Spicy thoughts on hiring from a relative newbie

September 28, 2021

I’ve spent a significant amount of time hiring this year. I’ve been part of the hiring panel to fill 4 roles: a Product Manager, a Senior Engineer, a Mid-Level Engineer, and a Junior Engineer.

I think I’m in a fairly unique position as someone who’s quite new to hiring and also has a fairly significant impact on what we look for — at least on the engineering side.

As a disclaimer, I was only part of final interviews and I was always in paired interviews with a senior engineer. For Product Managers, we tended to ask questions about how they work with engineers, and for engineers, we did some talking and a React (day-to-day skills) interview.

1. There’s a lot of incompetent people out there.

Man, there is no ego boost like interviewing several people who have 7+ years of experience and seeing that they’re absolutely inept.

For product managers, it took me a while to develop a sense of taste. We had some very mediocre candidates at first, but it wasn’t as black and white, so I was like… they were fine… I zoned out while they were talking, but I didn’t know how to really judge them. Product managers TALK, and they all know how to give the “correct answers” because the correct answers are pretty straightforward.

Over time, I started to get a sense of taste and judge by how shallow or deep (experienced) their answers felt. I started to give swifter, harsher judgments.

On the engineering side, it was so straightforward that it got to a point where people were asking my senior and I if our interview was particularly unfair — and we’d say no, we give the exact same question to juniors and seniors. These seniors were so bad at these day-to-day skills they claimed to use in their previous jobs that they couldn’t write a basic front-end component.

We almost slid on our expectations a few times, but luckily, in the end we got no-compromise candidates through that everyone liked.

2. Hire juniors extremely carefully.

I’ve had a lot of talks with the hiring panels about expectations related to hiring. For seniors, we had a lot of push and pull on the asshole factor vs. technical skills. Some of us will always never choose an asshole (even a mild asshole), and some of us will never hire someone with the technical skills of a mid-level. At least we all had opinions here.

I found that a lot of more senior people had far less harsh opinions about juniors. We didn’t really have a push and pull about what we were looking for. Could they speak coherently? Can they write code? Great, let’s hire them.

As the most junior person on the team, I vehemently disagreed. Juniors are the biggest risk on the team.

Juniors are always a drain on resources (hot take!), the benefit of a junior is that if you invest in them, you can mold them to be exactly how you want.

The absolute worst scenario, in my opinion, is hiring a junior that drains other people on the team for years and never levels up. At least a bad senior is independent and will get work done, maybe in a bad way. Bad juniors just suck up other peoples’ time. (I know bad seniors sneakily steal other peoples’ time by pushing in bugs and such, but I still think a bad junior is a bigger day-to-day issue.)

So what do I look for in juniors given that? 3 things:

  1. They have to know how to code. Not that well. We have a fairly objective criteria for this. This is easy to filter for.
  2. If they have previous technical experience, they have to show at least some ownership in technical decisions. (I’ll give an example below.)
  3. They have to give off the impression that they want to grow RIGHT NOW.

Expanding on the idea that juniors need to show ownership:

Basically, if someone says to me, we worked on this project. I’ll ask for some of the decisions behind that project — eg. Did they build it in a new tech stack? Did they structure it any differently?

I need to hear back some semblance of understanding of what their seniors were doing. “Yeah, we chose to build this in Redux because we needed it accessible across the entire product.” Cool. That’s a shallow answer, but it’s an answer! I have heard people just be like, “Uh, we used Redux,” and asking them to expand upon it just leads to flubbing.

Unless you’re coming from IBM, I see no reason why a junior wouldn’t have this kind of knowledge — again, even from a shallow level — unless they’re unobservant and embody a “just do what I’m told” attitude. I really don’t want to work with a “just do what I’m told, ask no questions” person.

Basically, what this all adds up to is that I’m searching for growth potential. Higher levels are independent and don’t necessarily need to be very ambitious, but a junior with no growth plans is beyond useless to a company.

3. Hiring panels should be filled with people you want clones of.

We have a large engineering team, and only 2-3 of us on the team are involved in hiring. Who do you choose? The most senior people?

I don’t think so. I think I showed a lot of good use as a more junior person — I viewed seniors through the lens of “How would I feel about this person’s communication style mentoring me?” and as I mentioned above, I was rightfully harsher on junior candidates.

Whether or not this was the intention of my manager putting me on the panel, I have now hired 30% of the team to emulate my values. I hired clones of myself. It’s extremely biased, but that’s what hiring is.

There is no way to objectively view a candidate by talking. (This is also why I disagree with people who think coding interviews are biased — interviews of all talking are MUCH more biased to hire people like you.)

On the engineering side, I had the benefit of observing some objective criteria — can they solve the problem? Do they follow good debugging processes? How did they enunciate themselves? However, we still have a 15 minute chat before the coding and a 10 minute Q&A.

What are we really judging when we’re hiring? We’re asking what it will be like to work with this person every day for years on end. Inevitably, we don’t want to work with someone who’s drastically different than us.

It’s part of my value system that I don’t want to work with men who are condescending towards me. Therefore, I’m biased against men who are condescending. The same could apply to anything — as “objective” as debugging tactics, or as subjective as the cadence of their speech.

I don’t think there’s a way around the fact that hiring is mostly just vibes. I don’t think there are objective answers here. I’m sure people have spent a lot more time thinking about this than I have, so feel free to prove me wrong here.

My biggest takeaways from hiring are hard to summarize in the format of a blog post. It really teaches you a lot about how the industry works, where the industry is headed, and how absolutely wild people are (including my own coworkers).

I hope to revisit this topic in a few years time and see where I disagreed with myself or where my thoughts matured.


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