Interview Properly to Build a Great Team

With all this talk about how small business can rebuild the economy, I find it very unfortunate (and a little amusing) that so many companies hire incorrectly. What I find that most companies are doing wrong is that they either have inconsistent interview strategies across team members/departments or they are too strictly interviewing candidates from a rigid set of questions and answers. Maybe a company has been struggling to survive during the recession and just “hasn’t had time” to create a structured interview process. Maybe they have had a lot of turnover, and the people in charge of hiring now simply don’t know how to do it. Or maybe even the interview process is run by a centralized and out of touch human resources department who pretends they know more about the candidates than the hiring manager does. In any case, interviewing is done poorly at most companies.

Here’s why.

When candidates are flooding resumes into your inbox, you’re scrambling to figure out who is worthy of a telephone interview. On paper, most candidates look pretty similar (though, there are definitely a nice chunk you can immediately ignore due poor formatting, lack of experience, skills not matching position needs, etc), and only a telephone interview will effectively weed them out. But it’s not until the candidates walk into the door for a formal interview that most companies are really messing up. In the technology sector (this process varies in each industry), it is very common for a candidate to spend half a day at the potential employer to be interviewed by 4 or 5 employees (of which, one or two are often managers in the company). If the candidate is still interesting to the employer, a second half-day of 4 or 5 more employee interviews will happen (and usually a higher rank manager or company executive will be involved). The reason so many people get a chance to interview the candidate is primarily to determine company culture fit, and it is rarely due to general qualifications. This is fairly controversial (there is debate that letting such a significant chunk of employees interview only leads to culture decay since they’re playing a game with each other’s opinions and acceptance), but it is definitely very commonplace in the industry. When so many “future coworkers”are involved in the interview process, the process used to determine whether or not the candidate gets a recommendation to the hiring manager will vary, and is often subject to the interviewer’s personal opinion of the candidate’s character, attitude, skill, and even negative/illegal factors (such as race, sex, etc).

To resolve this, you either need to let your decision makers (managers, partners, executives, leads, etc) hire directly, or you need to standardize an interview process when you are letting a significant number of people interview candidates. (I can’t tell you how many companies don’t standardize; it’s no wonder they’re complaining about “a lack of qualified candidates” in the market!) There are several key components to a well structured and standardized interview, but the single most useful component (if you had to narrow it down to one) would be a competency matrix. A competency matrix is a table that identifies core interests/topics/areas that you’d like to evaluate for a candidate, which are further broken down into skills and capabilities. By standardizing on the same core set of interest areas, you can ensure that everyone is on the same page. It forces interviewers to stay focused on what the hiring manager feels is most important and gives the interviewer some ideas on what questions to ask and how to score the candidate.

The competency matrix gives examples on how to rank a candidate for each skill or capability so that the candidate is less likely to be ranked on the interviewer’s opinion of what the skill level should be. An interviewer who is unfamiliar with the content of the interview would still potentially skew the scoring of the candidate’s capabilities, but that interviewer shouldn’t be interviewing to begin with. For example, a Sales employee should never evaluate the qualifications of a Software Engineer candidate because they’re simply not capable of understanding the requirements of the job, much less understand how well the candidate understands the attributes of their role. This should be obvious, but I’ve seen so many companies misuse their interview pools over the years that I feel it needs a swift reminder. Of course, you can also apply this to interviewing a consultant, contractor, or potentially even a vendor (though it may require some modification).

Building a great competency matrix is worthwhile (though it may take you some time to put together). For example, there is a well known Programmer Competency Matrix by Sijin Joseph that was later web-ified and updated by Starling Software. It’s a fantastic competency matrix because it clearly identifies general requirement sections and detailed attributes matched against different levels. You can determine the competency level of yourself (or a candidate) by reading the matrix and scoring yourself in each area.

I have taken their fantastic matrix and formatted and updated it in a colorful and convenient format for interviewing candidates (or evaluating existing staff for the purposes of goal-setting or getting to know what your software engineer team is capable of currently). Even if you don’t hire software engineers, this chart could be a starting point for your own matrix (of which I strongly welcome).

Download the Programmer Competency Matrix (.PDF)

Download the Programmer Competency Matrix (.PAGES)

Download the Programmer Competency Matrix (.DOC)

 As usual, you’re encouraged to use it as you please, including editing it and posting it on a website or forum, but please do include some attribution. I am always curious to see what you end up creating, and how you have implemented your own interview processes. Happy hiring!