn.

This is useful to know because it will show you their aptitude for coming onto the job and learning the new skills required. How quickly will they be able to understand? I’m trying to look for passion in this desire to learn.

The other thing that I look for is what the candidate is looking for next in their career. There is obviously something about their current employment that they’re missing, which is why they’re looking for another opportunity. I really strive to find out what that is and how the company and the team that I work for can really meet that need. You want to make sure the candidate’s career path is in alignment with what you can offer them. It’s no good to bring somebody in if they cannot see themselves being successful with you while also meeting their career goals.

I ask them what they feel that they’re really, really good at. I ask how they think that their area of expertise will be beneficial to the team. That will normally be an indicator of whether or not they are self-aware of their strengths. What do they believe in about themselves, and what do they recognize themselves as being passionate about? There will usually be some overlap between these two areas.

Lessons learned

  • I don’t hold a lot of value in reviewing CVs anymore. When I carry out a screening as a hiring manager, I assume that this person is technically competent. If you can pick up the tech stack or any of the other technical aspects of the job quickly, that’s just as valuable as somebody who knows these things already.
  • What is more important is how they fit into the gap that your team is missing. Before you seek candidates, you need to really understand what it is that you need in this regard. What are the signs that make you believe that they are the missing puzzle piece? What are you hiring for that you do not already have in your team already? Sometimes, the skill will be specific. What are the strengths that your team already has? Do you need somebody who is good at mentoring or prototyping? Define the need. What will create a finer sense of balance?
  • Try to continuously become more attuned to the signals that you receive while interviewing. I’ve made poor decisions in hiring that came as a result of my own biases. Hiring in this way results in people who tend not to work out. You burn yourself when you figure out how expensive it is to replace somebody after already investing time and energy into them.

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