Tech Hiring Fails Without Behavioral Assessment
INTERVIEW EDGE • MARCH 2019
Global giants like McDonald's and BMW once seemed invincible. But now, under increasing pressure to stay relevant and ward off competition in the digital age, legacy brands are looking to Silicon Valley for inspiration. As Atif Rafiq, McDonald's former chief technology officer, said in a recent interview, “We think, ‘How would Google do this? How would Amazon do this?’ ” Rafiq helped grow McDonald’s digital team from 3 to 130 employees in just 18 months.
Peter Schwarzenbauer, a member of the BMW management board, put it another way: “Do we car manufacturers learn to become tech companies more quickly than a tech company learns to be an automotive player?”
Technological change and the new teamwork
There’s no doubt that technology is redefining the nature of work and how work gets done and that brands that haven't been fast or agile in the past are playing catchup. It’s also clear that companies need to hire tech workers who not only have technical skills but also behavioral skills, such as adaptability and the ability to learn quickly, that can match — and even accelerate — the pace of technological change.
Nowhere is the need for nimbleness more evident than in the rapidly expanding use of temporary teams. The old model, in which large groups of people performed specialized tasks, is too lumbering and expensive for a technology-driven economy; it makes more sense to use small, agile teams that can form on the fly — and disband just as quickly — in response to rapid-fire innovation and market forces.
In the new model, some workers shuttle from team to team within a single company; others are freelancers or vendors who come in and only work on a project until it's finished. In some fields, including oil, gas and pharmaceuticals, contractors, or contingent workers, can outnumber regular employees two to one. About half of jobs are outsourced at Google according to The Wall Street Journal. But even permanent tech hires aren't really permanent, since the average tenure for a tech employee is just two to five years.
A recent report by the U.S. Government using data from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics stated that in the last 10 years, the contingent workforce in the U.S. has increased to 40%.
No matter where workers come from or how long they stick around, teams have to hit the ground running — becoming productive right away. If team members can't adapt to constantly changing conditions or demonstrate an ongoing willingness to pick up new skills, the whole project is likely to fail.
Tech hiring today
So how do managers figure out which candidates possess intellectual and emotional agility, resourcefulness and an innovative streak in addition to technical skills? By asking the right questions. That means not only asking candidates to describe what they did in a past job but how and why they did it. Too often, technical interviews focus strictly on knowledge when the most important insights come from learning how that knowledge was applied.
For example, on a technically challenging project, why did a candidate choose one solution over another? What was the result of that choice? How did she convince others that this was the right direction? And what did she do when required technical knowledge was outside her area of expertise?
The goal of the behavioral interview is to elicit examples of certain competencies without asking directly whether someone has them. It's critical to find repeated evidence of those competencies and to have reliable data supporting their existence.
Does a candidate have a history of being able to successfully shift gears — to take on new roles and responsibilities? Has she demonstrated the willingness to try new and creative solutions? Does she have the resourcefulness to excel on a small, scrappy understaffed team? These are some of the many behavioral traits managers need to assess when hiring tech talent.
Tech hiring in the future
Historically, profound socio-economic disruptions happened slowly, evolving over decades or even centuries. Technological change, on the other hand, is blindingly fast. Going forward, digital transformations will continue to redefine industry, from startups to big legacy organizations, and the speed of change will only accelerate. So will the need for workers who can transition deftly among tasks and master new skills quickly as well as show commitment to continuous learning. Technology will keep evolving and workers will have to evolve with it. So will interviewing practices. These days, successfully hiring tech talent means expanding interviews to include assessing behavioral traits, not just confirming technical skills and validating experience found on a candidate’s resume.