Cracking the Code for Hiring a Coder
By Aaron Broverman
To most of us, looking at a piece of programming code is like looking at hieroglyphs on a cave wall. The world of the coder can be strange and foreign, but any small business or start-up working in technology, whether you’re building an app, a website or an entire system, needs to make coders an essential part of their team.
If you are not part of that world, where can you find coders and if you don’t understand what they do, how can you possibly tell they’re worth your time and money?
Greg Jakacki is the CEO and founder of Codility, a technology company based in London, England that provides online assessment tests to help clients like Electronic Arts, Nokia and Siemens, find the perfect coder. Currently based in Warsaw, Poland he has been a programmer since the 1980s and has agreed to answer these daunting questions.
Find a Technology Advisor
If you don’t have a technical person on your team, you need someone with technical experience to act as an advisor as you look for a qualified coder. “You need at least to get somebody who will help you assess the person, otherwise it’s very tough to determine the programmer’s level of proficiency,” says Jakacki.
“The first step is to look in your network, including neighbours, friends, family and professional connections, to see if you have anybody who can help you in this way,” he reiterates.
“If you’re completely out of such people in your network, try to socialize with people who might know someone and try to establish trust, or try the people you may have in common, so you can garner trust through proxies.”
Hiring a stranger through a job posting at such an early stage in your small business is extremely high risk. But getting an advisor isn’t as high risk as bringing your first coder on board. The technology advisor may have only a temporary relationship with your company, brought on only to help hire the coder in exchange for equity.
“If you need to extend your social network, hackathons may not be the right place for an advisor because typically, you’re looking for someone who is older and may not be into coding all night. Think about people who teach at the universities and who are mentors,” says Jakacki.
“Look at other technology start-ups and see who their advisors are. Those people usually do not have exclusive relationships with start-ups, so you can approach them. Also, look at places where technology start-up veterans hang out. If they are fresh after exiting a start-up, they usually have money and time on their hands, so they may be willing to assist your business.”
Know Where to Look
Now that you have your technology advisor, it’s time to look for your coder, but it depends on your company. If your company is a start-up or a more established small business looking to move into the technology space, chances are that you’ll be looking at different age demographics.
“There is this age factor,” says Jakacki. “For a start-up, usually you’ll be looking for someone younger. If it’s a more established business that wants to shift to technology, maybe they’d be looking for someone that has a little more seniority.”
For someone younger, Jakacki suggests looking at hackathons, hackers’ spaces, conferences and festivals like South by Southwest. Start-up incubators and lectures are also a good place to start, but if you’re looking at conferences, make sure they focus on lighter technologies, such as Python or Ruby, both general purpose programming languages.
Technologies like the Microsoft SQL Server tend to attract a more corporate crowd. Also, if the price of the conference is too expensive, you won’t find many free agents. More than likely, they will be attending on their employer’s dime. However, conferences run by volunteers will be stocked full of young professionals looking for adventure.
“You don’t need to attend the conference actually, it’s more important to attend the social events around the conference itself,” says Jakacki.
Use the right tools
Once you’ve found your potential candidates, it’s time to see if they know what they’re doing. Here’s where you take full advantage of your advisor and let them conduct the technical interviews for you.
There are also some automated tools which can help screen out candidates that aren’t worth your time.
“There are multiple choice tests, which are not recommended for start-ups and small businesses that require a creative developer,” says Jakacki. “There are also tools like Codility, which I founded, or Interviewstreet or CodeEval, which offer online tests of programming skills that are based on actual pieces of software that works. This is more useful, but it’s only negative screening. Such tests can tell you whether a candidate should be rejected, but it cannot tell you whether a candidate should be hired.”
For that, Jakacki insists that your advisor should run a solid technical assessment of this person. It could take the form of a one hour interview or homework that needs to be done by the potential candidate, but it needs to be completed one way or the other.
“This is perfectly doable, but you can’t afford any shortcuts, which is why I think you need a technical advisor to help you,” says Jakacki.
Look for Chemistry and Communication
You can’t just rely on the advisor though, there’s another step that you need to do yourself with the rest of your team. “As a non-technical recruiter of a key technical hire, you need to check whether this person will be able to communicate technical solutions and technical problems to a non-technical team,” Jakacki continues.
He says you can do this by asking the person to explain something technical to you and seeing if you understand it, but he warns that it can be difficult to do this for the first time because you need to be very straightforward with this person and very honest with yourself about your lack of knowledge in this area. Plus, you need to understand some of what this person is telling you because on the job they will be explaining things like this to you every day.
“The foremost guideline here is to not stop asking questions,” says Jakacki. If you don’t understand something, it means this person isn’t explaining it well and you need to keep asking questions until you understand it or until this person gives up. If they do give up, they’re probably not the right person.
Trust your gut
“People have this tendency to say, ‘This is technology and it’s too complex for me, so maybe I’ll stop asking at this point’ and this is actually wrong. This is something you need to overcome in yourself to conduct such an interview.”
Finally, before making the hiring decision, be sure this person can work with the rest of your team. Pair the interview with a lunch with the entire team, so you can see how the coder gets along with everyone. In the end though, Jakacki’s final advice is to always listen to your gut:
“If you’re making a strategic hire, as you do with the first technical person in a team, and you’re hesitating that means ‘No.’”