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How To Interview and Hire Engineers

Newsletter • volume 7 • number 12

What separates top performers from average performers in engineering jobs? Problem solving skills? IQ? Analytical ability? The surprising answer is "initiative" as revealed in the Harvard Business Review report on long term research conducted at Bell Labs.

Results from a seven year study on hiring engineers indicate that academic talent and innate abilities (like IQ) are not good predictors of on-the-job productivity. Instead, they found that what really counts are the competencies top performers use to get the job done.

The study identified nine competencies top performing engineers have in common. They are: (1) taking initiative, (2) networking, (3) self-management, (4) teamwork, (5) leadership, (6) followership, (7) perspective, (8) show-and-tell, and (9) organizational savvy. All of these competencies identified by Bell Labs can be assessed with behavior-based interviewing when interviewing and hiring engineers. Two of the competencies are defined below.

"Taking initiative," refers to looking beyond one's job description for opportunities to do more, and was the number one core skill of productive employees. Those who demonstrate this quality do so in four ways. First, they do more than they are asked to do. Second, they come up with new ideas and figure out how to sell them to others. Third, they deal constructively with criticism and use it to make their ideas better. Finally, they plan for the future by finding out what projects are planned so they can prepare for them.

"Networking," is a multi-faceted approach that involves creating a barter system where an employee earns his/her own way by trading individual technical expertise with others. It requires becoming a technical expert, letting people know of your expertise, making yourself available, and maintaining a balance of trade to stay in the network. Top performers build networks before they need them.

How can you benefit from this research when interviewing and hiring engineers? First, clearly define competencies sought in the engineers you want to hire. Then create a Job Profile that fits your organization and assesses all these competencies, not just technical skills for those "purely" technical jobs. Also, behavior-based interviewer training may help interviewers identify and assess candidates based on the true indicators of future success. This process will enhance your ability to interview and hire engineers who are top performers.