On this episode of the podcast I discuss with Nicole Tibaldi about how to interview and hire amazing software engineers.
She is an engineer manager for the cloud team at Gatsby. She cares deeply about improving tech hiring, HR processes and bridging the gaps between product design and engineering.
She is also an accomplished conference speaker who has given multiple presentation about hiring processes in the tech industry.
How did you start working with the SaaS industry?
She was working as a frontend engineer for a hotel booking company for a while and then a consultancy. After this she landed at a startup building developer tools.
How do we go about our first hire?
A good first term is to think about what kind of communicator you are looking for, what kind of work ethic you need?
What are the strengths and weaknesses that you need especially out of your first hire because that person will be critical to how you ultimately build out the rest of your team.
What are we looking for in our hire?
The first thing that she like to identify when she is screening resumes is, from a purely technical sense, does this person kind of tick the boxes that we’re looking for? And that doesn’t necessarily mean have they worked with a particular technology before. But do they have a deeper understanding of the architecture that you might expect them to be working on, or the part of the stuff that you might expect them to be working on?
She believes that one of the most important things especially for an early hire is the willing and ability to learn new things because they’re always going to encounter new problems and discover things that need to be solved with technologies that haven’t been used before.
What are some characteristics you are looking for in a software engineer?
She believes that it is important for the person to feel a sense of ownership over their work, do they feel motivated to see something cross the finish line and be shipped to users. She wants someone that is empathetic to the users experience.
If they are an early stage company, can they deal with ambiguous situations where the either the scope of the problem that you are trying to solve is not super clear or the technological solution for it is very difficult and hard to solve.
She also wants any candidate for any role to have empathy for their teammates.
How do you try and identify all those things in the person you are talking to in like 30 minutes or an hour?
She often touches on the non-negotiables in the early stage interviews, if a person is a strong technical candidate but a weak communicator, that won’t work out because it doesn’t matter how well they do on the technical aspects because the communication piece is so important.
That person might thrive in a much larger company where the level of communication with stakeholders isn’t as necessary because they can simply sit down and do their work. That is not necessarily a criticism of that character but at an early stage setup communication is very important.
She also tries to ask really focused questions about experiences that candidates have had before.
Can you give us some insight into whether they are going to be a potentially good hire?
One of the things she likes to ask is to describe a project that they worked on and then ask them focused questions about the different areas she might be looking for. In some cases, it might be technical expertise while at other times it might be more around what they’re passionate about. She thinks the key is in the follow up questions, the questions of what they’ve worked on can be very generic.
And then you can take what they’ve given you and ask for follow ups to really help with the thing you are trying to target. You know, can you tell me a little bit more about why that was challenging?
What is your take on culture and how do you feel a culture affects productivity?
Culture is really important but it is a loaded term that means a lot of different things to a lot of different people.
There needs to be some thought into what you want and the shape you want your company to take. Culture is very hard to change once it has taken a life of its own.
She finds out that for a manager it is imposter to foster a collaborative environment where people are open to help others working together and allowing everyone to feel psychologically safe. She believes it s dangerous to assume that culture means that everybody acts the same or has the same interest.
Can you tell us about the interview process?
This can vary depending on your use case. She has historically seen a good number of phases that helps you to validate whether or not a candidate is what you need.
If you’re looking for a software engineer, to work on the front end for example, because that’s where my most of my expertise is, you might ask them in more detail the projects they’ve worked on, what were the technical implementation details? Did they use react? Did they use Angular, you are just digging in on the technology bits
She is strongly against doing gotcha interviews, trick questions or things that are hard just for the sake of being hard don’t set people up for success.
Another key point about interviewing, that she wants is that you have to make people comfortable in order for them to show you the best versions of themselves, to be able to show you their skills to be able to communicate their experience. She doesn’t think trying to scare candidates is the right way to go about it.
She says that whiteboarding interviews have been so deeply ingrained in the tech industry.
You can start out with a conversational interview around the person’s work habits then moving on to something a bit more technical, and then things sort of fracture at this point, and you can determine what works best for you.
You might do some sort of engineering pairing interview where you have the person work with you on a small problem, guide them through it, give them opportunities to ask questions, and you can evaluate if they are able to do the work but also if you they are focused in asking their questions, are they patient? Do they get frustrated and those kinds of things.
After that you can talk about this a little bit more in depth, if you’d like, a take home style interview is what we like to call them where the candidate gets some time to go away and work on a problem independently and present their solution back to you.
Nicole speaks on how to avoid bias creeping in during the interview process
You should try and make sure you are asking the same questions to every candidate. Obviously follow ups or tangents conversations will happen and those are natural and important.
It is however important to start from the same baseline so that you can also have a way to compare what you think about a particular candidate or what their strengths are in comparison to someone else.
What are some ways you can understand their technical knowledge and expertise?
There are a lot of different options and they have their pros and cons like anything else. The model of paying somebody for a project is really interesting because in that case, you can also offer them a real problem that you’re working on and you might be able to use their work so paying them makes that feel a lot more appropriate.
If you’re asking them to work on a real problem within your business, she recommends paying somebody for that kind of project.
For other types of take home projects, setting up like test code bases that are repeatable problem that use the same one that everyone solves. And while it’s nice to pay people for their time, not everybody can do that. It is fairer to give something that is very focused on this is just an interview question
It is also a good idea to have some level of technical interview that’s happening live, whether it be just talking about technical concepts, or actually pair programming together, because that is the sort of opportunity that you have to see how the person works, it also gives you an opportunity to see how they operate under stress.
When you start hiring people, would you say that your success rate was lower than it is now?
She has been fortunate to interview on panels with other people. If you have other folks working in your company, you can pull them into the interview loop, if they’re not technical, maybe let them do the more conversational screens.
Getting multiple people’s opinions certainly helps in the interview process.
As a result of doing a lot of interviews she is more confident about the things that signal a good or great hire and the things that signal someone is not a good fit.
The importance of setting expectations for yourself and the results that come out learning how to hire and manage people
It is also important to realize that there is no perfect candidate. You will hire somebody who has certain strengths and weaknesses. People are very adaptable so they will oftentimes learn the things or adapt to the situation that they find themselves in, especially if they’re passionate about working for your company. She has seen lots of people really start to dive into areas that were not their strengths before because they love what they do and want to Improve and grow in their careers
Are there any other questions that I didn’t ask you when I should have?
One of the most critical points of interviewing is also allowing the candidate to ask you questions and really thinking about what the implications of those questions are.
Not only are the candidates being interviewed but they’re also interviewing you. If they’re not going to be happy while working on the team or working on this specific product, like they deserve to. It is better to know that as early on in the interview process as possible because it saves both parties a lot of time.
And I think that being really conscious of what kinds of questions Someone is asking and what those questions might imply is something that I always like to think about too.
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