Monday, October 26, 2015

unCon 2015 Session: Hire Senior Talent or New Grads?

By Jackie Ouellet, 2016 Boston College MBA Candidate |  LinkedIn  |  twitter: @weplayshirts

What type of talent does your company you look for? How do you decide how much seniority you need on your team? How does that level differ by project topic/domain?

These were just some of the questions asked during the session on hiring senior talent or recent graduates.  Burak Say of Cisco moderated the session, and though the topic of discussion frequently strayed from the narrow topic outlined at the beginning of the session, discussion was lively and meaningful.

One of the first tasks for the group was defining what ‘senior talent’ actually is.  A participant stated that a Senior IS developer with four years’ experience could be considered very senior, but someone with the same tenure working in another role might still be considered junior.  Some fields require years of experience to really get a handle on them.  The group generally seemed to agree that there isn’t a set number of years that makes someone senior; the seniority of an employee is based more on the degree of responsibility and autonomy that individual can handle.

One participant gave an example of an Agile development team he worked with that was composed of a broad mix of ages.  The younger guys were all gamers and, consequently, an older guy on the team felt left out of conversations.  Regardless, they all had to work together on a daily basis so needed to find a way to connect.  This was just one example that highlighted the disconnect that results from generational differences.  In tech, especially, it can seem worse because of the speed with which the industry moves.

Some participants seemed to have the perception that college grads are not interested in career climbing anymore; that entry level applicants (mostly recent graduates) have little interest in the carrot in front of them.  One participant suggested that this comes down to hiring, which turned the discussion for a bit.

The goal, most people agreed, is to hire really smart people because they’re adaptable and can get along with other really smart people.  One participant from InterSystems noted that his company administers an aptitude test to college grads who apply for positions there.  Another participant suggested this test might be more applicable for senior talent because those individuals tend to want to use their specific experience a bit more narrowly and this doesn’t always align with what the company needs.

Participants started speaking up about what they look for when hiring.  “Killer instinct, initiative, passion, and professionalism at any age” were mentioned as the most important factors in bringing on new talent.  Employees need to be smart enough to understand what the customer needs instead of what they want.  Many agreed that experience in the specific field or industry actually ranks lower than other candidate attributes.  Another participant stated he looks for people who can communicate what they’re thinking, can think big, and have an affinity to build things.  Someone else said he hires for “culture first, aptitude, then skills.”  It was stated that you have to screen for culture, first, since the last thing you want to do is “bring a frat boy into a geek house.”  Aptitude is especially important because tech is changing so fast.  Skills obviously need to be factored in as the manager considers what her investment level will need to be for the person.  How much time and energy will need to be spent to make this person successful?

The Predictive Index was mentioned as a good tell, showing how people will behave under pressure (will they panic, stall, or ask for help?).

It was then argued that often a test is not the best way to begin the hiring process and start a relationship with a potential employee.  Another suggestion for screening new employees and ensuring they meet some minimum requirement was to hire an individual as a contractor for a few months before bringing that person on full-time.  If it’s for the right pay, often this and the opportunity to work for a company she is really excited about will offset the lack of benefits during those first few months. 

Bringing the conversation back to senior versus junior talent, one attendee said the decision to hire one over another needed to be a function of the role.  A Chief Architect, for example, needs experience. In this case and similar ones, it can’t be the blind leading the blind.

A suggestion was made to hire senior talent and new graduates because every company can benefit from the diversity.  When interviewing a more junior person, participants recommended asking what that person did outside of school, i.e. “what did you build just to see if you could build it?”  It wasn’t clear whether the answer to this question was as important when you’re looking to hire someone more senior.  It was noted that extracurricular activities could also be used unintentionally to filter out people you don’t want to filter out.  One attendee stated that activities and passions outside of work/school should really just be considered a plus, not a minus.  Some individuals find their passion in their work and therefore might not have much to show outside of work – they may still be great candidates.

One participant offered up an interview question he often uses to tease passion out: “Tell me about the accomplishment of which you are most proud.”

Outside of technical roles, when hiring for product management or similar positions, a manager should want passionate and driven people first and foremost.  It’s important to achieve the mission/purpose of the organization.  The organization, however, needs to be structured to support letting people experiment with new ideas and be accepting of failure.

At this point the conversation shifted to the challenges of finding and retaining talent.  Burak mentioned that finding senior developers in Cambridge has been challenging and he was wondering how location impacts this challenge.  Many of the individuals from recruiting agencies mentioned that commuting is a real factor in recruiting people. Many companies have addressed this challenge by allowing employees to telecommute.  It was mentioned that companies are putting small offices into Boston or Cambridge to attract younger talent. One participant mentioned that moving downtown has made the culture at his office more collaborative – employees end up spending more time with each other because they’re not worried about getting out of the office early to start a miserable two hour commute.  Additionally, he found that some things people wouldn’t want to say over a table in a conference room, they will say over wings and a beer.  To counter the advantages of locating downtown, some companies in the suburbs have started providing more and more at-work amenities to encourage employees to stay in the company. 

Attendees wondered what companies currently have for the organizational mix between seniors and new grads.  One participant said his company is about two-thirds senior and one-third more junior talent.  Many of the young people hired are digital natives, so fill important role. The older employees can teach the younger ones certain things they’ve learned from experience in the industry. This grows a solid middle band of the company.  Once employees show they have value, employers want to hold on to them.  Often this comes with the ability to continually challenge employees and give them the opportunity to perform a task or complete a project it a different way.  Companies need to provide this level of autonomy to encourage younger talent to stick around and grow within the company.

It was stated that teaching goes both ways. Young people feel better about what they’re doing and where they work when they’re able to provide guidance to seniors in company, so it’s important to make sure knowledge transfer is bi-directional.  Employers should encourage older men and women in the company to keep an eye out for what’s new out there and look at what are other people doing.

The session concluded with a discussion on the best methods of sourcing senior talent. Employee referrals, LinkedIn, recruiters, and meet-ups were all highlighted as good ways to find people who aren’t actively looking. Alumni networks (which provide a range of events) and mentoring events/groups, were also mentioned.

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