Want more soft skills in IT? Tweak your interview process

What are the essential soft skills for IT pros, and how do you find them in interviewees? Try these 3 creative approaches
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Often, tech employees who leave a company do so within the first 12 months of being hired. Most of the time, the technology work itself isn’t the issue. It’s the culture. Similarly, companies that hire based on tech skills alone tend to miss out on candidates who could be better culture fits. This problem can and must be addressed at the very beginning – the interview.

When a candidate participates in activity-based interviewing, soft skills start to emerge. They become more natural and less guarded or rehearsed. Incorporating interactive activities or games gives you, the company, an opportunity to witness how a candidate communicates, how they think through spontaneous roadblocks, how analytical they are in approaching problems, whether they are natural at collaborating with other people or whether they tend to be more of a “do it yourself” type of person. These qualities can tell you much more about who a person is and how they will fit into your culture than a list of technological skills.

[ Are you known as a leader with high or low EQ? See our related story, 10 things leaders with emotional intelligence never do. ]

First, let’s take a closer look. What are the soft skills that tech recruiters are now demanding? I call them the "Six C's of Culture Fit."

  • Critical thinking – Tech professionals should possess a skillset to analyze situations, evaluate issues, determine risks, identify potential problems, and find opportunities for project or program success and achievement.  
  • Creativity – Recruits must be able to think outside of the box to develop new ideas or generate creative solutions to overcome existing roadblocks or potential pitfalls.
  • Communication – Candidates should have the ability to communicate well, including exceptional listening skills, oral, and written communications, along with other forms such as discussions on whiteboards, note sharing, stand-up meetings, reports, presentations, etc.  (See our related story, 12 bad communication habits to break in IT.) 
  • Collaboration – It’s very important that a person should have the ability to collaborate with colleagues and project teammates. It’s essential to be open to feedback on work and being willing to share ideas with others, with the intent of building and producing a stronger overall product or solution. Many tech companies now use pair programming, team structures, matrix structures, and cross-functionality, and these types of management approaches should be looked at favorably by employees.  
  • Commitment - If a person truly believes what they are doing is valuable, they will be more engaged, more conscientious, and willing to work harder to get to a better end result. In addition, and this goes without saying, but having a strong work ethic, being dependable, and possessing a positive attitude are all essential soft skills needed for success.
  • Change acceptance – Adaptability is a key behavior trait for a collaborative environment. A person must be willing to change roles, assignments, and tasks to provide value to company and customer needs. Adaptability implies that someone is not only adept at change but also able to create strategies and develop skills to deal with that change. If a person is not adaptable they will struggle with the constant change of a fast-moving technology company.

If you want to bring more of the Six C's into your organization, it’s time to rethink the interview process.

3 creative exercises

It starts with having a good understanding of the role and a customized interview process that is specific to the role. Your recruiting process should assess how a candidate will do not only in your technical environment, but also within your social/cultural environment. 

This is not easily done through traditional interview style questioning. Rather, activities can be the greatest revealers of a candidate’s personality and values. I have gained more insight in 20 minutes of observing a candidate performing an interview activity or game – especially when hiring for an agile-type environment – than I could ever gain from a question and answer session.

For your next round of tech hires, try these fun and engaging activities to bring out more of their personality and soft skills.

Career Vision- Dream Job: This activity involves the interviewee and one designated interviewer in a quick sketching exercise. The interviewer and the candidate work together to create a visual depiction of an ideal day at work. Taking turns, they each draw for 30 seconds, stopping when an alarm sounds. When the candidate is not the person drawing, they are directing the interviewer on what to draw. This exercise engages communication skills, creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking skills.

Speedboat: Draw a picture of a boat, an island, an anchor, and, up in the sky, a cloud. The interviewee then uses the drawing to explain what they see as the possibilities and opportunities of the role they’re being interviewed for. Have them utilize the anchor to illustrate what they believe may hold them back in the role; the cloud represents the external forces that may impact their job, whether positively or negatively; the island represents their goals. What they write and draw in each of these areas leads to open and honest dialogue and a glimpse into their desires and fears about the job. 

Yes, and: The interviewer or interviewee starts a story, and each person around the table has to add to the story by beginning their statement with “Yes, and…” The beauty of this particular game is that it doesn’t require any special equipment or tools, and it allows you to easily observe a candidate’s creativity, collaboration, communication, change acceptance, and communication skills.

By making better hiring decisions, your attrition rate can be minimized. Companies can help themselves by optimizing the interview process to identify the soft skills and the cultural matches they desire most on their teams.

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John Maglione is a Senior Talent Acquisition Specialist at WWT Asynchrony Labs, an information technology firm headquartered in St. Louis. John helps lead a global effort for finding and placing the right talent at the company’s offices in various parts of the U.S. and the UK.