Over the past couple of decades in business and creating startups, I have had the advantage of interviewing people for jobs across the full spectrum of departments. When I became a manager for the first time, I had the mandate to hire a team around me without the advantage of any formal training in hiring. While I initially discovered some good resources, I have since honed my hiring method over hundreds of interviews.

Because I started my career hiring a technical team, I sought out resources from people with similar experiences. My first two criteria for a candidate are respectfully stolen from Joel Spolsky’s Guerrilla Guide to Hiring: smart and gets things done. I realized early that these two criteria weren’t enough for what I wanted in team members, and I wanted my criteria as broadly applicable as possible.

Criteria 1 and 2: Smart and Gets Things Done

Spolsky waxes poetically about these criteria in his article, so I won’t expand much on them. It is truly a great read, and if you’re hiring a technical team, it is a must read. In short, you want to hire people who are smart and get things done. While “smart” is a generic, subjective term, you essentially want to hire people who have the aptitude to succeed in their job function. You also want people who can complete work units rather than just think about them. He also shows some good ways to assess these candidates.

Criterion 3: Plays Nicely With Others

I quickly decided that smart and gets things done were not enough hiring criteria for my teams. I’ve known many smart people who can get work done, but they are not team players. Most businesses are not sole proprietorships where there is no interaction with other people. If you’re hiring a team, you especially need people who are willing to work with others. That doesn’t mean everybody has to share the same thoughts and beliefs (in fact, it might be beneficial if they don’t), but it means they’re consistently trying to help the team get work done and improve. After all, you want them to pursue what is best for the company, which means they need to pursue helping each other. A bad attitude will kill a team’s productivity long before a lack of technical or domain knowledge.

Here are some questions to consider when trying to learn if someone will play nicely with others.

  • We all succeed or we all fail together – As. A. Team. Does the candidate bring a “team-first” attitude to the table?

  • Is the candidate the type to help others through issues and mentor/train people, or is the candidate a "lone wolf?"

  • Does the candidate have an attitude that will mesh well with the existing team and improve productivity?

Criterion 4: Takes Ownership

While Spolsky mentions this criterion (expressed as “passion”), I consider this to be a separate criterion. You want to hire candidates who really take ownership about their work. This means they need to be passionate, go the extra mile, and expect to be held accountable for their work. These people seek new tasks to take on, both when their plate is empty and when they have minimal slack time. They’re still getting their work done, but they want to know how they can further help to move the company forward. These people will also own up to their own mistakes rather than blaming failures on others. Those who don’t take ownership of their role are nearly impossible to motivate beyond temporary means like money, title bumps, or other fleeting rewards. It is easy to motivate people who take ownership, and often times you don’t need to; they motivate themselves.  

Here are some questions to consider as you interview the candidate.

  • Does the candidate take pride in their work?

  • Does the candidate seek out ways to help the company and/or team even beyond the scope of the assigned duties?

  • Does the candidate show excitement and interest when talking about previous jobs or projects?

Criterion 5: Wants to Learn

Finally, you want someone who wants to learn. It doesn’t do a smart, motivated team player any good to stagnate and not learn new techniques in the job. The word “want” is specifically used instead of “willing.” People who want to learn will take it upon themselves to seek out new information to get better at their jobs while improving your company. People who are only willing to learn will expect you to manage this aspect for them. As any business owner, founder, or manager knows, there is already a lot to manage, so you want employees to manage themselves as much as possible. This is especially true when you have subject matter experts working for you; ideally they’re consistently learning about their domain in order to keep their skills up to date. Additionally, they should know their own weaknesses and want to learn how to improve upon them. You should still be a guide along their journey, but it will be much easier and better if they want and seek ways to learn, rather than only being willing if you’re pushing them into it. As an added bonus, learning is infectious, so people who want to learn will encourage their teammates to do the same.

Here are some considerations to see if someone wants to learn.

  • Does the candidate actively seek personal/skills growth and learning opportunities?

  • Does the candidate seek growth without the company's purse strings attached?

  • Does the candidate know their weak areas and ways they are currently working to improve them (or ways they have done so in the past)?

Conclusion

There is a lot of interplay and subtlety among these criteria. While there is no such thing as the perfect candidate (we’re all human), people who embody these traits will be much more likely to improve your business and even your enjoyment of your daily work. After all, most of our days as adults are spent working, so we should enjoy it as much as possible. Hiring the right people who are smart, can get things done, play nicely with others, take ownership, and want to learn will help you enjoy and succeed in business.

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About the Author

Alex Hoffman is an experienced technology leader with deep experience in early-stage startups, leading Engineering, Product, Design/UX, Marketing, and Operations organizations.  Alex has led and coached numerous teams both in the United States and abroad.  He has ushered many products and teams from early, pre-release or concept stage through mass release to customers.  Alex's previous success include Quickoffice, which was acquired by Google in June of 2012, and Wiper Messenger, which he lead from a concept to 10+MM downloads in less than 1 year.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of RVF or UNLV. In addition, thoughts and opinions are subject to change and this article is intended to provide an opinion of the author at the time of writing this article. All data and information is for informational purposes only.