Evaluating Candidates When You Don’t Know the Tech

It’s a conundrum faced by many corporate recruiters and HR staffers who are trying to manage the process of identifying and hiring technical candidates: They know the importance of finding the right skills and experience, but their own technical knowledge is limited, making it difficult to evaluate how well each candidate might perform in the role.

Difficult, perhaps, but not impossible. The key to evaluating candidates whose expertise goes beyond yours lies in three things: forging a true partnership with the hiring manager, asking questions, and respecting what you don’t know.

Whatever you do, don’t underestimate the value you bring to the hiring process. In essence, recruiters say, your job is to funnel the right candidates to the hiring manager so they can evaluate technical prowess and how they’ll mesh with their team. While you may not understand the intricacies of coding or network architecture, you can still qualify tech professionals for their overall cultural fit and experience.

“You don’t need to understand how to build an app in Java to understand whether someone’s a strong engineer broadly,” said Greg Ambrose, a managing consultant in the Information Technology Practice of Korn/Ferry Futurestep. “You can talk to the candidate about fundamentals, and understand their roles in previous projects and gauge their passion for tech. What you can’t do is assess their code. Those questions need to be left to on-site, whiteboard interviews with hiring managers.”

Start by working with the hiring manager upfront to understand the job’s dynamics, how the role fits within the overall team, and the key technical components the manager wants out of candidates.

Brian Murray, Director of Talent and Culture at New York-based social marketing agency Likeable Media, sets out to understand what is involved in the job day-to-day, and asks hiring managers to show him the kind of work they expect to see from serious candidates.

The process, he stresses, is ongoing: He doesn’t wait for a position to open up to ask colleagues about their jobs and how they do them. When a specialized role needs to be filled, understanding the different facets of Likeable’s work pays off. “I’m a big shoulder-tapper,” he explained. “When I see something, I ask about it.”

Murray sees his job as being “not to make the hire, but to figure out if this person is a close fit and someone the hiring manager will want to meet.” To do that, he, like Ambrose, talks at length with the manager about how the role will function and add value to the overall business.

Know Your Candidate

Another important aspect is recognizing the strengths that any serious technology professional will bring to the table. “Understanding what motivates and drives an engineer is important,” said Ambrose, ticking off factors such as the desire to work with smart people, to work on projects that matter, solve difficult problems, and be challenged to become a better engineer.

Recognizing such traits is more important than understanding the dynamics of specific skills sets, Ambrose noted: “Skills change… You have to ask yourself whether the client is hiring a skill set or an engineer.”

Once he’s done his initial homework on the role and its requirements, Murray studies candidates, using more than just their resumes. Even before setting up a phone interview, he’ll look at a candidate’s GitHub profile and other portfolio materials. The fact that many technical candidates “are so prepared to present more than their resume” makes his job easier.

“A front end developer is going to have a portfolio and work samples to look at, and most candidates are prepared to share this stuff, often through their own websites,” Murray said. Once he’s satisfied that a candidate is a serious prospect, he’ll forward the resume to the hiring manager. Only if the manager agrees with his assessment will Murray then set up a phone interview.

During interviews, Murray is upfront about his role and the limitations of his technical knowledge. Though he doesn’t try to “act like he knows everything,” he does closely follow his industry’s news in all its flavors. For example, by following the same forums as his tech team, he’s able to bring a basic understanding of their work to his interviews: “I’m trying to put myself in the mindset of what does this role do and is this going to be a good move for both Likeable and the candidate.”

Ask Questions… Lots of Questions

Simply asking questions of the hiring manager and tech team is important, yet many recruiters are afraid to do it. “Don’t not ask questions,” said Rob Reeves, CEO and President of technical recruiter Redfish Technology. “People get stuck on that. Be open, be curious, and ask questions that are as intelligent as they can be, the kind of questions that will fill in your specific knowledge gaps.”

Ambrose works closely with the hiring manager even as he’s drafting interview questions. He tailors each set to the specific client, with an eye toward eliciting information that can help the manager make a judgment. Getting the manager’s guidance on what makes for a winning candidate is critical, he believes.

Finally, don’t forget the value your core recruiting and HR knowledge brings to even a specialized hiring process. “I’ve found someone who might be a great senior Java engineer in one environment won’t work in another,” Ambrose said. “Sometimes these things are shop-specific. It’s not about skills, but about the way they’re applied.” The biggest mistake that can be made, he believes, is looking only at a candidate’s skill set and not beyond it.

Image Credit: Shutterstock

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