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How to Assess and Hire Top Engineers

Newsletter • volume 2 • number 1

What could Thomas Edison, who was known as the "world's greatest inventor" a century ago, have in common with today's top software engineers? Quite a lot as we recently discovered.

It all started with an article in the Wall Street Journal that described the surprising difference in ability as much as a factor of 10 or even 20 between the best and the average software engineer. No one is sure why the disparity is so large, although John Ousterhout, a computer science professor at UC Berkeley suggests that "bad programmers end up with tremendously complicated solutions, while the good ones have a knack for dividing complex problems into a series of really simple ones."

We wondered whether interviewers were able to distinguish between good and bad software engineers before they were hired and took our question to one of our client's top recruiters who provided us with a list of characteristics shared by the most talented software engineers:

1. They are compulsive problem-solvers and fixers. No Rubik's Cube is left unturned, no crossword puzzle unsolved, and every appliance in their homes is probably in perfect running order. When they tackle a project, they tend to start with the solution and work backwards which may explain why they're such diehard Jeopardy fans.

2. Their creative pursuits are dynamic and ingenious - no bowling tournaments for this group. Instead, many spend their off-hours designing solar-powered vehicles or building airplanes.

3. They use both sides of their brain, thus shattering any stereotype of the insensitive and inarticulate computer genius.

4. They are music lovers. Since 75% play a musical instrument, it seems that when they are not repairing vacuum cleaners or designing flying machines, they are playing the cello or the concert grand.

5. They are very intelligent. (This one seems self-evident).

6. They are self-confident risk-takers. When the recruiter asks the close-ended question "Are you smart?" the best candidates say "yes" without hesitation and can easily explain why. Others want to narrow the question or clarify it before answering ("How do you define smart?"). In the recruiter's judgment, a reluctant response indicates a lack of self-confidence and a fear of taking risks.

7. They have a need to finish things and are persistent and dedicated. These are people who seldom begin a book without finishing it (and probably wouldn't skip to the last chapter to find out what happens).

8. Their memories are excellent, and they can usually remember what they scored on various exams from SATs to driver's tests. The recruiter theorizes that if they can't remember a score, they probably didn't do well.

Once we had this list, we noticed some amazing parallels in Neil Baldwin's biography of Thomas Edison. We discovered the following:

Edison certainly falls into the compulsive problem-solver category; not only did he have 1,093 patents to his credit, but it took him over a thousand tries before he successfully developed the light bulb filament. Give him extra points for persistence and dedication.

Creative pursuits? Think phonograph, carbon telephone transmitter, and motion-picture projector. But inventiveness is as much a matter of process as of product, and Edison's remarkable ability to "perceive fresh connections" was the hallmark of his creative genius.

Edison's impaired hearing prompted him to find ways to make sounds including music more accessible.

Although he had little formal education (and in fact often distrusted those who did), Edison's formidable native intelligence made him "endlessly" self-confident. Furthermore, he had a prodigious memory, which he believed "was the cornerstone of the ability to make a quick, correct decision." Clearly, this nineteenth-century genius was shaped by a number of traits among them persistence, inventive audacity, and native brilliance all of which are remarkably similar to the attributes of today's best software developers.

Genius seems to be unaffected by time and place, but knowing the qualities that define it can make it much easier to spot. We are helping our clients get specific about the competencies that separate "stars" from "average performers."

Some additional tips on how to interview and hire engineers can be found in our article Tech Hiring Fails Without Behavioral Assessment