How to Evaluate Technical Candidates as a Non-Technical Recruiter

March 17, 2015 at 10:41 AM Vivek Reddy

writing_blog.jpgIt’s tough to recruit engineers when you’re not technical.

We’ve all dealt with the challenge and it’s particularly difficult when you haven’t played the role or had exposure to the nitty gritty of what engineers do on a daily basis. However, that should not be an excuse to not try, and fortunately, there are some ways recruiters can rapidly improve while still providing a ton of value to the hiring managers. 

Here are a few strategies for helping your engineering team’s recruiting efforts even if you feel rocky on tech-related topics.

Start learning more about engineering.

While you could dive right into an algorithms book or to take the plethora of courses that are now available online, there are quick ways to learn how to speak with engineers effectively.

For one, learn how the internet works (you can get started from this Wikipedia link). It’s surprising how many engineers have mentioned to me that it’d be nice if recruiters had at least a fundamental understanding of how the services they use even function. Additionally, it’s an innate curiosity of how things work that will allow you to grow your knowledge base exponentially over time so that you can end up communicating with engineers even better.

Furthermore, I’d strongly advise understanding how the different parts of a tech stack work together. You’d be surprised how much less daunting it is to learn this especially given some of the great written material out there. I personally recommend Tommy Chheng’s “The Non-Technical Guide to Web Technologies” as a great starting point. Use online resources and hang around engineers more (i.e. Hackathons or simply spend time with the engineers on your team!) to begin building a better understanding of what’s going on in the tech community and the fundamentals behind their work and you’ll already be better than 90% of other recruiters.

Understand your tech stack.

Understanding how different parts of the tech stack works together is a great building block to work off of but also make sure to understand your own technical team’s stack, which is another way of describing the architecture of the company’s software or application. You are recruiting for your own company after all!

There have been numerous times I’ve chatted with engineers and they’ve told me I’m able to discuss our tech stack better than most recruiters they chat with. Honestly, that was quite alarming. All I’ve done is ask our engineers what tools they use and why, or why we’re looking for certain traits and skills for particular roles. If that’s all the curiosity it takes to be “better than most” then there really is no excuse for recruiters not to be better on this front.

Spend more time with your engineers – I’d recommend sitting with or near them. Be more inquisitive about what they do and why they use certain technologies or how their current project works within the greater stack. This can be a huge competitive advantage to you over other companies, especially on your initial screening calls.

Collect as much information as you can during screen calls.

Treat your initial screen calls like a sales qualification or an initial sales discovery call. There is a ton of information a non-technical evaluator can pick up on with engineers that will allow you to still provide a ton of value to your hiring managers and engineering team.

For example, you don’t need to have any technical knowledge to ask, understand and communicate the answers to these questions with your colleagues:

  • Why are you open to or thinking of leaving your current company?

  • What are you looking for in your next job?

  • What do you love/hate about your current job?

  • What are some projects or problems that are most fascinating to you?

  • (If the candidate applied for the role) Why are you interested in us specifically?

  • What are your long-term career goals? What do you feel you need to learn to get there?

All these questions serve to give way more clarity around what is going into a candidate’s decision-making process and this information can be relayed to your hiring managers to best equip them to make the most of their interview time. Especially when it comes to the stronger candidates, this information will prove invaluable in terms of understanding the candidate better and selling them on your opportunity. The best part is you don’t need to be technical to ask these questions, and, over time, you’ll develop the ability to ask more pointed (and hopefully technical) follow-up questions to uncover even deeper insights about a prospective candidate. Just make sure to take notes and relay everything to your hiring managers!

Evaluate for softer skills.

You don’t have to be technical to evaluate how someone communicates, how they would work within a team or how they make decisions. A few lines of questioning that have helped me learn more on this front:

  • Instead of asking for someone to give you a summary of their experience, look at their resume and ask them why and how they made certain career decisions. While the initial question may not necessarily elicit much from a candidate, this opens the door for me to probe deeper if there’s something I’m curious about.

    Why did you take a six month break? Why did you leave [insert hot company] when you did? What about the other company made you want to join them? I want to understand a candidate’s decision-making process whether it’s one I agree with or not. Either way, I learn a lot more about them and that information can be highly useful further downstream in the recruiting process.

  • Ask them to explain a project of theirs they enjoyed working on in a way someone non-technical (like you) would understand. There are multiple things I’ve picked up on, including a candidate’s passion for their work, that gives insight to their ability to communicate. I want to see or hear someone get excited and engaged talking about their experience.

    If an engineer can clearly explain a complex technical project to someone non-technical like me, there’s a high likelihood they can communicate well with engineers who understand their work. I do try to be mindful here not all candidates are great at conversing over the phone, so this tends to be more of a positive influencer. If someone can explain something clearly, I’ll give them a plus but I won’t dock them otherwise unless they really flop and I’m left more confused than when I started the conversation.

  • Ask them about both their best and worst experiences working with their current team. The ability to collaborate within a group is huge for us and if I get the feeling an engineer throws team members under the bus or actively dislikes working with others, I’ll be far more critical and at minimum will give hiring managers a heads up for their next interview.

These are merely a few ways to get started on evaluating technical candidates if you don’t feel comfortable talking about the technical details, but the key is to be inquisitive. Spend time with your engineers, ask questions about their work and learn as much as you can from them in order to put your company’s best foot forward when you chat with tech talent. And if you do have more time on your hands, get your hands dirty and start learning the technical details yourself!

We recently hosted a webinar series on how to hire engineers, data scientists, and designers from sites like GitHub, Dribbble, and Stack Overflow. If you’re looking for a more in-depth, step-by-step guide on sourcing from these tech networks and others, watch them here!

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