IT hiring: 5 tips to move past the "ideal candidate" trap

While skills assessment matters in IT hiring, an early overemphasis on skill-matching can blind you to a candidate's promise. To hire diverse and creative teams, flip the hiring process on its head
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The traditional hiring process is an obstacle course that candidates must navigate to prove themselves. The hurdles, like a lengthy list of skills or certifications, may feel insurmountable. The result: Your company forfeits the opportunity to hire gifted individuals who don’t fit the mold.

Instead, organizations should be jumping through hoops to ensure that more candidates, particularly those with uncommon backgrounds, can complete the race. This requires a major shift in the focus of hiring. While skills assessment plays an important role in hiring, an early overemphasis on skill-matching can focus on pedigree at the expense of promise.

Organizations thrive when they take the time to find, hire, and onboard individuals who contribute diverse perspectives and fresh approaches to problem-solving.

I’ve seen how organizations thrive when they take the time to find, hire, and onboard individuals who contribute diverse perspectives and fresh approaches to problem-solving. Conversely, I’ve witnessed how more homogenous teams appear to gel quickly but later struggle to deliver innovative products.

5 ways to rethink your IT hiring process

Thoughtful and holistic evaluation of candidates must become the driving force of the hiring process, rather than an afterthought during interviews. Here are a few guidelines that can help make that happen.

1. Start with values and potential

Early in the traditional hiring process, companies narrow their search around qualifications or work experience to find the right candidates. By concentrating on what someone has done in the past, companies may overlook what that individual is capable of doing in the future. Only late in the interview stage do hiring managers dig into intangible qualities like curiosity, creativity, and collaboration. To hire diverse and creative teams, flip this process on its head.

[ Get more advice on IT hiring: IT hiring: How to recruit the class of 2021. ]

Start by looking at the person behind the resume to discover who they are and how they approach problems. For example, look at a candidate’s volunteer activities, extracurricular accomplishments, passion projects, and life experience to understand what gives them a sense of purpose.

Among our most successful engineering hires at Gusto are people with non-traditional software development backgrounds, including a Spanish major, a space industry engineer, a lawyer, and a physicist. One of the most impressive coders I encountered at a previous company was a former California Highway Patrol officer. We found these engineers by looking for passion.

2. Don't look for the 'ideal' candidate

Seeking out the ideal candidate can subtly bias hiring managers toward a “standard” employee type. Instead, determine the qualities you’d like a candidate to have, such as the ability to experiment and build things, or the grit and determination to see projects through. Design job descriptions and interviews to prioritize those traits. For example, at Gusto we value people with experience running or supporting small businesses because they are empathetic about our customers’ needs. That passion fuels our product.

Always keep uncommon candidates in mind when developing or updating career-related content, including website copy, photos, videos, and social media posts. Avoid language or images that could be read as overly prescriptive and end up discouraging people from applying. Take time to examine, discuss, and address potential biases or flawed thinking you and your team may have around assessing talent.

3. Balance skills and personal narrative

A candidate’s values and passion – what I call “spark” – can bring unexpected benefits to your team and organization. You can find that spark in an individual’s volunteer work, their hobbies, the groups they belong to, and how and where they voice their opinions. Use a candidate’s resume as a roadmap to understand their personal narrative; in interviews, ask questions about the decisions they’ve made along the way. 

A candidate’s values and passion – what I call "spark" – can bring unexpected benefits to your team and organization.

Of course, skills do matter. Empowering non-traditional candidates with knowledge is crucial to helping them move forward. For instance, Gusto is taking part in a pilot program that aims to connect companies and candidates during job searches. For a given role, a company will specify the required skills and candidates are able to close skills gaps by taking free LinkedIn courses and assessments. After passing, a candidate secures a conversation with a recruiter.

Other non-traditional candidates may be midway through another career and can benefit from a paid retraining program. In a previous role, I started a rotational engineering program where individuals from uncommon backgrounds worked alongside experienced engineers who served as mentors. Participants started at an engineering bootcamp for a month, then rotated through two engineering teams over the next 11 months. The rotational program provided a new source of talented full-time engineers.

4. Treat interviews like conversations

Reframe every job interview as a meeting of peers – a partnership instead of a trap to reveal a candidate’s lack of knowledge. Interviews are actually quite symmetrical: While the interviewer is trying to assess whether the candidate would be successful at the role, the candidate is simultaneously assessing whether the company is the right environment for them to be successful. Remember to give candidates a glimpse of what it would be like to work with your team.

Like in any scenario where you meet someone new, the key is to stay curious. Our role as interviewers is to try to understand the person we are talking to and to give them a chance to understand us. I used to go on walks with candidates or grab a coffee together to make the conversation less formal. In this new remote-first world, I try to sit back and tell stories about my path and my team. These stories are often good starting points for conversations and encourage the candidate to tell their own story in a free and natural way.

5. Take a people-first perspective

Hiring is only the beginning of a candidate’s relationship with your company, so it’s important to not just welcome them in, but also to continue supporting them at every stage, from onboarding and training to ongoing professional development, mentorship, and evaluation. Revisit your expectations for new hires, including metrics for success and how you conduct performance reviews.

All aspects of a business, from designing and building a product to communicating that vision and serving customers, benefit from a wide range of viewpoints and life experiences. To reach and attract uncommon candidates, examine and then rethink how you hire. It’s the first step towards building a virtuous cycle – a nurturing work environment that attracts and retains stellar talent.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Nimrod Hoofien
Nimrod Hoofien is the Head of Product Engineering at Gusto, a people platform that helps small-and-medium-sized businesses pay, insure, and provide benefits to their teams. His career has taken him from startups to large corporations, most recently as the Director of People Engineering at Facebook. Nimrod is a parent, a gamer, and an aspiring woodworker.