Hiring for SMRT.

I recently posted on Twitter: “I hire for smarts & attitude not experience. I can give a person experience. Can’t make them smart and I can’t fix attitude.”  The post generated some retweets and a question from @patient_0x00 on how to best test for this during the interview process.

Clearly more than a 140 character response is required.  My post was very sincere.  As an employer, there is very little I can do to change the core of a person.  I can’t fix stupid.  I can’t (won’t) fix bad attitude.  I can’t fix lazy.  What I can do, and what I consider it my job to do is to create opportunities for each person and the easiest thing of all to give them is experience.  Sadly, far too many employers seek experience above all else.  They miss out on great talent.

It may not be a perfect science, but I thought I’d share the interview process we use for CMS and Infrastructure Guardian.

  1. Break the ice – We always start with a quick but casual office tour and stop by the kitchen.  This is very informal and the goal is to break the ice and make everyone less formal and less nervous.   We want to meet the real person.
  2. Test #1: Once we sit down, the first question is “What do you know about the company and role?”  This allows us to find out both how well we market ourselves and also lets us know if the candidate put any effort in to preparing for the interview.  If they can’t put the effort into preparing for an interview, it’s unlikely they’ll go above and beyond for anything at all.  Bonus points go to knowing about the company and digging into the interviewer’s background also.  Even more points for reading this post.  J
  3. Ground work from us:  We take the floor and do some talking.  Who we really are.  Our history.  The role and why it’s important.  Our current status in market.  Our future plans.  This allows us to share all this important information, test the candidate’s listening ability and helps a smart candidate spin their answers to match our needs and goals.
  4. Ground work from candidate: We ask you to do the same thing we just did.  Who are you?  Your history?  What have you done that you’re most proud of?  How was it important?  What goals do you have?
  5. Test #2: Now is when we start to find out if the candidate is actually smart.  The test is surprisingly simple.  We ask the candidate to pick a topic (usually a technology) that they consider themselves expert in and tell us all about it.  We drill in to every “how” and “why” and “tell me about how that works” that we can.  This is when the candidate either demonstrates an ability to think and communicate in a logical and orderly fashion, or the candidate starts making up answers.  It’s never ceases to surprise me how many will fail this test and get caught making up answers.  The only thing worse than not being smart: lying.
  6. Test #3: Now this is the part that’s difficult for the interviewer to execute as it requires some real effort.  The goal here is to choose a technology or skill that is relevant to the job but is not part of the candidate’s current expertise.  The candidate is asked to describe what they do know about the topic in detail and the interviewer then poses the question they want answered (generally an application of the skill question) and starts filling in some of the details the candidate didn’t previously know.  The interviewer is looking to see if, and how quickly the candidate can paste the new information into what they already know to riddle out the answer.  This approach works great with very technical topics.  If they have smarts, they should be able to paste together the information and follow the logic to the answer.
  7. The usual stuff: I’m including this for completeness, of course the interview needs to include the usual personality and experience questions.  It should always be a two-way discussion with both interviewer and candidate determining cultural fit, opportunity fit, etc.  Small tangent: one of my favourite questions is simply “what do you like to do for fun”?  It gives the person an opportunity to talk about something they are passionate about.  This is often a chance for smarts to shine through regardless of what the hobby is.  If they have no passions, that’s a red flag too.
  8. Peer interview: One of the steps we never skip is a peer interview.  Once one or two levels of management are content, a peer interview is always completed.  This allows even more honest two-way conversation.  The candidate can find out more about our company and what we’re like to work for and we get an opportunity to both test cultural fit and drill deeply into the areas the candidate does appear to have expertise in. 

While there certainly isn’t a simple test for smarts, it is actually fairly intuitive to detect.  It’s just a matter of giving someone enough talking time to let the nerves dissipate and their true self time to shine through.  For companies that will only hire for experience, well it’s their loss.

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