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Picking a Plum

Hiring is one of the most important processes in an organization, but sadly it seldom gets much attention. Interviews are often rushed and in many cases interviewers allow candidates to simply regurgitate their resume. Given the huge variation in individual capabilities (in software development, studies repeatedly show a 10 to 1 variance) short changing the hiring process is a big mistake.

Differentiating “expertise” from “years of experience” is one of the goals when hiring a person. While “years of experience” is useful to know, it tells us little about the depth of insight (expertise) the candidate has distilled from their experiences. Unfortunately in the hiring practices used by many organizations years of experience and expertise are simply equated and that over simplification often leads to poor hiring decisions.  Much as the old saying goes; “you might have ten years experience, but if you haven’t been paying attention, you may have only one year’s worth of experience ten times”. Clearly the goal for those performing interviews is to get beyond years of experience and explore a person’s level of expertise. The problem is how do you do that?

When hiring developers, many organizations now use testing as a part of the process. Candidates are given a programming exercise and their responses are used to evaluate their coding style, how they approached the problem, etc. That’s a big step forward, but the question is how to do we apply that idea to roles such as the Project Management role?

Given the number of variables Project Managers have to juggle (people, politics, schedule, budget, stakeholders, etc), setting meaningful tests for candidate Project Managers is not very practical. An alternative that I have seen used to great effect lies in having the candidate prepare a presentation or write up on the problems they encountered in prior projects and the lessons they learned.

Such an approach helps prevent the “regurgitate problem” and allows the interviewer(s) to get a sense for how deeply the candidate understands the events that unfolded around them. Presentations also provide a platform for the interviewers to assess and ask questions on other issues, such as;

  1. Whether the candidate “externalizes” problems (i.e. blames others or external events) or whether they are capable of questioning their own actions
  2. The depth of insight the candidate has regarding the forces and factors that were influencing their situation
  3. Their presentation and spoken communications skills
  4. Whether candidates have used the lessons they learned to guide their decision making in subsequent projects

Such an approach may take additional time, but given the significance of the decision being made, it’s an investment well worth the money. The technique is especially effective as a second round interview. Unfortunately in many organizations, there is only a single interview, which in itself is a great portion of the problem. My advice is to do a second round and find ways such as that outlined above to ensure the interview reveals information beyond what’s shown on the resume.  Such an approach may well be the thing that helps you pick a plum over a rotten apple.

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