What I look for in a potential hire

I’ve been thinking a fair bit the last little while about how I run a business. This started after a conversation on Linked In with Dave MacDonald sometime last fall, but has percolated to the top of my brain of late. I recently passed the 7th anniversary of my company, and I’ve worked in small companies for nearly all my professional life at every level, so I suspect that I have some insights. So, consider this the first in an irregular series on running a business.

Here’s the dirty secret about getting hired by me: by the time you’ve shaken my hand and sat down, I already know if I want to hire you or not. All that’s left to figure out is whether or not you can lose the position by not being what I expect, how exactly I want to slot you into my company, and, most importantly, how you want to slot my company into your life. This means 2 major things:

  1. My first impression of you when you walk in the door is key – this is the “gut” decision that Malcolm Gladwell talks about so much in “Blink“. In over a decade of hiring people, I’ve only been wrong once when I thought someone would be a good fit (I’ve no idea, of course, how many times I’ve been wrong when I thought you wouldn’t fit in). I might talk about what I look for in an interview another time.
  2. Everything you do that leads up to me calling you to interview you is vitally important. And that’s what I’m going to look at today.

There was an article last week on SquawkFox called “6 works that make your resumé suck“. All that is true. I will likely throw your cv out if I see a lot of that. Other tips for resumés and cover letters:

  • Short! If your resumé is more than 1 sheet of paper, double-sided, it’s too long. Your cover letter should be even shorter. You either have information that is no longer relevant, or you’re purposefully padding it. Either way, you’re lying to me, and we’re off to a bad start.
  • Looks nice! Your resumé should be easy to scan for highlights, with lots of appropriately sized & spaced type. my 2 page rule does not mean I want 2 pages of single-spaced, 8-pt type all across it. Layout proves to me you understand the basics of presentation & user experience. At this point, I’m the most important “user” of your resume, so help me out .
    update: Mark Busse points out, quite correctly, I suspect:  ‘In the communication design profession, resumes are basically dead. NO designer gets hired using a cv—even a gorgeous one’.
  • Error-free! I may be extreme on this one, but I will discard your resumé out of hand if I see a single typo or grammatical error. Same goes for a cover letter. I don’t care if English isn’t your first language or not. Errors on these tell me a few things:
    1. You’re not detail-oriented. Programming & Design are both all about sweating the details. A typo tells me that you’re not attentive to detail.
    2. You’re satisfied with “close enough”, which, to be frank, is not good enough. If you don’t care enough to impress me, how could I ever trust that you’ll care enough for our clients?
    3. You’re not willing to ask for help. This is a group environment where you won’t always be the expert in everything. If you won’t ask someone to help make sure your resumé & cover letter are perfect, you probably won’t ask for help when figuring out that algorithm either.
  • Professional! If your resumé is on blue paper with spaceships in the background, or is scented, or anything “gimmicky”, I’m not interested. This just says to me that you don’t feel your qualifications will speak for you, so you want to trick me into checking into you. Not true. That being said, I’d love a colophon explaining your typeface, paper, etc – the rationale for your design decisions. Using your personal letterhead is also fine, if it looks professional (so if your personal brand contains rocket ships, that’s fine).
  • URLs! This is pretty industry specific, but I expect you to have an online presence. I expect to see your twitter, facebook, blog, linked in, youtube, whatever profiles listed (or at least a path to see all relevant profiles). We work on the web. If you don’t use the web in a contemporary way, why should I believe you understand it at all? Along those same lines, you better be sure that your online profile is suitable for a potential employer to see. Your online profile consists also as a way for me to rapidly assess you for how you’ll fit into our corporate culture.
    update: to clarify – I’m not looking for a specific service, or that it is “clean”.  I’m looking to see is evidence of use/understanding of social media & online interactions. Also, this is the perfect way to show me examples of your work along with rational and process decisions made along the way. Wrote some awesome code? where’s the post on it? Particularly proud of a logo you designed? Write about it!
  • Not a form letter! I understand you might be sending off hundreds of these. But if your cover letter doesn’t include some specific references to my own company, our work, our clients, etc, I don’t believe you really want to work here. And I only want to hire someone who actually wants to work here as opposed to just get a job, anywhere. And this is the prime role of your cover letter. To convince me of your interest in working here, specifically. Your cv does the “get a job, any job” part.
  • LinkedIn! Also pointed out by Mark Busse (follow him, he’s smart: @markbusse) is this: ‘Good advice, except why have a resume at all when LinkedIn exists?’ I’m totally down with just being sent a link to your LinkedIn profile instead of a resume. This goes very well with the URLs! idea above.

That’s my advice for resumés & cover letters. Pretty straight forward, I think. While I’m on the topic, here are some criteria that over the years Jeff and I have evolved to see as must-haves in a potential hire:

  • Degree or equivalent: Having a degree tells us that you can stick with something long & difficult all the way to the end. You don’t quit at the 90% mark. What your degree is in is somewhat irrelevant, but having successfully completed something as demanding, time-consuming and protracted as a degree is a must. This tells us you likely know how to handle the stress when push comes to shove and you have to fight through problems to finish a project.
  • Team experience: This one might be controversial: We’ve recently decided that we only want to hire people who have played team sports or other otherwise played a part on a team with a shared goal (and distinct from working elsewhere with others). The reason for this is simple: This is a small, close-knit company. People who have played team sports understand the importance of team-building. Also, understand what “take one for the team” actually means. I’ve worked with people who fundamentally do not understand the meaning of teamwork, regardless of what their experience is – and this has been detrimental to everyone else on staff.
    update: to be clear, I want evidence of experience in working as a team – not just in sports: Band, theatre, debate clubs, whatever. I’m not looking to hire jocks – I just want to know that you truly know what “teamwork” is, outside of the required team project you likely had to do at school.
  • Obvious Social Skills: given what else I’ve written on this site, and that we’re a software development house, this might seem odd. Aren’t software developers known for having the eccentric genius on staff that no one understands but can throw out perfect code all day every day? Yes – but not where I work (except for me? ;). If I hire you, I will likely spend more time with you than virtually anyone else in my life except for my wife. So I have to believe that I will enjoy that time. And that my other staff will enjoy that time. And that my clients will think positively of us after interacting with you. Otherwise, what’s the point?

So there’s my initial thoughts on things to think about when writing resumés, cover letters and presenting yourself. I think a take away is that all of these add up to be your personal brand, whether you are conscious of it or not. So start being conscious of it. These are all the intangibles that crystallize into form the moment I finally interact with you in person and we start the interview.

(final aside: You might note, quite correctly, that this blog is rife with both typos and grammatical errors. But you know what? This site isn’t my cv, it’s my thought playground – it’s not meant to be perfect, just a place for me to think out load and interact with the world at large in a casual setting – and that’s ok.)

5 Replies to “What I look for in a potential hire”

  1. Steve, you bring up a lot of good points that someone who spends a lot of time in recruitment considers baseline. In working with contractors, I expect these things. That said, if your experience is one of a kind and you consistently mis-spell, it might actually be overlooked. It's very tricky, but in a small business, you need someone to not just have a single skill set, but fill in and work across multiple levels of the company and usually be client-facing at some point.

    One thing that's different in the small business / recruitment world is the resume size. The size of a resume in our world isn't terribly relevant so long as all of the resume content is useful. In a database of thousands, or tens of thousands, making your resume stand out could be a matter of that one keyword everyone else is lacking or the number of times you use the word “java.” A human readable resume, though, should be able to be read by humans as you mentioned.

  2. Good article, but please correct me if I am wrong. I stopped reading after the “Error-free” heading when you failed to capitalize the word “english”.

  3. You're likely very right about the differences in the recruitment world – and I know nothing about it, having only ever worked in academia & small business I wonder if that's where things like LinkedIn, Monster.com can help – I don't know if massive DBs link to or harvest from those existing digital copies so that they can be much more exhaustive.

    I do see your point about a particular skill set allowing one to overlook, say, spelling, and yes, that is true. Like all guidelines, I generally follow the 90/10 rule – these will be true 90% of the time, and the remaining 10% are all special cases that it's impossible to create guidelines for 🙂

  4. Ah, that's my french-language education tripping me up, thank you for pointing it out. And, case in point, why I would always have someone else review a cover letter & CV before submitting it to someone. I have now corrected the grammatical error.

  5. A collection of excellent points Steve.

    I know you’re right that a lot of hiring decisions are effectively made before the interview starts. The interview is just a means for the interviewer to confirm to themselves that their gut-feel was correct. And see my post yesterday (http://www.topdownview.com/2010/03/agile-vancouver-trust-and-team-building/) – the interviewer will assign weight to things that come up in the interview that support their feelings and skip over things that don’t.

    There’s an interesting book about IT hiring called “How Would You Move Mount Fuji?”. It’s specifically about how companies like Google and Microsoft use puzzle questions in their interviews but it covers quite a lot of other ground about technology hiring. Google Books has a lengthly snippet from it here: http://bit.ly/cGeIAs . There’s an interesting piece (page 16 if you’re following along) on initial judgments in interviews. In an experiment, ratings of 98 candidates based on a full interview correlated strongly with ratings given by watching the first 15 seconds of the interview – just the candidate walking in, shaking hands and sitting down!

    I agree with you on detail-oriented attention for typos. I let the UK spelling of “organisation” slip through on one of my Canadian cover letters once and I’ve been kicking myself ever since.

    I’m intrigued by the team sports entry. You’re saying that experience working in a team environment, pulling together to deliver a project on time, isn’t enough? Doesn’t experience in a development team teach team-building and the meaning of taking one for the team? My times doing things such as working until 3AM because the salesman promised to demo a feature to the customer tomorrow when I’d previously told him it would take a week tells me that it does 🙂

    The only point I’d really take exception with is the URLs… you’re saying that you expect to see my Facebook URL, twitter handle, YouTube account listed on my resume? To my mind, these are attributes of my personal life rather than my professional life. I attempt to behave professionally when I use them and I certainly expect any company that I interview for to have searched the web for me and probably found them, but I wouldn’t put them on my resume. A company researching me might find out my favorite beer but they wouldn’t expect me to put that information on my resume.

    Totally with you on social skills. I’ve worked in companies that had a miracle-working developer who would churn out incredible code but who could hardly cope with conversing with his team-mates and must never, at any cost, be let near a customer. If your company’s big enough I think maybe you can afford that position. But if you’re a smaller company then everybody needs to bond. I guess here I’m begrudgingly agreeing with you that just saying “yes, I’ve worked in a team environment” maybe isn’t enough proof without further inquiry from the interviewer – ask about things like customer-facing experience, responsibilities in the team.

    Ultimately, the false-positives (people you employ who don’t work out) are FAR more expensive than the false-negatives (people who would have worked out but you reject). One false-positive in a small company can destroy it so you can’t take on someone you’re not certain about.

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