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Bootstrapping Techies (or how to hire without technical knowledge)

by pjf (Curate)
on Jul 05, 2002 at 07:45 UTC ( #179580=perlmeditation: print w/replies, xml ) Need Help??

After reading this node I thought about a problem which I am sure many businesses must face. There are a lot of technical staff available, but for a business that has little or no technical knowledge, how do you know which one to hire?

If you already have decent technical staff, then the answer should be easy, you let them find out who's best. If you already have a staff member who knows Perl and XML, it's an easy task for them to determine if any potential applicant really knows her stuff or has only read the buzzwords the night before.

The problem is different when you have nobody with the knowledge to tell the difference between the clueless and the clueful.

In the case of hiring consultants the matter is simplified somewhat. Go to all your friends and associates, preferably ones in the industry, and ask who they recommend. If four out of five web-designers recommend XYZ for CGI scripts, then XYZ must have something going for them. This method of finding the right person isn't restricted just to technical staff, it works for tradespeople, medical specialists, mechanics, and a range of other professions.

The common point in all these cases is that the "consultant" is readily available. You give them a call, wave some money at them, and if it's a large enough wad they'll fit you into their schedule somewhere. Unfortunately, that just doesn't work when you need to hire someone full-time.

Full-time staff just don't get around the same way consultants do. A consultant might work with dozens of different clients each year, whereas a full-time staff member usually just has one -- their own place of work. Employers also don't want their staff members being poached, so you can't expect to see the same recommendations as you would with a consultant.

As such, new staff for a business can be quite an unknown, and making a mistake can not only be expensive in salaries paid, but also in clean-up costs if the staff-member has done their job poorly. Hiring the wrong problem can sometimes even make matters worse.

There are some fairly common industry practices such as probationary periods which business use to cover themselves in case they hire the wrong person. While these can be useful when the problems are obvious, most software development, system administration, and other technical tasks seem like magic to the lay-person. It's very hard for a business to tell if their technical staff is really doing a good job.

After some consideration, the bootstrapping phase of getting your first member of technical staff seems clear. Ask all your friends who the best consultant is in the field you're after. Hire the consultant to discuss what sort of full-time staff you need, and then find your staff in conjunction with the consultant "expert" who can make recommendations, review resumes, and sit-in on interviews. Compared to the costs of hiring someone for a year, the consultancy costs can be considered insignificant.

I'm wondering if anyone has actually seen this occur in-practice, either in the software or other industries? What other practices have you seen businesses use to take on their first techincal staff member? Have you any amusing stories about business who hired the wrong person and it went horribly, horribly wrong?

Paul Fenwick
Perl Training Australia

Update: Adjusted title to make the node more useful for future generations. Thanks to crazyinsomniac for the suggestion.

  • Comment on Bootstrapping Techies (or how to hire without technical knowledge)

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Re: Bootstrapping Techies
by hakkr (Chaplain) on Jul 05, 2002 at 08:36 UTC

    Hiring 'bad' people keeps many a programmer in a job. I have worked with a few completely incompetant people and the management did't have a clue until they left leaving myself and others with reams of code to rewrite. Actually I knew a programmer that never wrote any code and just documented and tested other peoples.

    With the interweb nowadays you can easily deceive your employers assesment of your abilities. When asked to write a complete perl based backup program my colleague downloaded one installed it and claimed he'd written it from scratch in a day.

    Your consulant idea is a good one maybe the consultant could put together a general pop quiz for applicants to complete to prove their competance. I beleive people lie about 50% of the time in interviews so some hard evidance is always required. As has been said by Zaxo savvy non-technical people can usually spot a lier.

Re: Bootstrapping Techies (or how to hire without technical knowledge)
by strat (Canon) on Jul 05, 2002 at 11:11 UTC
    When I try to get a new project, the problem always seems to be that I have to convince people that don't know very much what they want from me. They often come with a list of knowledge and ask questions like:
    • Do you know Solaris?
    • Do you know Ms SQL-Server?
    • Do you know LDAP
    • ...
    And when I try to find out what they need, they very often can't answer my questions. So I try to be as honest as possible and tell them: well, with MsSql-Server, I'm able to push in and out data, I know SQL, even basic setup and administration. But I'm not so good at administrating MsSql-Server because I don't have much experiance with it. And with such "interviewers" it often is difficult to find out what they want me to do.

    Other talks happened about the following way: they told me about the problems they have got and what they did to solve them or what they are planning to do, and discussed the single possibilities with me. These talks often need more time, but I prefer them because at first I can talk with the people who know at least what they want to get, and get a view on what they want me to do.

    I don't know if my stories are interesting, but they maybe enlighten a bit the other side. And if you know an opponent, you can easiest turn him into a friend :-)

    Best regards,
    perl -e "s>>*F>e=>y)\*martinF)stronat)=>print,print v8."

Re: Bootstrapping Techies (or how to hire without technical knowledge)
by footpad (Abbot) on Jul 05, 2002 at 15:51 UTC

    A few (somewhat random) thoughts come to mind.

    • This site contains a number of articles from one point of view. Sometimes he makes sense, sometimes he doesn't. Still, he at least offers something to think about. (You'll want to scroll down to the section called "Growing a Team" to get to some of the initally relevant articles.)

    • Having worked for consultants, corporations, federal agencies, and companies in-between, I've seen a number of non-technical people try to judge my competence with a given tool or technology. Those that I've respected most have:

      1. had a clear idea of the type of contribution they're looking for, e.g. the roles the candidate will fill (and by that, I mean something other than "code monkey"
      2. had a clear idea of the type of person they want to hire (e.g. personality, style, and so on)
      3. understood the type of team they want this person to help develop, including its operating sytle and how it will help the organization materially
      4. been able to discuss the specific types of projects this person will help develop.
      5. tested programming skills using things they do understand. For example, one interviewer did not know the language I was being hired to use, so asked me to describe how I might solve a particular problem using terms from the language he used. (Which in itself was a challenge because I wasn't that familiar with his language)
      6. understood that BS is a universal language and been able to recognize it

    • Keep in mind that just because four out of five users recommend a consultant only means that he may know what he's talking about, not that he really does. Consider, for example, the global popularity of a certain set of free CGI scripts versus their reputation in these halls.

    • Consultants do "get around," but they frequently don't get deep. Before you hire a consultant, ask for references and previous clients. Contact the IT/Support people of those clients and find out their take on the consultant.

      I've seen (and worked for) too many consultants who were able to schmooze senior management quite well (and get endorsements) while the people who had to support their work were snickering up their sleeves (or openly kvetching) while quietly rewriting and/or replacing the consultant's code.

      Along the same lines, you know your business the best. You also know the types of people that will work best with your organization. Trust those instincts as well.

    • If you have a colleague that works for another company that uses similar technology, see if they'd be willing to help you develop the interview questions and sit in on the first few rounds, just to help you get up to speed quickly.

      Offer to take them to lunch, pay them a small stipend, or whatever.

    • Above all else, look for: Openness, Honesty, Listening, Learning, Critical Thought, Valid Evaluation of Weaknesses, Problem Solving Abilities, and the ability to say "I don't know, but I can find out." (Note on the latter: Follow through on that. Test it.)

    • Hollywood frequently hires people based on their "paper" qualities (looks, etc). It doesn't always lead to a good film, does it? Personally, I prefer organizations that look for natural talent and learning ability...not just the highest number of checked items on a skills list.

    • Finally, follow-through on the hiring process. If you see problems, communicate them as quickly as possible--well before the end of your probationary period. Problems are easily fixed when they're small. Misunderstandings are most easily corrected before they coagulate into Opinions and Assumptions.

    • Before you "involve" anyone technical, go out and buy an introductory book on the technology you're hiring. Work through the examples and give yourself enough of a background to be able to detect a flagrant liar from someone who really knows what they're doing.

    In the end, remember that you're hiring this person to work with you and to collaborate on the success of your organization. Look for people looking for (and willing to give) honest contributions.

    Skills can be taught. Initiative, talent, and passion can't.


    P.S: Post 500. Whee! (Thanks, y'all.)

Re: Bootstrapping Techies
by Zaxo (Archbishop) on Jul 05, 2002 at 08:21 UTC

    The case I've seen more often, the founders are savvy and hire great people. When the legals and backers bring in a 'professional management team' is often when good people start bailing out - to be replaced by buzzword compliant drones.

    After Compline,

      Zaxo, what do you mean by 'founders'? Are you talking about people who've been in the business of hiring competent staff for quite some time? Or are you refering to technology savvy folks?

      Well, I guess that's essentially what the author of this thread was alluding to. Unless you've got technology minded professionals working for your company, it is at times a great challenge to pick out the best of the breed from the multitude of incompetent flock. In my professional work environment I had come across people who know nothing but a bunch of buzz-words. Worst of all are people who have the nerve to boast about their inherent intelligence, but when it comes to completing real projects etc, they generally fail or show dismal results.

      # Under Construction
Re: How to hire without technical knowledge
by cjf (Parson) on Jul 05, 2002 at 15:47 UTC
    find your staff in conjunction with the consultant "expert" who can make recommendations, review resumes, and sit-in on interviews.

    This is very good advice. I know of many businesses and non-profit groups that have used it quite successfully. There are a couple things to look out for though:

    • Is the consultant competent? The risk of hiring an incompetent consultant can be minimized by asking around as you suggested. Just make sure you don't assume too much about their skills (well $associate said he's great at Perl, so he must be capable of evaluating applicants for a Java programming position).
    • Is the consultant biased? If he's evaluating your applicants you don't want him selecting a candidate based on anything other than how good they'd do the job. This is hard to detect and mostly just comes back to the consultant's reputation.

    You could also consider hiring the employee on a contract basis at first, seeing how they perform, and then choose whether or not to hire them full-time afterwards.

      I have personal experience with the consultant-bias concept. In my case, the company was a small one with no real computer staff, and was looking for their first full-time SA. They had been working with a local consultant for some time, and naturally decided he should head up the hiring process. I, a very green SA, applied for the job, and after an interview with the constultant and the non-technical management, soon found myself at an "unofficial" off-premise meeting with the consultant, an informal dinner to discuss expectations before the official offer was made. It became clear at that point that the constultant's expectations did not involve me taking over any of his responsibilities or having any autonomy, instead I was to be a glorified live-in gopher, and would I be able to work with that? The guy was trying to cement his salary as firmly as possible by hiring "some kid" who'd jump when he said to and bought whatever he was selling. Smooth!

      I went right along, nodded my head and smiled, until the job was mine and I had gotten the "lay of the land" at the company. It was with deep satisfaction that I was soon able to fire the weasel outright.

Re: Bootstrapping Techies (or how to hire without technical knowledge)
by dws (Chancellor) on Jul 05, 2002 at 17:44 UTC
    I'm wondering if anyone has actually seen this [bringing in a consultant to review resumes and sit-in on interviews] occur in-practice, either in the software or other industries?

    It's not uncommon, though I've only seen it first-hand once. I have several consultant friends who get called up several times a year to help an organization make initial hires in an area the organization has no expertise in.

    When hiring people for specialties that neither my team nor I have any experience with, I tend to screen first for general thinking skills (see On Interviewing Candidate), then do reference checks. In Silicon Valley, you can often find someone who's worked with a candidate within a few phone calls.

Re: Bootstrapping Techies (or how to hire without technical knowledge)
by rah (Monk) on Jul 06, 2002 at 03:20 UTC
    Unfortunately, even with the technical knowledge/skills it is exceedingly difficult to hire good technical people for full time positions. Twice now I have been burned by Sys Admin candidates that looked good on paper and interviewed well, but didn't live up to their billing. In the first case the admin was only using us as a stepping stone before taking a job in a web business.

    The next time we were a little smarter and went the contract-to-hire route. While this limits the number of candidates you'll see, the safety factor of this "try before you buy" proved to be worth it. My second admin was bright and knowledgable, but couldn't grasp the big picture and had problems taking direction. After I got rid of him we had to re-work almost everything he touched.

Re: Bootstrapping Techies (or how to hire without technical knowledge)
by rinceWind (Monsignor) on Jul 06, 2002 at 10:54 UTC
    Excellent post pjf,
    I'm wondering if anyone has actually seen this occur in-practice, either in the software or other industries?
    I can relate some direct experience here, as I am a consultant. I am employed by a medium sized consultancy, currently on assignment at a client's site. The cousultancy employs salesmen who have little or no knowledge of technology, hence I sometimes get involved with supplying background technical information. Although my primary role is technical, I have also been involved in the following activities:

    • Pre-sales
      I have had meetings with new clients to assess technical requirements and staffing requirements for project work. Often they have needed somebody with knowledge of technology XYZ, hence I have been invited to the meeting.
    • Recruitment
      Besides filtering resumés, I have interviewed potential future colleagues in the consultancy. Also, recently, my present client identified a need - that I was overworked and needed an assistant. I was involved in the process of matching the required skills with that of our consultants, and found that we did not need to recruit somebody extra - we found somebody who had just finished a project at a different client, and he is now working for me.
    • After sales
      Being on-site, I am in a position to identify resourcing shortfalls and appraise my sales colleagues. I am also aware of other projects and activities happening - and where there are opportinities for the consultancy to get more business.

    I have found that I have the reputation for knowing about certain technologies which are not the mainstream speciality of the consultancy. These include Perl, Unix and VMS.

Re: Bootstrapping Techies (or how to hire without technical knowledge)
by low&slow (Initiate) on Jul 05, 2002 at 23:34 UTC
    I'm also on the other end of this problem. I am what my co-worker refers to as a "Code Whore". I haven't been officially trained in any language (unless you count one semester of ADA which didn't get much further than Hello world). I have however contributed on projects (and even lead some) which involved anything from C programming on in a 16-bit DOS environment to C# and everything in between(I still use perl for anything I can get away with). Due to this patchwork background, I feel that I would have a hard time finding a new position. At my present employer, I see new graduates getting hired at much greater pay than myself but essentially doing the same job. I know that I could do most of the jobs I see in the market and do them well but I don't have a classic resume to back it up. This can get very frustrating. Just my two cents worth.

    Jack-of-all-Languages, Master of none.

Re: Bootstrapping Techies (or how to hire without technical knowledge)
by TexasTess (Beadle) on Jul 07, 2002 at 23:20 UTC
    This issue is something that concerns me a great deal about my career field. Often business get worked over by self proclaimed "techies" like a little old lady visiting a crooked used car dealer.

    I use to think that the bottom line get what you pay for..but that was while I was still in college. Since I graduated I see that a degree in a computer related field does not a "techie" make. Colleges have jumped on the IT gravy train and are handing out pseudo IT degrees tailored for history majors who couldn't hack the real thing like candy.

    What to do about it? HELLIFIKNOW, everybody presents themselves as being a code god/goddess during an interview..some are..MOST are not. I hate to think that making "certifications" mandatory might be an option, however I do believe that there should be some sort of board like a doctor or an architect has to take to be certified might be good. It also makes me sick when I think of the number of people that are getting masters degrees in computer science yet have no REAL interest in the craft..but are simply after the money... TexasTess

    "Great Spirits Often Encounter Violent Opposition From Mediocre Minds" --Einstein
      While there are definitely some bad eggs out there, I believe that most of the "undesirables" are simply inexperienced, ignorant, or incompetant. They don't have any intention to swindle their employers, they just don't happen to be as good as others in the field who are paid similar salaries. Sometimes their faults are quite small, often they just don't ask for advice when they need it.

      Most of the real swindlers I've seen have been in the packaged software market. Products which don't really meet the client's requirements, and simply aren't flexible enough to accomodate growth. Despite this, the product will still be pushed to inappropriate clients in order to make a sale.

      As for masters degrees, having been in the academic system for only a mere five years, I would say that you'd have to be interested in the craft and not at all interested in the money to go down that route. In all the jobs I've seen, commercial experience and not academic qualifications are king.

      Paul Fenwick
      Perl Training Australia

        I beg to differ on the Masters degree issue...I'd bet the farm that the majority of individuals currently enrolled in a Masters Program relating to Computer science or currently holding a masters in Computer science have bachelors in a soft science or an arts field.
        <FLAME_RETARDANT>Folks need to stop H8N</FLAME_RETARDANT>

        "Great Spirits Often Encounter Violent Opposition From Mediocre Minds" --Albert Einstein
      "I use to think that the bottom line get what you pay for.."

      You didn't say what you think now - me? I say you get out what you put in. One of the most important skills the professors at the college i graduated from taught me was how to learn on my own. One of the most important skills a certification taught me was how to regurgitate the most politically correct answer. While i do agree that a degree does not a techie make, neither does a certification. A will to become a techie is what makes a techie - being a misanthrope doesn't hurt either. ;)


      (the triplet paradiddle with high-hat)
        What do I think now...since I'm in the engineering world and work with a large group of mostly useless yet over paid engineers on a daily basis? I'm afraid if I post what I REALLY think here it will only increase my rapid descent into perlmonkdumbassdom....

        "Great Spirits Often Encounter Violent Opposition From Mediocre Minds" --Albert Einstein

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