It is a good time to be a software engineer. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that between now and 2029, employment of engineers will grow at a rate five times that of other positions. With that much demand, it’s not surprising that hiring engineers is hard and likely to only get harder. However, companies can gain a competitive advantage in hiring engineers by tweaking their advertising and hiring practices so they attract more candidates and put them in the best position to succeed.
List the Requirements Needed to Get the Job, Not Do the Job
When writing the technical section of a job description, far too many companies fill the technical requirements with a list of every technology the software engineer might work with. Those may be requirements to do the job effectively, but they are generally not requirements to actually get the job. An experienced developer generally only needs to learn a few syntax differences to get started writing code in a similar programming language. Programming languages, frameworks, and tools change so rapidly that a software engineer who can apply his or her current knowledge to learn new technologies might even be more valuable in the long run than one who already meets every requirement.
The cost of overloading the requirements section is the missed opportunity to interview qualified candidates. There are indications that this loss shows up in the gender disparities within software engineering. A frequently cited internal study from Hewlett Packard notes that on average, men will apply for a job when they meet 60% of the requirements, while women will apply when they meet 100%. In another study for the Harvard Business Review, author and expert on women’s leadership Tara Sophia Mohr surveyed men and women on why they chose not to apply for a job if they didn’t meet all the requirements. Results indicate that women self-select out not because they lack the confidence that they can do the job but because they don’t think they would be able to get the job. While that thought was skewed higher for women than men, it was consistently the highest answer for both men and women, implying that even in cases when a company might not really consider every item in a requirements section as absolutely necessary to get the job, candidates who aren’t applying are likely reading them as such.
When listing the technical requirements, companies should consider what they’d need to see from a candidate to indicate he or she could do the job. That might not be experience with all the specific technologies the engineer might work with but rather a previous work history that shows the person has valuable experience that can be an asset for the team. Hiring managers should be more concerned with what a candidate can do with the company, not what he or she has done in the past.
Train Engineers How to Interview Candidates
Assessing a candidate’s technical knowledge means that at some point in the process, engineers will need to be in the room with the candidate to gauge the depth of his or her technical aptitude. However, too often, engineers enter these interviews without any training on how to assess a candidate’s potential. Lacking any better approach, they typically fall back on two methods of interviewing: gotcha questions and whiteboarding. “Gotcha questions” delve into obscure cases within the language that even experienced engineers might never have needed to know, and if they ever were to in the future, they’d likely learn it in the same way the interviewer would: by Googling it when they got stuck on a problem.
Whiteboarding is giving a candidate an arbitrary problem to write out an algorithm for and solve on a whiteboard in front of a panel of interviewers. With the right candidate and the right interviewer, it can give insight into how a candidate thinks about and approaches a problem. However, it bears little resemblance to the actual work environment in which a candidate would be expected to perform, and when a candidate gets stumped or is too nervous, the experience can undermine an otherwise promising interview.
Software engineering interviews always go better when they start in an area where the candidate already has some degree of expertise. Instead of whiteboard questions, having a candidate complete a small project that approximates the work he or she might do allows the candidate to show what he or she knows and gives the group actual code to dig into rather than discussing abstract concepts of a language that are less closely related to the day-to-day work.
Engineers can learn more about a candidate’s potential if they are trained to ask technical questions in a behavioral interviewing style. Asking a candidate about his or her approach to a particularly challenging problem not only lets the interviewers gauge the person’s depth of experience but also lets the candidate converse in a language in which he or she has already developed some expertise. Interviewers can then press more to find the limits of that knowledge. This could lead to an opportunity for the interviewers to teach the candidate something about it.
Alternatively, if the interviewers don’t have experience in an area the candidate talks about, they can ask the candidate to teach them about it. These approaches ultimately yield not just a sense of what the candidate knows but also a sense of what the individual would be like as a colleague. It also shows a candidate what it will be like to work with the engineers on staff and that your company is invested in supporting everyone’s growth.
In today’s digital-first world, every company is a tech company to some degree, and hiring the right talent when it comes to software engineers is paramount. Hiring managers can use these tips to ensure they hire the right talent for the position who will grow with the company over the long term.
Shawn Doyle is the Director of Culture and a software engineer for STRATIS IoT, a RealPage company, where he actively works to bring the internet of things to multi-family housing and build an inclusive and supportive environment where everyone on staff can thrive and grow. In his dual role at STRATIS, Shawn works to cultivate an environment of safety and belonging, beginning with the hiring process up through employee advancements through the company, in addition to helping the team create new features that provide and regulate access to multi-family housing locations.