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5 Cool Ways Non-Techies Can Assess Techie Skills

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Many years ago I took a course through the American Management Association on teaching finance to non-financial managers. What I discovered is that there are ways to understand technical issues without having to be an expert in the underlying concepts. The same holds true for assessing a person’s technical skills without having these same technical skills. This is important when it comes to interviewing since many non-technical people abdicate their responsibility for assessing technical skills. If you’ve ever hired a brilliant technical person who isn’t a top performer you’ve experienced the cost of this abdication. Here are some ideas on how to regain your title.

  1. Use the two-question Performance-based Interview to assess anyone for any job. The key to this interview approach involves digging into a person’s major accomplishments to see how they compare to real job needs. This type of interview focuses on how the person used his or her technical skills to accomplish important business objectives rather than assessing the absolute level of the technical skills themselves.
  2. Redefine technical skills by converting having to doing. Ask the hiring manager to describe how a technical skill will be used successfully on the job. For example, “5+ years of EOIR optical design experience” might convert to “Lead effort to upgrade the optics to guidance system feedback loop to increase system response.” During the interview, first ask the person to describe what this means in lay terms. Then use the most significant accomplishment question to determine what the candidate has accomplished that’s most comparable.
  3. Embed technical skills with soft skills into each of the critical performance objectives. Soft skills are too important to be called soft. Instead call things like collaborating with other functions, completing project milestones on time, leadership and motivation to succeed, non-technical skills. By integrating these directly into the performance objectives for the job, the assessment of technical skills becomes more meaningful. For example, if an experienced Big Four CPA needs to have exceptional international reporting skills and strong team skills, a more descriptive task might be something like, “Work closely with senior line managers to develop a new system for tracking the impact of currency fluctuations on business unit performance.”
  4. Look for recognition by others. The best technical people typically get assigned to work on important and more complex technical projects long before their average performing peers. I just met a developer with no experience in Python whatsoever who was assigned to a critical Python project because he could learn any software language quickly. Last year I worked with a remarkable Director of Accounting who was assigned to work with the CFO of a major client on a challenging international consolidations project during her first year at a Big 4 CPA firm. This type of recognition is called the Achiever Pattern. Look for it during the first 20 minutes of the interview.
  5. Find out if the person uses the process of technical success. When confronted with a technical challenge the best techies always follow a systematic process to figure out and implement the best solution. This process involves a series of logical steps: from fully understanding the problem, determining the root cause, developing and testing different solutions, making trade-offs, and developing a plan for implementing the solution, to marshaling the resources needed to implement the solution and successfully executing the plan. Have technical candidates describe how they’ve solved difficult technical problems focusing primarily on the process they used and the outcomes achieved. Don’t get intimidated by the jargon. You’ll discover the weaker technical people get hung up at one or more of these sub-steps.

Being technically brilliant isn’t the point of having great technical skills. Applying these great technical skills to achieve critical business objectives is the real need. Technical interviewers often miss this bigger picture. This is where non-technical people can play a critical role in the assessment process. It starts by assessing the results the techie has achieved and the process used to achieve these results. Recognize that it’s what people do with their technical skills that makes them successful, not what they have in absolute years of experience or the depth of their technical brilliance. Bridging this divide is where non-technical interviewers can ensure their companies are hiring the right technical people for the right reasons.

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Lou Adler (@LouA) is the CEO of The Adler Group, a consulting and training firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring. He’s also a regular columnist for Inc. Magazine and BusinessInsider. His latest book, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013), provides hands-on advice for job-seekers, hiring managers and recruiters on how to find the best job and hire the best people. You can continue the conversation on LinkedIn’s Essential Guide for Hiring Discussion Group.