Building a Great Engineering Team: Part Three – Hiring

Matthew Strickland

5 min read

Aug 19, 2018

Building a Great Engineering Team: Part Three – Hiring

In Parts One and Two of our series, we looked at leading yourself well as the leader and building with the team you have today. Now let’s turn our eyes towards hiring new team members and some strategies that have worked for my team here at Big Nerd Ranch.

Hire for Character

“I’ve always believed you hire character and train skill.” – Lori Greiner

More than a great quote, I have found this to be imperative when hiring anyone to join your team. It is very easy to over-index on skill when making an Engineering hire. We often fall in love with puzzles, complex formulas, and code that blows our mind while neglecting to see who the person actually is.

One of the ways we guard against this at Big Nerd Ranch is by hiring with specific values in mind. Our values are Brilliant, Curious, Hardworking, Accountable, Kind and Authentic. Whatever values your company hold should be evaluating criteria for each hire you make. Our founder, Aaron Hillegass, once told me to make sure you are hiring people who could come hang out with my family for a few weeks. This might sound odd but if you know the value of kindness that we hold in high esteem then this makes perfect sense.

Are you hiring with character in mind? Are you too focused on skill and find yourself overlooking traits that clash with your values? Knowing where you are on these fronts will go a long way in helping you build a great team.

Build a Hiring Team

One way to ensure you make great hires is to not isolate yourself in the process. Far too many leaders make hiring decisions in a vacuum instead of building a team. Sure you might get lucky on a few hires but hiring in isolation does not scale and will set you up for failure. A better option is to build a team to help you hire, here’s what I’ve done at Big Nerd Ranch.

If you have an HR department, then start there. Our Director of HR, Katie Torres, has been one of if not the leading reasons we have a lot of success in hiring here at Big Nerd Ranch. Katie is our first line of defense when it comes to scheduling, phone screens and being an ambassador for the culture and values we hold dear. Finding out what each other’s strengths allow us to set up a process that succeeds.

The next place to look is to your leaders within your team. Who are the people on your team that can test character and skill in others? For my team, I like to involve Senior leaders who either lead people or projects. Some have past hiring experience or specific experience in the skill we are looking for.

Instead of asking one person to carry a lot of outcomes, split it up amongst 3-4 people. Each receives a specific goal when interviewing to focus his or her conversation. The more exposure the candidate has the better. If you find the majority of your team saying the same thing about a candidate then it is likely true, good or bad.

Build a Process

When hiring, you want to have a process that is reproducible so that you can duplicate hiring great people without reinventing the wheel each time. Now that you have a solid team to help you, let’s look at the process we use at Big Nerd Ranch and how you can adopt a similar one to be successful.

Pre Team Phase

  • First, build an application that gets a lot of information up front. Our application includes a resume, cover letter, and a questionnaire. This information allows us to identify the right candidates without a lot of time invested.
  • Next, I vet applications that come through and rank them for phone screens.
  • After that, Katie will phone screen them asking specific questions that help us identify value fit that builds off our initial application. Once Katie documents her call, we pair on who the right candidates are to move forward.
  • Last, I meet with each candidate that makes it past the phone screen with a video call to continue our assessment and help them understand

Team Phase

  • Assign outcomes to each team member. We focus on leadership, culture and technical skill during these phases. We are looking for people who lead themselves well, fit within our values and have the problem-solving ability we are looking for.
  • Collect interview feedback from each team member. You are not looking for notes that talk about what happened during the interview. You are looking for indicators that your criteria are being met and the gut feelings for each interviewee.
  • Our last phase is to collect personal references for character and a writing sample. Once again, when you find people saying the same things about who you are hiring that is a good sign. Also, written communication is so important to what we do that validating writing not only throughout the process but especially at the end confirms if we are identifying for the right candidate.

Final Thoughts

There is a lot more I can share, but hiring for character, with a team and a clear process are a few steps that will ensure the team you are building will be great. We did not touch on sourcing candidates, that’s another blog for another day, but I will say this goes a long way to ensure you are building a diverse and talented team.

Hiring is tricky, you will not get it perfect but you can set yourself up for success by deploying some of these steps. Take a look at your process today, how healthy is it? Is there a process? These should be indicators about what you need to work on next.

In Part 4 we are going to look at retention. Now that you are working on yourself, building from the team you have today and hiring great additions, you will want to keep your team. In this competitive industry, this can be hard, but there are a few things you can begin doing today to ensure the team you build will last.

Juan Pablo Claude

Reviewer Big Nerd Ranch

During his tenure at BNR, Juan Pablo has taught bootcamps on macOS development, iOS development, Python, and Django. He has also participated in consulting projects in those areas. Juan Pablo is currently a Director of Technology focusing mainly on managing engineers and his interests include Machine Learning and Data Science.

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