August 29, 2019
Silicon Valley is home to the world’s greatest tech talent, and the demand for that talent is fierce. That’s why IT and engineering leaders constantly stay on the lookout for solid candidates: many anticipating which roles they’ll need to fill in the future and perpetually networking with a pipeline of prospective hires.
On this never-ending talent hunt, IT leaders often face the challenge of determining which candidates will fit well into their existing teams. I’ve built IT and engineering teams at technology companies for over 20 years, and while many factors influence who I choose to hire (team size, skills gaps, etc.), I’ve found that the best hires have the following four key characteristics that position them for success.
1. Knows tech but also be very willing to learn new technical skills
No matter what position you’re looking to fill, ensure every team member considered can solve simple coding problems and has a willingness to continue improving technical skills.
Some candidates may believe that by simply applying for senior level positions, they can skirt around developing the technical skills required to do the job well. It’s not too surprising, considering that a manager’s typical day could consist of meetings, resource allocation and budget planning exercises, which risks letting tech skills fall to the wayside. However, senior leaders need to lead by example and show their teammates they can dig deep and help solve hard problems too.
2. Ability to adapt and innovate
It’s critical to look at past relevant experience when evaluating a candidate but also to seek out key soft skills, like the ability to solve existing problems creatively.
Finding creative solutions starts with maintaining the fluidity that enables engineers to keep pace with today’s rate of technological change. Only by staying familiar with new technologies can we continue to innovate. By merging creativity with the right technical skills, we create space for category-defining disruption. We saw this with the iPad 2, for example. When Steve Jobs unveiled it, he said “It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing.”
More schools now understand the value of promoting creativity in the engineering field, setting us up for a bright future filled with engineers who can apply a creative lens to problem-solving. The STEAM movement, for example, has emerged to train students how to use the analytical and artistic part of the brain in tandem, combining art with science, technology, engineering and math. Future-proofing your organization starts with hiring team members who have this critical combination of skills and an open mindset to embrace change.
3. An avid passion
Finding and retaining high-quality IT and engineering talent can be challenging, especially when considering just how rare it is to find new hires with a real passion for their work. According to a Deloitte study, 64% of all surveyed workers, including half of executives and senior management, report being neither passionate nor engaged in work.
You’ll be able to tell right off the bat if a candidate has a passion for their work by the way they discuss their past accomplishments and future goals. You can uncover enthusiasm by asking questions such as: What made you decide to get into technology? How do you stay positive when a project hits serious roadblocks or setbacks? What has been your biggest career accomplishment so far? If a long pause follows any of those questions, you may need to move onto the next candidate. Candidates with a love for their work can usually cover these answers quickly and will get excited even about the opportunity to talk about past projects.
At the end of the day, company leaders know that they have a lot of exciting work to accomplish but if team members stop enjoying it, the workload simply becomes unsustainable. Although jobs in IT and engineering sometimes require long hours, it is also incredibly fulfilling to solve complex problems and fuel new discoveries.
4. Strong communication skills
While many equate technical roles with heads-down tasks, solo projects and complex endeavors that require high levels of focus, that doesn’t mean hires for these roles can sacrifice strong communication skills in favor of working independently.
No matter the job, solid communication skills build a foundation for effective teamwork and prevent misunderstandings. Not only does a technical team need to communicate well internally; external communication with other teams is also critical. Engineers and IT leaders at some point in their careers will need to communicate with teams including business development, marketing, sales and even customers to further the success of the overall organization. And with an increasing number of employees taking advantage of remote work options today, effective communication across many channels is necessary for efficient work amongst distributed teams.
That said, some roles on our team require different levels of communication and teamwork than others. While we encourage every team member of any role or level to lead, we also set our engineers up for success in reaching personal career goals by allowing them to choose from one of two “tracks” on the engineering team: the technical track or the management track. Engineers who want to pursue a management role have the option to do so, while others can focus on working toward higher level technical roles.
Each team member you hire contributes substantially to the overall culture -- and each hire can mean the difference between an average team and an exceptional one. While it’s time-consuming to find candidates who fit all of the above criteria, committing to hiring those who do will ensure you build a dependable, creative, all-star team that delivers the best work.
Hector Aguilar is president of technology at Okta. Aguilar is responsible for developing strategic planning for the direction of product development activities and managing the engineering team.
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