Data and HR – Numbers are Nothing Without Insight

Managing employees and an HR function requires a more holistic approach than exploring issues from the surface.

People use statistics as a drunk uses a lamppost – for support rather than illumination. – E. Houseman (1903)

Our online activity has meant a ubiquitous lens is shone on our lives where the accessibility of data leaves leaders believing every metric can be measured, compared and leveraged, contributing to a curious new world of seemingly ‘crystal clarity’ that was seldom thought possible. The problem, however, arises when data collection occurs without the insight required to take contextual influences into account. Leading the way for deeply consequential misinterpretation and misjudgement to arise. This ubiquitous lens, unless harnessed correctly, stands to confuse as much as it will clarify.

For me, context is the cornerstone of moving from data to insight in a human way, which will clarify, rather than confuse. Nowhere is this more important than in the HR function, where the source of data; humans, operates in a fashion that led author Phillip Lieberman to label us as the “unpredictable species.”

This is best illustrated by highlighting a data source that is predictable, like books in a bookstore. For the bookstore, doing inventory is easy. The metrics needed are things like how many books are on the shelves and how many have been bought. Once a book is bought, there are no external factors influencing its behaviour not to be removed from that shelf. The book doesn’t decide that its commute is too long, or that its wife no longer wants it to work at its company, or that its pay packet isn’t satisfactory. Thus the likelihood of it leaving the bookstore, (unless I am seriously overlooking something) for any reason other than it being bought or stolen is highly unlikely. This is because the external factors surrounding it are predictable.

Humans on the other hand are a different story. Aristotle wrote that we are “rational animals” pursuing knowledge for its own sake. We live by art and reasoning he said. Whilst I’m sure many HR professionals would love to see their employee population be as predictable as books on bookshelves, myself included, the multiple external factors that make humankind human are unlikely to change soon. Which makes producing blanket metrics and chasing large numbers such a dangerous game, because in doing so, the individual is naturally rejected. It’s like saying “we have increased our likes on Facebook which means that we are doing better as a company.”

All that we get from this is a top line number. What do you actually mean by this? What does this equate to? If these questions aren’t followed up, then where does the return on investment come from? Is this useless? This problem becomes even more salient when you consider that HR systems for the most part aren’t built in ways that enable contextual data to be factored in. Nor will a majority HR systems allow data to be exported for further analysis, leaving you stuck analysing the top line, leaving retroactive approaches to remain.

Until contextual factors can be included within HR systems and data analysis, I personally believe HR isn’t critically equipped to have a discussion around data at all. Instead of building a data set from the ground up specifically focussing on important questions we want answers to alongside the external factors that influence them, we tend to take a retroactive approach by attempting to find data to support new questions. The same applies for the big data phenomenon (which by the way, unless you are Facebook or some other such platform are unlikely to truly have a big data set). Gartner’s definition of big data is “high-volume, high-velocity and/or high-variety information assets that demand cost-effective, innovative forms of information processing that enable enhanced insight, decision making, and process automation.” Playing with data sets of this nature without taking into account the contextual factors that directly influence decision-making processes as they happen will ultimately lead to skewed results and misinterpretation.

So my advice to those individuals taking the data approach is simple: ensure you keep the human in human resources. I am not ruling out this approach whatsoever, however ensuring HR professionals take a step back is key, especially if we are to glean the results required that are free of bias.

Metrics that Matter

Firstly apologies to those of you that aren’t quite as geeky about the numbers of recruitment as I am, I’ll be back to ranting about the misuse of Pinterest for recruitment soon.  As I promised previously I wanted to give a little insight into those individual statistics that go to make up the metrics I use (or those I like to see) when recruiting.  Gathering this information isn’t about producing a report simply to prove effort.  It is only the most unengaged stakeholder who can take solace in knowing that candidate and recruiters are somewhere in the building…  Gathering this seemingly disparate data points, in a consistent format (more on this later) is about creating a dataset that is alive and available to answer questions that may arise later… regardless of what those questions might be…

So what are the basics?  Those elements that you have to capture and whether that’s in an ATS, a spreadsheet or typed up and popped in one of those old-timey filing cabinets.

Name, gender – All of your candidates will have a name, even if they have just one like a Brazilian footballer or Madonna they still have a name.  You should decide in advance on a format for writing these names capitalization, hyphenation etc this is to facilitate later use of names in mail merge or batch operations – candidates don’t want to receive an email for “MAtthw BUCKLAND” so spell it right and you won’t have to change 1000 name spellings at a later date.

Gender as a metric is of particular interest to me.  I’ve always worked in technical recruitment and it’s an industry where females and transgendered people are under represented.  This metric can be combined with source to know which sources are productive for diversity goals and with the date ranges to know if and where candidates excel or fall down in your recruitment process.  This can facilitate later discussion and provide great evidence for changing processes later.

Role – the role the candidate applies for…this one really is basic to be able to slice numbers of total applicants by role, I hope everyone does at least this.  If not I guess they just tie CV’s to the back of kittens and let them lose…

Gate Dates – Not Match.com for Farmers, this is the notation of the dates that a candidate moves through the hiring process.  Date of Application, Date of Phone Screen, Date of First On-site Interview all the way through to Date of Offer, Verbal Acceptance, Written Acceptance and Start Date.  GET ALL THE DATES!  So why track all these dates?  These date ranges can be used to answer a multitude of questions.  With values in these ranges reports can be compiled that show total length of process, drop-out ratios, expose bottlenecks in the process, expose waiting times and hold-ups, track notice periods… basically everything.  The date ranges and days elapsed are the bread and butter of recruitment reporting.  Do you currently know the average length of your interview process?  Does it vary a great deal?  Why is that? It’s the interrogation of these dates that will give you those answers and perhaps when you have enough of an historical dataset predict time to hire of for future capacity planning… all for putting some dates in a spreadsheet or clicking those little calendar icons in your swanky new ATS!  Brilliant!

Source – Again a simple one, but it bears repeating, the source is how the candidate arrived in your recruitment process.  This should break down the source into broad categories that can tell at a glance what is a good source (a lot of quality candidates) a weak source (few candidates) or a bad source (lots of irrelevant candidates).  Example sources should differentiate between the “How” of the source too e.g. not just “LinkedIn” correct reporting should be “LinkedIn Search” and “LinkedIn Advert”, this will enable you to distinguish between an active candidate application versus a directly sourced passive candidate.

Secondary Source – Some sources may require extra insight, you might need to know more for a later report.  If you have a primary source as “Event” this could be the particular Meetup, conference or pub you met them at.  A primary source of “Agency” might have the secondary source of the agency’s name, for referrals it could be the refering employees name… remember they all have one…

Country of Residence –  I also like to track where a particular candidate is based this has multiple reasons, one might be for immigration purposes to highlight to internal teams where visa constraints may be an issue or delay a start date, a second reason could be to track individual sourcing efforts from a particular country… best of all most reports can include a lovely map showing where candidates came from…the prettiest metric 🙂

Contact Details – This should be the most obvious but still I see people finding value in the wrong things.  We all should know that a direct contact is better than a message delivered through a third party.  Simply put a telephone call or a direct email address are better than a LinkedIn Inmail.  If you only use LinkedIn to contact candidates and leaving it at that you’re doing it wrong.

Last Employer – Want to know your pulling power?  Doing some competitor analysis?  Then you’ll need to know where your candidates are currently working.

Recruiter – Who found the candidate and who is shepherding them through the process?  It’s important that I’m not noting this to provide a productivity report for managerial consumption.  Unless all the members of the team are hiring for the same role in the same geography there is little to be gained from a direct comparison.  Raw numbers alone, stripped of context are not an aid.  They are a great example of one of the great flaws in gathering data – quantity isn’t always preferable to quality.

Date of Last Contact – One of the consistent complaints and killers of candidate experience is the lack of timely feedback.  Even giving a candidate a short “no news yet” will pay dividends if you later wish to offer against a less communicative rival.  To overstate, if you track the last date you contacted a list of candidates you can very easily automate an email letting them know what’s going on and when they’ll get feedback.

Status – Decide on a glossary of terms that best fit your process, get the hiring managers involved in this process too.  Phone Screen, First Interview, Second Interview..etc.  Have as many of these as you feel you need.  Counting each of these each week will give you a very rapid view of the overall pipeline.  Hiring managers will love this, full on warm and fuzzy feelings.  Too often the work of the recruiter can look like a dark art – they go and stare at a screen and people magically appear for interviews – a weekly pipeline report just illustrating the numbers of potential candidates at each stage will calm even the most rabid of hiring manager.

There are more things to track of course and when real value can be derived from the collation of this data you’ll find it quite addictive.  Best of all, when you start to move on from thinking the collection of data is just to describe the current status to instead thinking that you are creating a living, growing dataset that can be used to answer questions that haven’t yet been thought of… you’ll start to see why metrics really do matter.

 

The Itchy Security Blanket of Recruitment Metrics

The rise of more intuitive technology enabling the recruitment process has made for an interesting corollary – a rise in an organisation’s ability to collect and report data connected to the recruitment process.  The increasing data driven programmatic approach to recruitment can do much to aid in the design and selection of a recruitment strategy.  Seemingly small changes can be tracked to measure their impact on the success or failure rates of a decision.

The growth in our ability to collect these metrics has been matched by a hunger within the stakeholder set as a whole.  Once a hiring manager has seen a report that gives seemingly scientific insight into the hiring process it will be almost impossible to revert to something which grants them less insight.  I’m not advocating that we take away metrics for these managers rather than we give them the access and supply the relevant context.  The greatest danger of data collection lies not in the information, but in its interpretation.
So what metrics are appropriate to measure? What metrics can offer us certainty without falling into the the traps of selection or confirmation bias?  There are already a lot of hyperbolic blog posts like “The Top 10 Metrics You Must Have” or “7 Recruitment Metrics to Win” these miss the point.  The metrics of recruitment are best used for experimentation – tied to the continuous improvement of the team.  If you are producing metrics that will sit unopened in a spreadsheet to appease a hiring manager you are guilty of security blanket metrics.  Whilst you will feel all warm and fuzzy because you can prove that some *thing* is happening they will be of no real practical value, like butterflies pinned to a board underglass, nice to look at but not useful.
So whats the alternative?  When done correctly the term “metrics” is a misnomer.  The gathering of data around recruitment will give you a dataset which you can apply to provide insight into historical performance and to measure impact of the specific efficacy of projects the team undertakes.  In this way it’s possible to see results in real time – does that new advert copy lead to more applications? You can see that! Which website is best to advertise on? You can test that! Did that rival companies announcement affect your response rate? You’ll be able to see!  Did adding that photo of a cat to your website make it better?  Of course it did! You don’t need metrics to tell you that!
What can’t metrics do?  Predict the future.  In many of the articles I’ve read about recruitment metrics I’ve seen a large number of lofty claims about prediction.  All the while these claims are made without noting the limitations of the dataset we have access to.  It’s the measurement of this dataset that will be the most effective use of business value not on fortune teller style inference of outcomes.  Statements like “we had 1000 applicants in 2013, so this year we will have 1500” are always going to be more wishful thinking than informed prediction.  Metrics can help in planning for the future but knowing the limitations of the basis of those predictions is key.  If we aren’t aware of the limits of prediction we risk undoing the good that data can do and reaching for the crystal ball.
In a future post I’ll list the what and why of the metrics I like to measure.  Both for tracking team and individual performance within the team.  Hopefully you’ll recognise it’s a list high on building a dataset with experimentation in mind and low on fluffy feel goods and blame dodging.

Hacking the application process – A cheat mode for Developers

In a previous post I talked about resumes from candidates that applied direct being seen as secondary to those candidates who were sourced by internal recruiters.  In some organisations recruiters will go out of their way to extol the virtues of a candidate to a hiring manager simply because they were hard to find or it took a long time to tease a CV out of the candidate.  All this is at the cost of a potentially more suitable, talented CV that is sat in an applicant tracking system, dusty and unloved.

How can you get that in-house recruiter who seems to be ignoring you to advocate for you in the same way?  How can you be sure that your resume is presented in the same way, in that flurry of excitement?

You can’t.  Sorry.  There are hundreds of reasons that the recruiter hasn’t go back to you, none of them good enough to warrant ignoring you.

This is of course understandably bad news, but there is a way around this and perhaps it will give you a better insight into the company culture and the role you are applying for.  First step research the company you want to apply for on LinkedIn.  In the same way a  recruiter would find your profile on LinkedIn, look for someone who would be a peer or a manager of a team you’d like to join.  Contact them and ask them about their role, ask them all the questions that you didn’t get the answers to by reading the job description.  Mention that you’d like to apply, ask the person you’re in contact with to look over your CV.

Ideally the short cut you are taking is to game the internal referral process of your chosen target company and have an existing employee advocate for you.  The pressure you are really exploiting here is the perceived imbalance of power between the HR department and “the business”.  The cachet that is attached to a CV that is referred is often enough to force the attention of recruiters as there is a pressure to be answerable to the employee who handed the CV to them, in short the process will be expedited.  Doing this won’t increase your skills or suitability for the job but it will mean you are at least seen and considered, not left to languish in an inbox.

For recruiters who feel I may be doing them a disservice in encouraging this sort of behaviour I’d offer a little by way of explanation.  Build relationships with your hiring managers, communicate with them effectively and you’ll find they are by far the best arbiters of prospective candidates – and ultimately they are on your side.

On Becoming Discoverable – advice for job applicants

Eventually there comes a time in every period of employment that an employee starts to imagine the greener pastures that exist in other offices.  It’s not that they’ve been courted by an unscrupulous recruiter, it’s not that they are moving town or countries, it’s not even that they’ve been fired for stealing stationery supplies and selling them on eBay. They’ve decided it’s time to leave and it’s on their own terms.

They lovingly craft themselves a new CV. They toy with the idea of of a video resume, or an infographic to show their creativity…then fire up Word and smoosh their details into a template.  They search the internet for a new role. They trawl LinkedIn and then they  find something; a glimmer of what might be.  They measure themselves against the requirements, ask friends about the company, research using Glassdoor and finally they click “Apply”.

Then… nothing.

They were right for the role.  All the requisite skills, even a few extra ones that the hiring managers would love. So why are not being courted, loved, made to feel like the beautiful and unique snowflake they are by a whole gaggle of in-house recruiters?  Why are they lost, trapped in a black hole, ignored?

The answer…because they applied.

In many of the recruitment teams I have managed to date there is a odd behavioural pattern that I have noticed more than once.  Those CV’s that have arrived through direct application are not as valued or deemed inferior to those that have been head hunted or sourced through some circuitous route.  This leads to a selection bias on the part of the recruiter to over state the suitability of a candidate that has been sourced through toil and denigrate the suitability of those candidates who apply directly because of their availability.  Because we have been told many times that the “good” candidates “aren’t looking” or are “passive”, those that are active must be inferior. This despite metrics that directly show that 10 to 15% of hires had come through direct applications!

There are many reasons why this could have happened.  The “groupthink” or herd behaviour of the team seeking to emulate a strong performer, a little cultural inheritance from a previous job or even an example of the Dunning-Kruger effect – the recruiter valuing their own perceived skills over that which lacked their “superior” touch.

It may not be the fault of the recruiter.  Some of the organisations I have seen use an applicant tracking system that deposits CV’s of applicants to be viewed into “bins” or “buckets”.  There has to be some linguistic reinforcement of perceived value here.  When I think of the contents of these inanimate objects I don’t really see it positively.  In British English a “bin” is where we put rubbish or trash and a “bucket” is used for cleaning, it’s association is with dirt or grime.  How many bins and buckets are filled with gold, or diamonds, or unicorns!  Institutionally we can do something to aid the shaping of behaviour here, why not refer to an internal talent “pool” and try to excise the negativity that could aid prejudgement?

So what can a candidate do?  My advice to a candidate looking for work is to make themselves discoverable.  Prior to applying, try to ensure that you have a footprint that means you can be found on the internet.  Google yourself.  Know where it is that recruiters will look for people with your skills.  For the developers and software engineers that I recruit there are a wealth of venues to utilise.  I am assuming you’re OK with surrendering a little privacy to be discovered…

Firstly, LinkedIn.  Have a profile, make that profile detailed, feel cheap and dirty with all the spam you’ll get you can always shutter it or delete it all together when you’ve found that dream job.  For a growing majority of recruiters LinkedIn is the first port of call, for some it’s their only port of call.

Secondly, as a developer or an software engineer if you don’t have an account on Stack Overflow you should. Any forum which is monetised for recruiters is a sure sign that recruiters are there and searching for candidates.

Thirdly, broaden your other social media footprint.  Have a G+ account, have a Twitter account, take down the drunken photos on Facebook because the more savvy recruiters out there will be looking here for you too.  If you list a job title or a company this will make you more likely to be found – check that “other” message inbox from time to time too!

Even if you only did these few things, pretty low effort, you’d be on the radar of more recruiters more of the time.  Now add to this your own blog, open source software contributions, your own website to further aggregate this stuff and you’ll be surrounded in no time, of course when you’ve found that dream job you can take back some privacy and close or hide these accounts – you’ve only had to deal with those rascally recruiters on your terms and when you wanted to, that has to be better than sending that CV into the void, only for it to land in a “bucket”, right?

 

On the Cultural Normalization of the Recruitment Process

The recruitment process of old is long dead. The didactic hierarchy of employer as king and the cowering potential employee grateful for the opportunity “just to be here” is over.  In the tired metaphor of the “War for Talent”, talent has won. Employers must now be more venturesome than ever before in their sourcing and courting of talent to add to their organisations.  We have seen the growth of internal sourcing functions, the lessening of reliance of third party agencies and entire internal recruiting departments swell in numbers.

No where has the pressure to uncover this talent been more pronounced than in the expansion of the global technical giants.  In the race to become dominant there is no country left un-visited, no university left un-plundered and no diversity group left un-infiltrated.  However, in the growth of these organisations where talent can be a direct corporate advantage there is a strange byproduct of the economic choices they have made.

Dublin is a city with just under two million people in the Greater Dublin area and due to it’s lucrative tax incentives for companies to set up European headquarters there has more than it’s share of large internet brands. Google, Yahoo, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and eBay all have offices in the city to name just a few – a large number of the employees to staff these organisations are imported from the continent or further a field but the staff to support these are usually local hires, this is a rapidly decreasing pool of people who have the relevant experience and the availability.  Due to another cost reduction incentive – the use of the 11 month contract – many of these staff, particularly those in the HR organisations have worked at one, if not more of the other organisations.  This is where I feel the problem lies.  It’s not that these individuals aren’t great recruiters, all I’ve met in interviews and at events are, but in crossing the cultural boundaries, in joining new organisations they bring something of that culture with them.  This cultural inheritance is not only evident in physical objects but also customs, ideas and values.  When a recruiter from another organisation joins yours they have a preformed conception of what “works” proven by their previous experiences.  It is wholly natural for them to wish to replicate these experiences.  This can lead to practices that “borrow” heavily from the previous employer, from the selection of a software tool because “it worked for X company”, the treatment of candidates in a process “we never gave feedback at X company” or even the style and number of interviews a candidate faces all can be held up to be judged as good and replicated accordingly.  There are always more insidious aspects of cultural inheritance here too, over engineered administrative processes, biases in sourcing and overly lengthy approval chains to name a few.

So why is this a bad thing?  If it works it’s good right?  Right?

Maybe.  However, there is a casualty here.  Entire recruitment processes at these large organisations are becoming homogenized.  The recruiters, heavily targeted and fighting for a position at the end of their 11 month contract revert to “what works” rather than a recruitment process that will do more than simply test the suitability of a potential employee; it will communicate a true reflection of that company’s culture.  As the number of organisations looking for great technical talent increases still further they seek to replicate processes that they assume are effective – how many organisations are still asking candidates “How many piano tuners are there in Brazil?” even when Google themselves have moved away from these questions, calling them “a complete waste of time“.  The homogenization of hiring cultures across organisations will only lead to a lack of innovation, a cultural blandness that will leave the candidates unimpressed and the recruiters unfulfilled, cogs in a process.  Whether or not you aspire to a hire talent of the same calibre as Google or Facebook perhaps the answer lies not in the “Googlification”, “Facebookification” or Nextbigthing-ification” of your hiring process but in the effective communication of your own corporate culture.  If we accept that the recruitment process is also a time for candidates to learn about your organisation an awareness of what you actually want them to learn might be a good thing.  Rather than be the beige old porridge, the pale imitation of a recruiter’s previous employer why not look upon the recruitment process as a great chance to iterate, looking for ways to continuously improve,  to provide true value to the organisation.  You could even borrow from software development practices and look at A/B testing to see which practices work better for your candidates (yes you should always ask them for feedback), just don’t get them to dance, that might be differentiation you don’t want!

In conclusion, when building a recruitment team, adding to an existing team or even changing policies and processes – caveat emptor.  Ensure that you’re not adopting practices have worked for you previously without holding them up to the scrutiny of your new situation.

The Malleus Maleficarum and the Danger of the Perpetual Interview

The Malleus Maleficarum (Latin for “The Hammer of Witches”, or “Hexenhammer” in German) is one of the most famous medieval treatises on witches. It was written in 1486 by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, and was first published in Germany in 1487. Its main purpose was to challenge all arguments against the existence of witchcraft and to instruct magistrates on how to identify, interrogate and convict witches. The Catholic Church banned the book in 1490, placing it on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. Despite this, the Malleus Maleficarum became the de-facto handbook for witch-hunters and Inquisitors throughout Late Medieval Europe. Between the years 1487 and 1520, it was published thirteen times, and between 1574 to 1669 it was again published sixteen times. The papal bull and endorsements which appear at the beginning of the book contributed to its popularity by giving the illusion that it had been granted approval by Pope Innocent VIII.

So, what’s all this got to do with the world of recruitment? Am I about to advocate the burning of unsuccessful candidates? No. Talking recently to a friend who is an in-house recruiter at a global software company she was saddened by a practise that was seemingly commonplace. After the recruitment process was completed, the tests all squared away, file lovingly placed in labyrinthine databases – her new recruits we’re being force to run an equally nerve racking second “interview” in their daily work. In effect they were having to prove themselves to their coworkers despite having already run the gamut of a lengthy recruitment process.
This is an example of yet another recruiting anti-pattern – The Witch Hunt. In short this is the practise of the re-examination of hires by some or all of the incumbent members of staff, whereupon judgements on suitability, technical ability and overall “fit” will be gleaned from limited interactions (water cooler conversations) and these confirmations distributed to the larger workforce through informal interactions. The outcome of this process is the alienation and damage to the reputation, be it technical or social of the individual involved. The Malleus describes this process as “initiated either at the instance of an accuser, or of an informer actuated by zeal, or by reason of a general outcry and rumour” – suddenly 1486 seems more relevant!
Obviously, I am not accusing a workforce of whipping up the same fervour for brutality that we read of in the middle ages, but the pattern is largely the same and the effects less dangerous but no less debilitating to the victims.
Any organisation that has a mantra of hiring “the best”, “the top 1 percent” or “from the best universities” is fostering a culture of entitlement and arrogance in it’s staff. By the simple fact of going to work each morning is confirmation of their position as “best”. This can have a catastrophic effect on an organisations ability to hire and retain staff. The formation of a dominant,oppressive culture rather than that of collaborative or inclusive can only lead to the atrophication of ideas and kills innovation. New staff hired in these organisations will only ever be “cookie cutter” representations of those persons already present – cultural stagnation awaits.
What then, can recruiters do to stimulate a change in these practises? There are some easy steps that one can make during the process to try and avoid the later Witch Hunt!
1. Make an advocate for your candidate – When interviewing, particularly in the case of technical staff, use a widely respected member of staff. Make this one of your “gurus” or architects and the wider body of technical staff will instead make value assumptions based on their perception of the interviewer, in short “Bob interviewed him? Oh he must be great then”. Of course this does mean that you’ll need to ensure that your candidate is good enough to pass that evaluation.
2. Become an advocate for a new hire yourself – During the recruitment process highlight the achievements and status of the new hire. Bring attention to those points that made them an attractive candidate in the first place – publicise their blog, published articles or accomplishments in the Open Source community. This is also a great “double check” on a candidate – if you can’t think of anything “saleable” about the candidate are they right? Why are you hiring them?
3. Look closely at your onboarding process. Look for elements of over exposure, take care with a new employee that others are aware of their level and set expectations with these parties. Set meeting points and get regular feedback on performance. If a candidate passes the interview process but is seeming to fail in the day to day work look closer at the tasks assigned are any outside of those first detailed in the recruitment process or envisaged in the role description.
4. Assign a sponsor or buddy for your new hire. ThoughtWorks has an effective sponsor programme in operation currently. Sponsees are expected to meet up at least once a month to discuss how things are going and other concerns or problems they may have. These meetings are informal and are often over a lunch or after hours adding to the social aspect.
The hatred and misogyny espoused by the Malleus would eventually come to an end in Europe. In England in 1684, Scotland in 1722 and not until 1782 for the Swiss. So the fervour for alienation and accusation has long been dead… but how much of it lies dormant in your corporate culture? How welcome are your new employees? Is there any Matthew Hopkins spirit in the dark corners of your office?

Recruiting for “Agile”

For many recruiters reviewing a resume is a simple task. It’s binary. The buzzword bingo they play is matched by the increasingly infuriating practice of loading CV’s with massive lists of all the technologies that the candidates has ever used, looked at or heard that someone else was using in a nearby room. It’s an antipattern created somewhere between naive recruiting practices and savvy developers to circumvent keyword searching and the buzzword bingo. In ThoughtWorks recruiting “Agile” experience is something I’m wary of.

The problem with this thinking is that “Agile” in this form does not exist. Recruiters looking in this way will miss out on the majority of great candidates. Agile is a conceptual framework not a language or a certificate for your wall, though I’m sure they’re available. Working within the binary world of “has Agile/does not have Agile” would alienate and turn away some of the brightest and gifted developers I’ve seen. If a candidate has a dearth of experience in a public sector organisation it’s more unlikely they will have encountered the all-singing all-dancing index card waving “Agile” we know and love – but then should we discount them? In looking at a resume or talking to a candidate I’m always looking for evidence of skills beyond that of “Tester” or “Developer”.

Too often experiences of the technical practices of XP are mistaken for the behaviors we should be looking for. To people who have not been exposed to “Agile” thinking I take the time to explain what “Agile” means to ThoughtWorks. What tools and techniques they are likely to see and be a part of. I then try to ask a practical question based on their interpretation of those techniques, do they see a benefit? Do they feel there is benefit in the closer communication between the team? and between the team and the customer? I may then go on to ask what they would like to see in a development process? What would they do to improve the processes they have been involved in historically? I’m trying to ascertain how they feel about software development in general do they have that passion?

If they can demonstrate times where they are committed to delivering useful software to their customer, they are flexible enough to change software late in the process, have a will to work in a self organising team and above all want to work in close collaboration with the business and their team members – well, how much more “Agile” can you get? Ramming what is essentially a concept into a prepackaged-gift wrapped box will only rob an organisation of it’s ability to recognise talent. Whether you have been a developer in a waterfall, RAD, RUP, SCRUM or some other methodology there is no reason to allow yourself to be over looked. Recruiters should be looking for potential not just clones of their current staff.

In his keynote opening QCon 2007, Kent Beck talked about the future of software development. He talked about the need to improve skills that are essential to excel in an agile development environment: Social and Technical Skills. He said social skills are more important than technical skills and suggested that Developers of the future will need to learn to listen more effectively. With the rise of a more tech-savvy business Developers will lose their “wizard” status and will need to turn to “Appreciative Attitude” and “Emotional Intelligence” as the important traits in being part of an Agile team. It’s interesting to see where this goes, if Beck is proven to be right Developers used to gaining an edge by buying the book and cramming overnight will instead have to work on their interpersonal skills – look for the early adopters in the Self Help and Psychology sections of a Borders near you…

Do we hire “The Best” then?

In all my recruiting activities I’m committed to hiring the most talented individuals working within the IT sector. I’d love to say they are “The Best” on the planet but then, I’ve not met every one on the planet to compare them. So who do we hire, and how do we do it? When I talk to a candidate I’m trying to assess whether I have to offer what they are looking for. Sometimes we don’t, even I didn’t get the helicopter on the roof and the golden toilet. However, if their motivations are more modest – the will to work on a number of different projects across multiple domains, to work with other talented people who are always keeping their skills sharp and freedom from heavy weight hierarchies, maybe we can help them.

As a recruiter I’m wholly aware that tenure is not automatically a guarantee of suitability for the unique demands that ThoughtWorks asks of its’ professional services staff. 10 years in a cubicle not raising your head to take stock does not a ThoughtWorker make… a will to change practices that are out dated or inefficient and a will to deliver value to the business above all are better markers of a consultant.

So how do we go about getting people on board? How we find them will be another post but what do we do with them when we find them?

We Interview them! I know… I wanted it to be something amazingly different and innovative too… that’s not to say we don’t have an interview process that’s a bit different.

The interview process for developers (who make up the majority of ThoughtWorks) is designed to measure both technical proficiency and overall cultural fit to the organisation. On application candidate’s resumes are reviewed by an in-house recruiter, those selected are invited to a telephone interview where they undergo a first level of scrutiny, if they are successful here they will be asked to write a solution to a small coding exercise. The code test is a level playing field for all our applicants – a stark contrast to allowing previously written submissions or a simple “general knowledge” style test of coding. We want to know if you can code, not audition to appear on a special tech edition of “Are you Smarter than a 5th Grader”.

The coding exercise is reviewed internally by at least two employees. From here the successful applicants are invited in for a long day of office interviews. We try to expose candidates to a variety of different ThoughtWorkers so they are able to get an impression of the makeup of our organisation. We don’t wait to spring the mad ones on them later…

During the first office interview candidates are asked to pair with a current ThoughtWorker in adding functionality to the code they submitted for review. This process helps us to gauge how a candidate will respond to our style of working and how they respond to both praise and criticism. The old Good Cop Bad Cop… This interview is followed by a round of tests the Wonderlic Personnel Test and the Predictive Index are 3rd party assessments of verbal and numerical acumen and a psychometric test respectively. After this candidates are given an in-house test designed to mimic the process of logical thinking in coding – ominously it’s referred to only as “The Logic”.

A second interview, often with a pair of consultants is designed to illicit information as to a candidate’s cultural fit – do they share the same values as ThoughtWorkers, in a given situation how would they react, and most importantly what questions do they have for us? This is followed by an interview with one of the management team to give a broad overview of their experience and suitability for the role – it’s also another chance for candidates to ask any questions they may have.

The process can be daunting for applicants and although the atmosphere is relaxed we try to alleviate what could be an otherwise stressful day as well as keep your blood sugar levels up. In a recent analysis we found that ThoughtWorks UK employs one candidate from every one hundred and thirty applicants.

Does all this mean we employ “The Best”? Nope, but it does mean that out of those that go through this gruelling process we employ people who have a great idea about what they are getting into, they’ve met with current employees at all levels – some newbies and some old hands and they’ve had the opportunity to question all of them and then we give them some thinking time too. The process is always changing and we’re always trying new things but hopefully everyone get a fair idea about what the future would be like. Hopefully this is also a pre-emptive strike on those readers who want “ThoughtWorks interview tips” – this is full disclosure…. apart from telling you about the song and dance number you have to do and giving you “The Logic” answers I can’t help anymore…

Hiring “The Best”?

In my role I am always interested to see how organisations market themselves to prospective job seekers. Amazon is a wash with books dedicated to the subject. Better interviewing techniques, different questioning styles and shiny new assessments to avoid actually talking to a candidate. In all this how can an organisation justifiably say they hire the “Best” candidates? What does “Best” really mean? I’m currently in Calgary and travelled through Chicago to get here, one only has to walk down a busy street to see how many shops are serving “THE BEST!” coffee, and it must be true…they’ve got the neon signs to prove it!

If we can all see the holes in that argument as soon as it’s made why then do we attach values to prospective employers? There are no “Best” employers, it is of course an opinion, a mediated position arrived at somewhere between the expectations of candidates and the advertising of employers. If all major technology employers are to be believed they all employ the top 2% of graduates of global graduating classes. That 2% must be stretched a little far!

“The Best” place to work is the place that suits you. A place where your motivations are understood and catered for. If you want to work 20 hours a day, risk not seeing your children until their 18th birthdays and work your way up to be “Vice-President of *insert something about architect here*” there will be hundreds of companies happy to take you on! Likewise if you’d prefer to work less time, take the option of flexible working and not be penalised for it, there are companies out there that are right for you too. “The Best” is every case is what’s right for you, you can’t really make a fair judgement call on any organisation until you’ve worked there yourself, and a great place to start is by thinking about your own motivations. What’s right for you? What concessions can you make and what in your work/life balance in non-negotiable? If an employer thinks you’re their perfect person there are ways to make things work out for both parties.

Personally, I like to think I’ve hired people for who ThoughtWorks was the right choice. They give up certain things – for some it’s that hefty amount of travel – to work in an organisation that they feel works for them too. Their colleagues share the same passions, they appreciate similar things and share common goals. Before this trails off into advertising territory I’ll end and save the advertising for later…