Hawaiʻi's Technology Community

Despite having done hundreds of developer phone screens over the past few years the amount of BS found in today's resumes continues to astound me. The problem is particularly acute in the US for reasons that could be the subject of a very long post. Many of the resumes we review amount to little more than marketing material dressed up by overly enthusiastic recruiters in an attempt to push unqualified developers into positions where they will surely fail. A bad hire is a very costly mistake, so its imperative for companies to be extremely diligent in their screening processes. Sometimes well rehearsed applicants can throw around the right terms and leverage knowledge gained by reading a couple relevant articles before the interview to bamboozle the interviewer. Here are some of the techniques we have learned over the years to ensure we get the right people for our customers and ourselves: 1) Do your screening in two stages - 20 minute phone screens of candidates with the best resumes followed by in-person interviews. 2) Don't rush your interviews. Have at least three people talk to each candidate. 3) Come to the interview prepared with a good set of questions. We recommend creating a wiki interview page populated with questions by your top people. 4) Ask at least a few questions that require narrative answers. For example, describe a difficult technical challenge your company has faced and ask the interviewee how they would approach the problem. 5) Require interviewees to bring code samples. 6) Require interviewees to perform a simple programming task during the interview. 7) Check all references. 8) If you have any doubt, pass. This is especially important for small and medium size companies where a bad hire can sink you. As an interesting side note, we encountered the opposite problem in countries like Japan. Many applicants undersold themselves. One applicant's resume said they spoke "a little English". I had the interviewer switch to English and the applicant effortlessly passed the interview speaking the language with near fluency. An American applicant making a claim of "nearly fluent" Japanese during an interview in NY responded to the (Japanese) inquiry "Where did you study?" with "Yes, thank you." :-) In Russia and the UK I found applicants to be somewhere in the middle. Ikayzo - Design • Build • Localize | Web • Desktop • Mobile

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Comment by Jamie Dinkelacker on October 5, 2008 at 6:29am
Similarly, I've interviewed thousands and hired hundreds of developers over the years. I concur -- ask programming questions early. Always ask to see sample code during an in-person interview. Better yet, send the individual to the white board and give a simple problem that requires skill demonstration in at least five domains -- user interaction & input verification, data structures, localization, computation, and of course, algorithmic design. Many simple examples abound and can be easily tailored to the candidate -- a ride sharing service, assigning classroom seats in birthday order, etc. Pseudo code is fine; general block diagrams are fine. If they use UML that's fine; if they argue for its supremacy, that's bad. Some people will fret and argue over terms, others will sketch something out in 10 min and be done. Make sure the problem is too long to solve in the allotted time. For more senior developers, I ask them to come up with their own demonstration. Another technique I've found very useful is to pick the 2nd most prominent language on a resume and ask the candidate to spend 15-20 minutes teaching it to me. In that situation I quickly learn about the person's teamwork style, the ability to explain things, and whether they know the material well-enough to answer targeted questions. Never forget, however, that the really good candidates -- the ones you probably need most -- are interviewing you at the same time so be attentive to the two way flow of conversation. I never, ever hire from certifications -- I prefer developers to coders.
Comment by Laurence A. Lee on September 28, 2008 at 2:57pm
Back when I was staffing onsite development teams, I had great success with requiring all candidates and consultants pass the Brainbench Programmers' Aptitude test with a 3.5 or higher.

The exam measures Problem-Solving capabilities, in addition to Programming capabilities.

Making this a known requirement eliminates that 95% of candidates who have hyped-up resumes, and puts a real barrier-to-entry before unscrupulous recruiters and headhunters hoping to fill a position with a warm-blooded body.

The only downside risk is that Brainbench is administered online instead of at a certification institution that verifies identity, so it's possible to have someone else take the exam on your behalf.. but you can still weed such cheaters out with a Technical Interview.

I like the Brainbench results, and I like their exam process (an hour's worth of multiple choice questions). I wouldn't think of bringing anyone into a Startup environment without their going through a verifiable standard like this.
Comment by Daniel Leuck on September 27, 2008 at 3:59pm
John: Dan, I am sure you have seen the whole meme on fizz-buzz
Someone recently sent me this link. It really highlights the need for a universally recognized certification of basic programming competence. I'm unclear as to how these people graduate from comp sci programs.

Viil Lid: For those of us interested in cross-cultural/intercultural communication I think these cultural differences may be particularly related to a couple of cultural dimensions:
These are definitely factors. Individualism/Collectivism and High/Low Context metrics vary even across the US. I haven't had the pleasure of doing business in Norway, but the British and Russian programmers I interviewed were definitely less inclined to exaggeration. I can deal with a certain level of self promotion, but a "Java expert" that can't invert a string is a liar.
Comment by Truman Leung on September 27, 2008 at 9:44am
That fizz buzz post ... talk about coding horror!
Comment by Viil on September 27, 2008 at 8:13am
When living in different cultures I have experienced the same cultural differences when it comes to self promotion as you have Dan. The issue isn't so much overselling and underselling as it is whether the interviewer and the interviewee are sharing the same scale of measurement when it comes to skills and experience.
As a Norwegian I am used to a scale where the extremes are not used (the extreme positives of scales are reserved only for very extreme cases, like e.g. a world champion), and blatant self promotion is considered a huge negative. So, if a Norwegian job applicant say s/he is "good" at something s/he is probably one of the top experts on the area. Likewise, if s/he says s/he has "some" experience with something, it is likely to mean several years of hands on experience on the area. This is similar to your experiences in Japan.

When first moving to the US I was baffled (well, I still am) by meeting people who said they were "good at" things they at best had done once before, or were "experts" on areas it turned out they had barely been exposed to.
So, as you may imagine it is rather though for me to adapt to, or even partly assimilate, the US style of self promotion as it forces me to be extremely rude and exaggerating according to my original culture :)

For those of us interested in cross-cultural/intercultural communication I think these cultural differences may be particularly related to a couple of cultural dimensions: Individualism/Collectivism and High/Low Context. Both of these are cultural dimensions where the US culture differ a lot from both Japanese and Norwegian culture.
The US culture's high Individualism is likely to make extreme self promotion not only acceptable, but necessary. While cultures with high Collectivism are focusing more on team/group/organization performance, and focus on individual performance is not only less important, but also potentially seen as a negative as it can at times be at the cost of the team/group/organization success.
The US culture's low cultural Context (related to the heterogeneous nature of the culture) requires people to communicate in more extremes to make a point, while in high Context cultures like Japan and Norway (culturally much more homogeneous than the US) communication can be more fine grained, so a more narrow scale can be used.

Hawaii is interesting because you have so many cultures living side by side and mixing. I think an awareness of the cultural background of your candidate is important to be able to communicate more efficiently with him/her. Also, if you are hiring for a position with an intercultural team you should probably seek out candidates who are aware of these cultural differences and are able to address them when communicating. It will save your team a lot of misunderstandings based on cultural differences.
Comment by John on September 27, 2008 at 2:44am
Dan, I am sure you have seen the whole meme on fizz-buzz and how most 'programmers' cannot even accomplish such a basic task. It's an interesting example of the problem.


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