Emergent Interview Design

November 12, 2009

I’m heavily involved in recruiting here at SEP. We recently did something that we haven’t done in at least 15 years: hired an experienced project manager. In our history, we’ve always always always grown our own; it’s too critical of a position to put in the hands of a stranger. The risk/criticality hasn’t gone away, but we have realized that A) we need another experienced hand while our up-and-comers get some experience under their belt, B) we’re pretty good at interviewing and C) we’re pretty good at managing our work, so we can handle it.

We did get our PM, in a reasonable amount of time and with a reasonable amount of effort (woot!). This story is more about the how than the who though.

So It Begins…

The right thing to do would have been to follow Johanna Rothman’s process, detailed in Hiring The Best Knowledge Workers, Techies & Nerds. We’ve even done all the heavy lifting, with fairly well defined job descriptions and career path skill tree in place. Alas, I got busy and found myself face to face with an oncoming tidal wave of phone interviews … so I winged it.

Some criteria was obvious: experience managing projects, at least some exposure and openness to lean/agile, and great communication skills. And of course, we have our standard criteria (shamelessly pillaged from Joel Spolsky): smart, fit, and get things done. Past that, I didn’t really have a hit list of topics to explore and evaluate the candidates on.

Oh Look, Criteria!

Thus poorly armed, I started the phone interviews and what do you know … the candidates helped me figure out what I cared about. I don’t mean that they sold me; instead, the back and forth discussion of what they’ve done, challenges they faced, and what being a PM at SEP means revealed for me what I actually cared about. I also learned what experiences and skills I didn’t care about, either because they weren’t applicable to the job or within our domain. Within three phone interviews my key criteria had solidified to:

– Experience managing projects- Lean & Agile friendly- Team-facing skills (leader or mentor, not manager)- Great communication skills – Engineering and software development background- Exposure to rigorous or regulated software development process- Heavy interaction with clients

I used simple stop light color grading for each candidate on these criteria (Excel conditional formatting is fantastic for this), giving me a quick and dirty [heat map](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heat_map) to which candidates were the best.

After a couple more phone interviews, I had nice-to-have criteria:

  • Who did they report to in their past experiences as a PM? (Project Manager has a pretty broad definition, need to make sure they understand what it means here.)
  • Are they suffering from any cultural burn-in? (A big part of the reason we like to grow our own people.)
  • Do they already have some business facing skills? (Sometimes challenging for us engineer-turned-manager types to develop.)

And that was pretty much all I needed to get down to our finalists. I don recommend this as a standard operating procedure, but it’s certainly something to consider when you’re dealing with difficult interviewing situations, like interviewing for a position you don’t tend to hire externally for. Simply discussing the job with viable candidates can help you figure out what matters.

Making A Decision

When we got down to the finalists, we had several good candidates who all probably would have worked out. Auditioning is a big part of our engineering interviews, but auditioning a PM is difficult … in fact, I couldn’t come up with a satisfactory way to do it, so we didn’t even try. Instead, we used a lot of behavioral questions, learning about the candidate through the stories they told.

The final deciding criteria for my vote was a more qualitative evaluation of the person. You can try to process-ize your interviews all you want, but some gut feel always seems to be necessary. The final straw for me was: Is this a person who, if I got to know them, would want to find a place for in my organization in advance of even knowing what they do? That’s my candidate.