Hiring the Best People Based on a Cultural Fit and Not Technical Skills

     
By on May 24, 2017

I’m lucky. This year I’ll be 45 and I still get calls and messages from interesting people who want me to work in their team. Unfortunately, not all people who are my age get the same opportunities. In the world of iOS and Android development (frankly, any kind of developer), engineers are still in demand. So I try to stay employable, which means reading a lot of blog posts, watching some videos, and, above all, programming and trying out new technologies. In this field, previous experience isn’t always the key, more so your ability to get the task done.

The messages and calls I receive are the starting point of a recruitment process. It’s different for every company, some are really good and you honestly feel valued. Others, not so much. Many small companies just duplicate what Microsoft, Google or Facebook are doing to hire “the best talent in town”. But when you’re a small development agency, it might not be the best idea to just blindly adopt what the behemoths in the industry are doing.

I’ve endured whiteboard interviews, where I’ve been asked to fix a buggy piece of code using just a whiteboard and no Internet access (and not even using a book). If asked to do a bubble sort, you should know it by heart. This is as stupid as it sounds – imagine testing your doctor’s capacity to heal you by testing their ability to remember the names of all bones in the body. You know: reference books exist for a reason, and we as computer scientists use and contribute to the Internet more than other human beings.

Relaxing with the team on a recent retreat to Tarragona

These days, it’s trendy to prepare a code interview where the most advanced technology at your disposal is a wall clock. I can’t even code how to convert from an NSString into NSData without looking at StackOverflow, not to mention how to download something using NSURLSession, so it’s clear these kind of interviews aren’t for me. And no, I’m not going to study any preparing for the code interview book. I can review a breath-first search implementation detail because I need it, because I grasped that concept many years ago, but memorizing this? Nope.

I’ve also done assignment interviews, but without the interview. Here you’ll often be sent a programming task where you’ll get typically a week to finish it. I’ve written Android and iOS apps in one week, just to be told the solution was not good enough. They also failed to give me any insights into what they were going to do with the code I’d written, or why my solution wasn’t good enough. While I may still be naive, I’m sure some may have used interviews in this format just to kickstart a project. A good variant on this kind of interview is hiring you as a freelancer for a couple of months, before confirming any final contract details.

I’ve also experienced interviews that are just a friendly chat about technology in general, and others based on trivia questions about memory management, multithreading and basic development concepts.

The Mobile Jazz team in Thailand in 2015

I first heard about Mobile Jazz when reading a blog post on how they were working remotely from Thailand. Being a father of two, this kind of extreme remote working is out of the question for me. I was just looking for a good company to work with and to stop being the lonely freelancer. I work from the sunny south of Spain, and I didn’t want to face a daily commute. There was a “we’re hiring link” at the bottom of the post, so I thought what’s the worst thing can happen? I was expecting some kind of form, or an email address to submit my CV with, but what I found were instructions to send a HTTP POST method and the structure of the JSON message that should be inside the body of that request. This made me smile, so using curl and the command line (did I tell you I’m old?) I sent the request and waited.

Later on, I received an email from Joan, our Mobile Team lead. He wanted to interview me, remotely, obviously. So we jumped into a call, and I was prepared to have another technical-type interview, but no, it was a friendly chat. Joan took the time to explain what it was like to work at Mobile Jazz, how you have to take responsibility and even ownership of the work you’re doing, how you can help with anything that makes your company a better company; be it:

  • Coding
  • Proposing a change in tools
  • Introducing a new continuous integration server
  • Setting everything up for a barbecue
  • Helping with marketing
  • Writing in this very blog
  • Even buying cookies for the office (a mission-critical task every office caretaker should do; there’s a different member of the staff each week selected for this job due to its inherent pressure)
The MJ team running a lunch time yoga class in Tarragona

Joan was asking me genuine questions about how I worked remotely, to see if I would be a good cultural fit for the team. When I was running my own company, I coined a phrase that I used to hire “good people first, good professionals second” and here it was, in front of me, the same very concept being applied. And I loved it.

The fact that they knew that not everyone is capable of remote working, and how Joan explained me the company’s payment structure and transparency without any problem. They even wanted to know my opinion and thoughts on how to improve Mobile Jazz.

After this first interview I was hooked and wanted to be part Mobile Jazz. I then took part in a second interview with technical questions, where I managed to blag my way through so they’d let me in the team.

I’ll always remember that first interview, as there was something really important about it. Technologies change, but if you want to retain talent, you need the best people who have a desire to learn and adapt – and finding these is key. If your company has a toxic, sad, cubicle noisy oriented, wear-a-tie-all-days-but-casual-fridays, hit-and-run-project-managed work environment, people are going to leave, no matter if you give them free coffee or a raise. You should start looking first at your true core values and let your company culture stem from that.

And remember: you’re hiring people with real lives: they get married, they have children, they move, they learn, they lose loved ones, they are clueless, they are happy, they struggle, and they are dedicated. So as in every relationship just listen to them, you’ll both be happier.

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Diego Freniche
Writing bugs since 88 (BASIC), one at a time. Retro computer user, gaming lover and internationally renowned snake-oil seller at conferences. My CV is up on GitHub forcing recruiters to clone.

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