Six Tips For Getting Programmer Capabilities Right

Candidates often look good on paper, but fail to impress when the real test of programming capabilities comes around. So how can hiring managers assess the prospective employee's skills beyond the resume -- and what do you do when the reality does not match the paper test?

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Having the right-look résumé does not mean a candidate is the right fit or even holds the right capabilities for the job. It is all too easy to look great on paper or in the interview, but fail to live up to expectations in the workplace. In the high-stress, high-value world of programming, the need to match reality to résumé is even more crucial.

Here are five tips for getting programming capabilities right:

Taste The Food

Christian Corcino, CEO of Intellisys D Corps, has worked closely with universities in the Dominican Republic.
Christian Corcino, CEO of Intellisys D Corps, emphasizes “tasting the food”, by really testing a programmer’s skills.

“You wouldn’t hire a cook for your wedding or event based on their résumé; you would taste the food,” said Chris Corcino, CEO of Intellisys.

Tasting the food, then, requires candidates to demonstrate their skills in a practical way before and during the interview process.

Corcino turns the interview process around and asks candidates to complete at test. The interview – a technical interview in effect – is then based on the outcome of that test. New employees are also put on a three-month probationary period and their skills assessed during and after that time period.

“We do use the résumé as a reference to have a conversation, but the focus is on the test. We can then delve more deeply into what they have done,” he said.

Steve Gibson, Director at Jotform, advised hiring prospective employees for a short five to ten hour project. This is the process at JotForm. “It’s a simple enough solution, and helps find the best candidates for our form builder and associated tools,” he said.

Another common way to sort the wheat from the chaff is to present coders with a series of questions in an interview format. “These serve as litmus tests for their overall skill,” he said. “Oftentimes this might be on a dry erase board.”

Draw On Your Connections

Boris Portman looks at the claimed competencies as a second priority.
Boris Portman looks at the claimed competencies as a second priority, after the experience of the candidate.

Boris Portman, who has run a Costa Rica-based software outsourcing company and an eCommerce daily deal company focused on Latinos in Mexico and now runs SalsaMobi, a staffing business that recruits developers and teams in Central and South America for US companies, believes that your connections are an important resource.

Making a bad hire, he said, happens more often when the interviewer has little context on the developer’s background or professional network. “I live in Austin, Texas and have a strong network on LinkedIn as well as know many of the top software companies and the caliber of people there,” he said.

His approach is to look at a local developer’s résumé more for where they worked, for how long, and who we may know in common. “This is a qualifier for me to know how seriously I should look at the stated skills in the résumé.  I then look at the claimed competencies as a second priority,” he said.

Question Everything

“If I look at résumés of developers in other countries who work for outsourcing firms, on the other hand, then I need to dig much deeper into the competencies, and what roles they played in each team. So, the résumé is much more important, and I spend much more time qualifying the actual competencies of these developers,” he said.

Steve Gibson, Director at Jotform, uses short five to ten hour projects to test candidates prior to hiring.
Steve Gibson, Director at Jotform, uses short five to ten hour projects to test candidates prior to hiring.

It is easy to assume that just because experience or skill is listed on a résumé the candidate is capable of working in that context. The reality, however, is often quite different.

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Gibson said: “We all make hires that cause us to question the decision after the fact. The best example I have is when I asked someone in an interview what they did with PHP, since it was listed on their résumé. Their response was ‘what’s PHP?’”

Look Beyond Qualifications and Experience

It seems counterintuitive, but degrees, certification status and even experience are no true measure of a programmer’s ability.

“You have in society all these concepts of certification or titles or degrees, used as a reference for competency. However, it doesn’t work that well in programming,” Corcino said.

In Corcino’s experience sometimes people with a Masters degree, with an MBA, might not be as good as someone who has not even graduated.

Test For EQ

Hard programming skills are not always the most important skill to assess. “The hardest challenges we face are not technical; it is about communication and emotional intelligence,” Corcino said. “We look for resilience and positive attitude.”

He cited the example of woman in one of their training programmes who was really struggling with a particular lesson that should have taken at most a few hours to complete.

“No matter how many times I asked her if she was okay or if she needed help, she kept saying it was fine. Her attitude was to never give up,” he said. Corcino and his team realized that while she was never going to be a good programmer, she would make an excellent project manager, what they call a firefighter. “And she did finish the lesson – eventually – because she didn’t want to quit,” he said.

Don’t Stop Testing

Even if a candidate passes the test, aces the project and excels at the interview, the only true test is to monitor their progress post-hiring.

Knowing whether someone does, in fact, make a productive and meaningful contribution to the team takes time. How much entirely depends on their level of competency. “With top candidates you’ll know after an hour’s discussion with them,” he said.

“Oftentimes you’ll know before then, since their resumes are full of sample work and projects they’ve accomplished. The discussion just confirms it, and helps identify their strengths and working preferences.”

With less established hires, where it is difficult to gauge, Gibson said it is vital to test as much as you can, and make a best guess.

Corcino’s probation period is designed to further weed out the ones who don’t quite make the grade, but he admits that sometimes even that does not prevent a bad hire. “Sometimes you only realize after a year,” he said.

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