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The blog of Michael de Raadt

Organising Selection for an IT Position

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Over my career I’ve been involved in interviewing and selecting new staff for IT positions on numerous occasions. I’ve learned a few tricks along the way and I thought I should share those.  A lot of these techniques are generalisable to positions peripheral to IT and elsewhere.

Choosing a candidate

The Panel

It helps to have more that one person doing the interviewing; two is OK; three is ideal; four can be intimidating. If the position is really serious and more people need to be involved, create two panels with different foci.

Interview

Aim for diverse perspectives in the panel members. If you’re a manager, involve a technical staff member and a support staff member, such as someone from HR.

Preparing

  • Short-listing
    Without going into too much detail, the panel that will interview should be the ones selecting who should be interviewed. Start separately and blindly review all the CVs. Bring together opinions into a collaborative space, such as a shared spreadsheet.
  • Discuss candidates openly
    After each panel member has rated candidates, come together to decide who to interview. Be open to disagreement as others may have spotted potential that you have not seen. Consider rounds of interviews with the most likely candidates first.
  • Invitations
    When you have a list of candidates, you need to invite them in.

    • Negotiating a time is best achieved over the phone. Offer the candidate opportunities within a specific window, but be accommodating.
    • Once a time is set, send a formal invitation that introduces the panel and their positions; this establishes perspectives for the candidate. Set expectations for where to go, when to arrive, what to wear and how long the interview will take. You may want to prompt the candidate to undertake some research into your organisation by directing them to online resources and work spaces.
  • The script
    It’s good to have a set series of questions going into the interview. All panel members should agree on the script before interviews start. Use a common document with names beside each question (rather than each panel member having their own script); this allows you to pass the flow of questions between panel members. If you have a script from a previous position, review the questions and ensure they are relevant to the current position. The script can be duplicated for each candidate so that notes can be inserted, by someone not asking current questions, during the interview.Interview script
  • Quick recap before interview
    Before an interview, all panel members should take a few minutes to review the candidates CV. Discuss their strengths and peculiarities so that you can focus questions during the interview.
  • Hospitality
    In a sense, your organisation is being interviewed as well as the candidate. You want the best candidate, who could possibly go elsewhere, to choose you. Simple things will help, like:

    • tidying the space where the interview will take place,
    • ensuring the temperature is comfortable and
    • having glasses and water poured for the candidate and the panel.
  • Everyone shakes hands
    Allow the opportunity for each member of the panel to shake hands with the candidate. That first physical contact is disarming and will establish what could be a future working relationship.
  • Seating
    Don’t arrange seating in a way that is confrontational, such as sitting on the opposite side of a big table from the candidate; a small table is better, with the candidate as part of a formation that is inclusive, like a circle.

The Interview

Repeat Introductions

Start by reintroducing the panel and what they do. This can be quick, but is important to preface the questions you will ask later. The panel leader can do this or each panel member can quickly say who they are and what their role is.

Questions

The candidate’s CV will tell you about their education, their experience and their skills, but it won’t tell you what kind of person they are, how well they will work with you and how they can apply what their skills. You want a good script of questions that tease these important aspects from the candidate’s brain.

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  • Icebreakers
    Candidates will be mentally prepared to convince you about their professional worth, but don’t jump straight into serious questions. Start by allowing the candidate to settle in and feel comfortable. A good way to achieve this is to ask the candidate to talk about their personal life; if they start drifting into work and skills, redirect them by saying you will get to that soon.

    • How did you come to be here in <your town>?
    • Tell us a bit about yourself as a person. What do you do in your spare time?
    • Tell us about your study. What inspired you to get into IT?
  • Focused career questions
    You want the candidate to tell you about their experience, but you don’t want a litany that will take up all your interview time. Ask questions that will allow the candidate to showcase them self, while highlighting aspects you are keen to hear about.

    • Without going into too much detail, tell us the places you have worked and your roles there.
    • (If applicable) Why are you leaving your current position?
    • What has motivated you to choose your career path?
    • What are some of the tasks you really enjoy doing?
  • Tell questions
    It’s hard to tell when people are being honest. One technique for eliciting humility and honesty is to ask the candidate to admit where they have failed. This may be counter to what the candidate is prepared for and it may be affected by cultural background, but it can give you a good idea of whether you want to work with that person. It’s a good way to distinguish potential assholes.

    • Can you think of a time when things did NOT work out the way you expected them to?
    • Can you tell me about a time you had a conflict with a colleague? How did you deal with it?
  • Focused skill questions
    You should be able to tell what skills a candidate has from their CV, but you want to know if they have real experience or was it something they observed someone else doing.

    • Tell us about your experience with Active Directory?
    • Have you ever written documentation in a wiki? No: what did you use?
    • Have you ever worked with a issue tracking system? How was that used?
  • Don’t forget the soft skills
    It’s easy to get stuck on technical skills for an IT job, but non-technical skills are really just as important in the day-to-day working of a successful team.

    • Have you worked as part of a team? What was your role?
    • What techniques do you use to manage your time?
    • How do you handle conflicting priorities?
  • A conundrum
    You want someone who can ‘think on their feet’ and consider alternative solutions. Posing a scenario that seems unsolvable at face value will prompt candidates to demonstrate their ability to think ‘outside the square’. The following example is for a service desk position in a school.

It’s been a busy day; you are feeling under pressure and a teacher calls you demanding that you set up an email account for a person who is not an employee but has come into their class to present.  This would be against the school’s policy, but you understand the teacher needs to make the class work. How would you deal with this situation?

  • Most candidates will start by stating that they cannot break policy because they want to give you the impression they are honest workers, ready to follow the rules. Some might say they will seek permission from a manager to break the rules. A good candidate will recognise that problems are often not what they are first reported to be and probing into the client’s needs will allow you to consider the problem then create a solution or a workaround.

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  • Questions about your organisation
    You want to know if the candidate is actually interested and enthusiastic about working in your organisation. Give them the opportunity to share their research and how they have envisaged them self in your organisation.

    • What do you know about <your organisation>?
    • What do you think it will be like working in a <school,university,industry>?
  • Prompt for their questions
    Allowing candidates to ask you questions is more than a courtesy, it allows the candidate to take control of the interview and demonstrate their strengths and knowledge by probing you about what you do, what technologies you use and how the organisation works. A good candidate will come with prepared questions.

    • Do you have any questions for us?
  • Formalities
    Don’t leave yourself open to surprises.

    • What are your obligations and availability?

If you are leading the panel, avoid keeping all the curly questions to yourself. Farming some complex questions to another panel member allows you focus on how the candidate is answering the question, following their body language and ‘reading between the lines’.

Flow

A smooth interview is not rushed, nor is it slow. With good flow, the interview can be comfortable and friendly and elicit the honest answers you are seeking.

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  • Build up with some easy questions first.
  • Hand over between panel members when asking questions.
  • Ask questions from the panel member who has the perspective from which you want questions answered (personal from the manager, technical from the technician, organisational from HR).
  • Be adaptive.
    • Don’t stick to the script when you want to clarify or probe deeper.
    • Don’t ask questions that have already been answered.
    • Make questions specific on-the-fly.

After asking all of your questions, lead into a task…

Evidence

A candidate may say they have the skills you require, but it’s hard to judge to what degree that is true. Their CV may have been developed over time, with outside help. Every candidate will say they have good communication and problem solving skills; we all have a self-optimistic bias. Don’t be afraid to take some time to get the candidate to demonstrate their skills.

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  • A role-play
    Pretend to be a client with a predetermined problem. Ask the candidate to put them self into a support role and attempt to unravel the problem. Getting the answer is not as important as how they approach the problem.
  • A quick quiz
    Allow the candidate to answer questions in a quick quiz. You might throw together some basic questions in a Google form or online survey and ask them to provide their answers.
  • A writing task
    Being able to write clearly is an important skill for all IT workers. Set up a scenario and ask the candidate to respond to a pretend client. Writing a pretend email or ticket-update on a machine you provide is an easy way to run this task.
  • A dev task
    If the candidate is applying for a technical role, ask them to resolve a bug or simple problem. This may be something they have to do after they leave you and later submit the response back to you. Be sure the problem requires them to establish a dev environment close to your work environment.
  • A presentation
    If the candidate is applying for a role that involves training, ask them to run a quick training session on a simple technology. If you’re considering this task, you will need to give the candidate notice before the interview so they can realistically prepare.

Debrief

Assessment biases can creep in over time. You can glorify earlier candidates or favour candidates you have seen more recently. Reflecting immediately after each interview is recommended, even if this means delaying the next interview by a few minutes.

When you’ve seen all candidates, hopefully you’re in a good position to choose. If none of the candidates are suitable, consider re-advertising. If there is a candidate that is suitable, but you’re not completely confident, remember that you can rely on a probation period if things don’t work out.

Don’t forget the unsuccessful candidates. Failing to respond respectfully to unsuccessful candidates puts the reputation of your organisation in danger, whereas an honest response with feedback that will help the candidate in future will be welcomed.

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Author: Michael de Raadt

I'm a husband, dad and Development Manger at Moodle HQ.

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