Shhh! Here’s our little secret about hiring exceptional engineers

May 13, 2019 Debankan Chattopadhyay

We are in the engineering software and services business. Our greatest assets are our people. The success of our business hinges purely on our ability to hire and retain people. But of course, you knew all that.

We are in the engineering software and services business. Our greatest assets are our people. The success of our business hinges purely on our ability to hire and retain people. In the past 30 years of being in business, we’ve been fortunate to hire and retain exceptional talent, which has been the key to all the success we’ve had as an organization.

Here’s our little secret. There are 5 key things that have helped us hire great engineering talent over the years. In a way, these really are our trade secrets. But in the spirit of openness, we are hoping you share some of your experiences and what has worked for you in the hope that we learn from each other.

Basic instinct

Tamper your excitement. This is not a discussion around the 90s blockbuster (sorry to disappoint). What we have learned over the years hiring great engineers is that focusing on the basics or fundamentals is a lot more useful to judge a candidate than focusing on advanced knowledge or skills. Before you jump and say, it’s a waste of time focusing on basics when interviewing a candidate with advanced degrees, we think that’s one common mistake most companies make. We’ve had great success with this approach. What this does is demonstrate, especially for engineers, whether the person really understands the building blocks of engineering. Throw questions on fundamental concepts in physics, mechanics etc. – nothing that the person is expected to remember by rote but something that once they understand, they never forget.

Get in the weeds

As part of the “show prep”, before any interview, spend time understanding the project that the engineer has included in the resume. It’s okay if you don’t understand everything. In fact, you’re likely better off. Why? Because it then gives you the opportunity to ask questions that will force the candidate to explain the work/project in simple terms. What we forget is that it’s a lot harder for someone to simplify a complicated subject than vice versa. Only when you have a good understanding of the subject, are you able to break it down into chunks easily understandable by a layman. Falling back on rote is a sign that you don’t have a good grip on what you did.

Self over team

As the saying goes “No man is an island”. This is especially true today in a collaborative work environment, and more so in engineering. Any product/project is a collective effort. But even in the midst of this “team effort”, it’s important to distil individual contribution. Candidates often have the habit of using “we”. Steer conversations back to the individual and force them to use “I” to explain their contribution to the project. It’s very easy to bask in the glory of others’ achievements.

Back to class

This is a very effective way of identifying great candidates that we have successfully used. Have the candidate pick any technical topic of their choice and take a 5-min class explaining the basics to you as if you’re a novice in that field. Give them a few minutes to put their thoughts together and then talk you through it for the next five minutes. What this does is demonstrate their ability to think on their feet, explain in simple terms a topic of their interest/choosing and be lucid in their explanations. All these are important qualities for any new hire, and most definitely for engineers.

Challenge them

This is a curve ball. Challenge the candidate on any of their assertions. For example, when they are explaining some specific engineering project they worked on, challenge them. Even if you know you’re in the wrong. This helps you identify how they are able to handle adversities, and hold their own in a collaborative environment. There’s no design meeting involving engineers that will not eventually devolve into a discussion, often times heated, where multiple people are defending their own positions. Only one will likely be right, but spirited defense of one’s own beliefs shows confidence and leadership – invaluable traits for engineers.

In conclusion...

We aren’t perfect. No one is. But these are some of the things that have worked well for us. We have a great team of engineers working on some really cool products. In the next blog, we will share some of the pitfalls you should avoid while hiring. Those are (hard) lessons we learned along the way and have worked tirelessly to remove from our hiring process. And God knows we are better for it.

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