Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Recruiting: Gateway to the New World or HR's Dirty Little Secret

"My name is Matt and I'm a Recruiter."

...the rest of the group rise and there's a smattering of applause, the first step on the road to recovery is admission. Finally the guilty truth was out...

Is being a recruiter all that bad? Certainly while at school it's not something you aspire to, others wanted to be astronauts and doctors; with recollection I think I wanted to be a fire engine. Note, not a fireman, a fire engine. So what is it that leads someone to become a Recruiter? Personally I enjoy the talking to people and, perhaps arrogantly, I think that in a Consultancy particularly Recruiting has a real and defined role to add value to the business as a whole. I'll explain, ThoughtWorks as a business model doesn't sell software, we trade on the ability of our people to create software - in effect we "sell" the skills of people. In my arrogant recruiter way I think that the success or failure of a project can be directly affected by our ability to hire the "right" people and the timeliness of those hires -both responsibilities of the Recruiter. If you don't have confidence in the ability of your recruitment team to do this then it might be time to change that team - or at least look at the motivations of your recruiters.

In my experience of working in an agency (the dark side) I continuously found myself talking to in-house recruiters who either wanted to change their role or were just plain unhappy. In my opinion a lot of this is due to the position that "Recruitment" as a function occupies in these organisations. Recruiters are often the first contact a candidate has with an organisation if at this stage they are made to feel insignificant or unimportant why wouldn't the candidate look elsewhere? Keeping the Recruiters in your organisation buoyant and motivated should be of paramount importance - too often the "People are the most important thing" maxim is touted and paid due lip service but not given consideration from an internal perspective. If your recruiters are sending the wrong message or are not the "Ambassadors" you want them to be then you should quite rightly give them that feedback.

There is much talk of the "War for Talent" and whilst too much of human ingenuity is given over to ways of killing other humans it can't be argued that a raft of innovation hasn't happened in the area of "defence" (better called "offence" in certain nations). How can this innovation happen? In the military money is given over to "think tanks" to R&D and people who are freed of the day to day military procedure and policy that works for the rest of the team, if you expect your Recruiters to be the "Special Forces" in this War for Talent (this metaphor is stretched pretty thin now) you need to give them the imaginative space and freedoms to do so. This is one of the main reasons why I feel the a Recruiting function needs to be separate of a HR function.

Depending on how your organisation is structured perhaps this division doesn't need to be so concrete - if your role as a recruiter is just to ferry candidates through a predefined process then I don't think you have to concern yourself with a broader strategic view. However, I would argue that "Recruiter" and "HR Professional" are different skill sets - I don't possess the skills (or the patience) to work in HR, I know I couldn't do it, it's more pastoral care and empathy than I can invoke! HR Professionals work from strong and firm foundations based on policies laid down in advance, whilst recruiting benefits from having an agreed process as a platform on which to extrapolate. We need a goal and some hurdles but what's important is the individual candidate experience. Even if a candidate is rejected or told to try again later no one in their right mind wants that person to tell all his friends what a terrible time they had. I tailor the process to suit the candidate - interviewers are chosen with care, they might be peers, direct reports or part of the same team - I don't just use whoever happens to walk past the interview room!

Recruiting should never be a "one size fits all" approach, and with a tangled web of policies and proceedures with which to conform to it can become this. I'm very lucky in my role, I get to try new things all the time, I don’t have constraints on who I can hire based on country or nationality, I am "free" to recruit for talent. It can take a long time - the visa process for a Japanese/Brazilian coming to the UK is a path less trodden - but ultimately I think it's worth it.

So the point of this torrential rant? If you're hiring a recruiter make sure they want to be there! Test for ability to stay motivated, flexibility and personal drive. If you're applying for a position assess if you're valued as a person or are you meat for the grinding wheels of draconian HR dogma - let this inform your interactions with the company - a great recruiter working in a small team may be fallible some of the time but the process will fee more personal and less of a shunting from one gate to the next. Above all if you mention even in passing that it's your company's "...people that make the difference..." be prepared to invest time and energy ensuring that your Recruiters "get it", realise that this is your first human impression beyond a job advert and make it count!

Monday, 28 April 2008

Recruiting for "Agile"

For many recruiters reviewing a resume is a simple task. It's binary. The buzzword bingo they play is matched by the increasingly infuriating practice of loading CV's with massive lists of all the technologies that the candidates has ever used, looked at or heard that someone else was using in a nearby room. It's an antipattern created somewhere between naive recruiting practices and savvy developers to circumvent keyword searching and the buzzword bingo. In ThoughtWorks recruiting "Agile" experience is something I'm wary of.

The problem with this thinking is that "Agile" in this form does not exist. Recruiters looking in this way will miss out on the majority of great candidates. Agile is a conceptual framework not a language or a certificate for your wall, though I'm sure they're available. Working within the binary world of "has Agile/does not have Agile" would alienate and turn away some of the brightest and gifted developers I've seen. If a candidate has a dearth of experience in a public sector organisation it's more unlikely they will have encountered the all-singing all-dancing index card waving "Agile" we know and love - but then should we discount them? In looking at a resume or talking to a candidate I'm always looking for evidence of skills beyond that of "Tester" or "Developer".

Too often experiences of the technical practices of XP are mistaken for the behaviors we should be looking for. To people who have not been exposed to "Agile" thinking I take the time to explain what "Agile" means to ThoughtWorks. What tools and techniques they are likely to see and be a part of. I then try to ask a practical question based on their interpretation of those techniques, do they see a benefit? Do they feel there is benefit in the closer communication between the team? and between the team and the customer? I may then go on to ask what they would like to see in a development process? What would they do to improve the processes they have been involved in historically? I'm trying to ascertain how they feel about software development in general do they have that passion?

If they can demonstrate times where they are committed to delivering useful software to their customer, they are flexible enough to change software late in the process, have a will to work in a self organising team and above all want to work in close collaboration with the business and their team members - well, how much more "Agile" can you get? Ramming what is essentially a concept into a prepackaged-gift wrapped box will only rob an organisation of it's ability to recognise talent. Whether you have been a developer in a waterfall, RAD, RUP, SCRUM or some other methodology there is no reason to allow yourself to be over looked. Recruiters should be looking for potential not just clones of their current staff.

In his keynote opening QCon 2007, Kent Beck talked about the future of software development. He talked about the need to improve skills that are essential to excel in an agile development environment: Social and Technical Skills. He said social skills are more important than technical skills and suggested that Developers of the future will need to learn to listen more effectively. With the rise of a more tech-savvy business Developers will lose their "wizard" status and will need to turn to "Appreciative Attitude" and "Emotional Intelligence" as the important traits in being part of an Agile team. It's interesting to see where this goes, if Beck is proven to be right Developers used to gaining an edge by buying the book and cramming overnight will instead have to work on their interpersonal skills - look for the early adopters in the Self Help and Psychology sections of a Borders near you...

A Question of Culture

As an in-house recruiter there are a number of ways to win over a prospective candidate. A widely adopted and often reneged upon practise is that of throwing money at the person. Said person, pleased with new found affluent status joins your company only to later find he is yet another code monkey in a cubicle. What price spending eight hours a day treading the same worn carpet, surrounded by people you hate?

However, there is another way. When buying a car/PC/home/inflatable friend, skilled salesmen won't sell you "features" they will sell you "benefits". What's the difference? The fact a car is a convertible is a feature of that particular model the salesman will turn this into a benefit "I can see you now driving a long by the beach, top down, wind in your hair, Kylie blaring out..." that's a benefit to you as a person (maybe not the Kylie) - if the salesman has hit on some of your motivators you're more likely to be taken with his shiny new car. So what "benefits" can a recruiter call on?

In my estimation the biggest value that a Recruiter can add is to emphasise and demonstrate the Culture of the company in which they work. Getting a cultural match with a candidate is a sure fire way to hit plenty of those key motivators that made them apply in the first place... of course Recruiter's will need to have confidence in the company they are recruiting for and the company itself will need to be aware of it's cultural representation. This is where most internal recruitment falls down, if recruitment is a function of HR they are to a certain extent sheltered from the realities of working "at the coal face" - in some organisations its seems that the recruiters have never met a technical team besides the occasional email or diary entry. If not through the recruiter how can a candidate find out about the "culture" of an organisation? Whether that is a mediated culture - what they want you to see, or grass-roots opinion - what really goes on.

There are a number of ways ranging from very low effort to more robust research. At the very least a candidate should have read the website of the company they've applied to. It's always the first question I ask - if you haven't looked at the ThoughtWork's website I will reschedule the call. Personally I wouldn't apply to a company without first Googling them. It might just be my hypercritical untrusting nature but I'm never one to believe exactly what everyone says - everyone takes a position right? If Google shows up court depositions of financial irregularities or news stories of Developers being chained to radiators and forced to code in VB, then that 10 second Google search has paid dividends. Is it possible to go further though? Should candidates have a route to gaining deeper access to understand a company? I say yes, and the best way to do this is to talk to the employees. If you're not able to, the company doesn't allow blogging, the employees have no outlet to the rest of the world or simply that no one in the company really wants to be a part of the world at large I'd start to question the organisation.

I'm really fortunate that ThoughtWorks encourages blogging and attendance at conferences - for good or bad, most people I meet are able to take a position on the corporate culture at ThoughtWorks. My role as a recruiter is to check this against reality. There is a myth I'd like to shoot down at this point though - when you join ThoughtWorks in all likelihood you will not be sat between Martin Fowler and Ola Bini, working on a Rails app, while finishing your 3rd book and adjusting your Hadi Teherani Gold plated chair... We're a company like any other and that means a load of diverse people with an equally diverse load of opinions. If you're thinking of joining ThoughtWorks feel free to Google us and find out what people are saying.

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Do we hire "The Best" then?

In all my recruiting activities I'm committed to hiring the most talented individuals working within the IT sector. I'd love to say they are "The Best" on the planet but then, I've not met every one on the planet to compare them. So who do we hire, and how do we do it? When I talk to a candidate I'm trying to assess whether I have to offer what they are looking for. Sometimes we don't, even I didn't get the helicopter on the roof and the golden toilet. However, if their motivations are more modest - the will to work on a number of different projects across multiple domains, to work with other talented people who are always keeping their skills sharp and freedom from heavy weight hierarchies, maybe we can help them.

As a recruiter I'm wholly aware that tenure is not automatically a guarantee of suitability for the unique demands that ThoughtWorks asks of its’ professional services staff. 10 years in a cubicle not raising your head to take stock does not a ThoughtWorker make... a will to change practices that are out dated or inefficient and a will to deliver value to the business above all are better markers of a consultant.

So how do we go about getting people on board? How we find them will be another post but what do we do with them when we find them?

We Interview them! I know... I wanted it to be something amazingly different and innovative too... that's not to say we don't have an interview process that's a bit different.

The interview process for developers (who make up the majority of ThoughtWorks) is designed to measure both technical proficiency and overall cultural fit to the organisation. On application candidate’s resumes are reviewed by an in-house recruiter, those selected are invited to a telephone interview where they undergo a first level of scrutiny, if they are successful here they will be asked to write a solution to a small coding exercise. The code test is a level playing field for all our applicants – a stark contrast to allowing previously written submissions or a simple “general knowledge” style test of coding. We want to know if you can code, not audition to appear on a special tech edition of "Are you Smarter than a 5th Grader".

The coding exercise is reviewed internally by at least two employees. From here the successful applicants are invited in for a long day of office interviews. We try to expose candidates to a variety of different ThoughtWorkers so they are able to get an impression of the makeup of our organisation. We don't wait to spring the mad ones on them later...

During the first office interview candidates are asked to pair with a current ThoughtWorker in adding functionality to the code they submitted for review. This process helps us to gauge how a candidate will respond to our style of working and how they respond to both praise and criticism. The old Good Cop Bad Cop... This interview is followed by a round of tests the Wonderlic Personnel Test and the Predictive Index are 3rd party assessments of verbal and numerical acumen and a psychometric test respectively. After this candidates are given an in-house test designed to mimic the process of logical thinking in coding – ominously it’s referred to only as “The Logic”.

A second interview, often with a pair of consultants is designed to illicit information as to a candidate’s cultural fit – do they share the same values as ThoughtWorkers, in a given situation how would they react, and most importantly what questions do they have for us? This is followed by an interview with one of the management team to give a broad overview of their experience and suitability for the role – it’s also another chance for candidates to ask any questions they may have.

The process can be daunting for applicants and although the atmosphere is relaxed we try to alleviate what could be an otherwise stressful day as well as keep your blood sugar levels up. In a recent analysis we found that ThoughtWorks UK employs one candidate from every one hundred and thirty applicants.

Does all this mean we employ "The Best"? Nope, but it does mean that out of those that go through this gruelling process we employ people who have a great idea about what they are getting into, they've met with current employees at all levels - some newbies and some old hands and they've had the opportunity to question all of them and then we give them some thinking time too. The process is always changing and we're always trying new things but hopefully everyone get a fair idea about what the future would be like. Hopefully this is also a pre-emptive strike on those readers who want "ThoughtWorks interview tips" - this is full disclosure.... apart from telling you about the song and dance number you have to do and giving you "The Logic" answers I can't help anymore...

Hiring "The Best"?

In my role I am always interested to see how organisations market themselves to prospective job seekers. Amazon is a wash with books dedicated to the subject. Better interviewing techniques, different questioning styles and shiny new assessments to avoid actually talking to a candidate. In all this how can an organisation justifiably say they hire the "Best" candidates? What does "Best" really mean? I'm currently in Calgary and travelled through Chicago to get here, one only has to walk down a busy street to see how many shops are serving "THE BEST!" coffee, and it must be true...they've got the neon signs to prove it!

If we can all see the holes in that argument as soon as it's made why then do we attach values to prospective employers? There are no "Best" employers, it is of course an opinion, a mediated position arrived at somewhere between the expectations of candidates and the advertising of employers. If all major technology employers are to be believed they all employ the top 2% of graduates of global graduating classes. That 2% must be stretched a little far!

"The Best" place to work is the place that suits you. A place where your motivations are understood and catered for. If you want to work 20 hours a day, risk not seeing your children until their 18th birthdays and work your way up to be "Vice-President of *insert something about architect here*" there will be hundreds of companies happy to take you on! Likewise if you'd prefer to work less time, take the option of flexible working and not be penalised for it, there are companies out there that are right for you too. "The Best" is every case is what's right for you, you can't really make a fair judgement call on any organisation until you've worked there yourself, and a great place to start is by thinking about your own motivations. What's right for you? What concessions can you make and what in your work/life balance in non-negotiable? If an employer thinks you're their perfect person there are ways to make things work out for both parties.

Personally, I like to think I've hired people for who ThoughtWorks was the right choice. They give up certain things - for some it's that hefty amount of travel - to work in an organisation that they feel works for them too. Their colleagues share the same passions, they appreciate similar things and share common goals. Before this trails off into advertising territory I'll end and save the advertising for later...