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Are you looking to hire software developers but aren’t entirely sure how to go about finding a great one? The good news is that you don’t need to be a tech whiz to find the right fit, you just need to ask the right questions.

According to Peter Drucker and Brad Smart, two of the most influential management consultants, between 50-75 percent of hiring decisions turn out to be mistakes. What’s more, only a mere 14 percent of leaders make good hiring decisions! Those are staggering numbers considering the fact that hiring the wrong developer can be extremely costly for your business

You may be wondering why companies are having so much trouble finding the right people. The interview process seems pretty straightforward, right? For the most part it is, so long as you’re asking the developer the right questions and using the right interview structure, which most companies aren’t.

Even if you’re asking the right questions, are you drawing the right conclusions about the developer’s responses? Most employers’ interview assessments are actually based on incorrect assumptions about which traits make for a good developer, or any other specialist, for that matter. In fact, these common errors make traditional interviews fail entirely at predicting a new hire’s job performance, according to the authors of “Who: The A Method for Hiring,” a New York Times bestseller on hiring practices.

When it comes to hiring a software developer, you really want to make sure you’re not making those common interview mistakes. Handing your project to just any developer and investing the time and money required to develop a custom software solution is, needless to say, a risky endeavor.

At Praxent, we’ve hired tons of developers over the past 16 years we've been in business. With inspiration from the book above, we have found a system that works. Not only does this system help us hire better developers, but it also helps us be better developers for the clients who hire us. Our system includes a 5-step interview process with a scorecard that grades interviewees along the way. We look for specialists, not generalists, who are compatible with our vision, values, and culture, and we encourage our clients to do the same.

To help you minimize risk, we’d love to share with you our five proven steps to hire a software developer you can feel confident about.

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Step 1: Make a scorecard

Before you start interviewing developers, you’ll first want to create a scorecard that defines your standards. Your scorecard should reflect, in considerable detail, exactly what you want to get out of your developer. We’ve broken down the scorecard format into five distinct sections:

Mission statement: Develop a mission statement for the project you are hiring a developer to complete or for the role you expect your developer to fulfill. Your mission statement should reflect whatever you think a resounding project success should look like. The idea here is to keep that mission in mind as you analyze your interviewee’s responses.

3-8 outcomes: Make a detailed list, in ranking order from higher to lower priority, of the outcomes you expect from your developer’s work. And be sure to keep the focus on results, not just activities.

Competencies: Make a list of the critical behavioral competencies you would expect of your developer. Competencies refer to higher-level intellectual, personal, interpersonal, motivational, and management traits. Some examples are service attitude, organization and planning, intelligence, adaptability, attention to detail, and ability to work with others.

Required skills: Don’t feel pressured to make this list overly-technical. You don’t have to think like a software developer to hire software developers. If you’re not familiar with the technology they’ll need to use, for example, that’s totally ok. You can be a little more general here and ask open-ended questions, inviting the developer to be the one to give you the technical specifics. The idea is to determine whether they specialize in the type of custom software solution you’re looking for.

Strengths and risks: Designate sections on your scorecard for making notes about the particular strengths and risks of each interviewee so you can weigh the pros and cons of each candidate.

Step 2: Conduct a phone screening interview

The purpose of this phone interview is to quickly weed out those developers who definitely won’t make the cut and aren’t worth putting in the time for an extensive face-to-face interview. 

Since the goal is to quickly weed out poor fits, you’ll want to make your questions very honest, direct, and probing. Choose those questions that are likely to reveal deal-breakers for you. 

Trust your gut instincts when conducting this initial phone interview. The intent is to get an overall feeling of whether or not to proceed with the interview process. When listening to the developer’s responses, ask yourself whether they sound genuine or whether they are trying to tell you what they think you want to hear. Do their passions align with your mission? 

Also, pay just as much attention to their questions as their answers. The questions they think to ask are often telling of their priorities. Lastly, due to the potentially sensitive nature of your questions, it would be polite to first ask for permission to speak candidly at the beginning of the call.

Step 3: Biographical Interview

This interview, as well as the focused interview, should be conducted in person or through live video. The purpose of this one is to uncover patterns from the last 15 years or so of the developer’s career history. It might seem like overkill digging into that many years of a person’s life, but areas of concern are more likely to surface when you get the full picture of the candidate’s life and career.

Probe for detailed information, facts, and stories. As you listen, look for signs of whether the developer’s words primarily reflect curiosity or judgment. Do they tend to give credit or take credit?  Do they speak positively or negatively about others? This interview is a good opportunity to assess personal, interpersonal, and motivational competencies.

Step 4: Focused Interview

The purpose of this interview is to find out whether the developer possesses all the necessary skills and competencies needed to bring you software success. You’ll want to rely heavily on your scorecard to guide you through this one. Ask both open-ended as well as specific questions about things like their work processes, problem analysis skills, etc.

Step 5: Reference-checking Interview

We recommend spending approximately 10 minutes interviewing each of the developer’s references. When listening about their experience working with the developer, be sure to pay just as much attention to what the person isn’t saying about the developer, which could be very revealing.

Here are some tips to think about when creating a scorecard and conducting interviews:

  • You want a specialist, not a generalist. When it comes to hiring a software developer, it’s preferable to find someone who’s really, really good at developing the type of software you’re looking for.  A “jack of all trades”  who has dabbled in a wide range of technical endeavors may sound impressive, but their skillset in any one particular area is likely weaker than someone who specializes in that same area. Make your scorecard and interview questions reflective of your need for a specialist.
  • Culture is even more important than skill.  Your scorecard should be built around the culture of your business, such as your core values and brand promise. You and/or your employees will likely be working closely with this person for an extended period. The ability for all parties involved to share common ground and “jive” with one another can make or break the success of your project.
  • Learning is greater than knowing: You do want to hire a software developer who is highly specialized, but pay equal attention to their willingness and ability to learn new things. Technology is constantly expanding and evolving, and developers need to possess the ability to evolve with that technology. There will likely be things that come up in the software development process that will require your developer to step out of his or her comfort zone and learn something new. Find out if they have what it takes to take on new and unfamiliar challenges with ease.

For more information about our hiring practices and a step by step guide based on the Who Hiring Method, check out our Slideshare on How to Hire a Great Developer.
how to interview devs


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