Thursday, May 9, 2013

"Tell me about your setup"

Finding excellent technical people is a constant challenge that I struggle with every day. The traditional recruiting process of searching résumés for keywords has been broken for a long time. You need to use clever techniques like my "One Field Job Application" and engage in various communities to find people who are passionate about their craft and want to do great work.

Interviewing candidates is even harder than sourcing them. You don't want to waste anyone's time (including your own) but you also want to get a real feel of how someone works. Developers who work on large teams are particularly hard to evaluate because responsibilities are often ambiguous. It takes a while to learn that a candidate had a really mundane role on that very interesting project on the résumé or that he/she didn't have the professional curiosity to learn about what other people were doing.

Some recent experiences are leading me to believe that the ideal technical interview question is "Tell me about your setup." While the tools that people use may at first seem mundane and subjective, I am starting to believe that tools are a reflection of the attitude a person brings to his/her work. This theory was originally inspired by the site UsesThis, which contains personal descriptions of the tools that people use. The people that submit their setups are clearly passionate about their work and pay attention to the details. Most importantly, they identify with their work — and that is critical to the type of commitment that leads to greatness.

I am not so interested in what the tools are (although I am starting to see some interesting patterns that I might share in a later post). I am more interested in the why. If an interview candidate starts to light up when explaining why she loves to use something, you know right then that she loves her work and she loves being good at her work. This is especially true for people who like tools that require some dialing in but have incredible power. Users of these tools have proactively invested their time to get better at something. Contrast that with someone who is indifferent about his tools: who just uses what he is offered; who likes a tool because it has buttons that you can click that does things that he doesn't understand. To me, that is a sign that I am talking to a drone that is satisfied with the bare minimum. His passion lies elsewhere or doesn't exist at all.

Passionate professionals who care about their craft don't just make a team more effective, they also make work more fun because passion is contagious. When you see a colleague doing cool things, you want to learn from them. You are also inspired to raise the level of your own work. When your peers are just going through the motions, it has the opposite effect. You de-personalize and get cynical and start identifying with Dilbert.