Sunday, November 6, 2011

What's the most important responsibility for a software manager?

I'll probably ask and answer this question many times over the course of this blog because, as I've said, there are many very important aspects to software management.  But for today, I'll say "the most important responsibility is: recruiting."

I used to work for a guy who would say "Hire people who are smarter than you" and "fill your team with superstars and your job will be easy."  I couldn't agree more, but man, what a challenge this is!

As a manager, your job becomes less about your own coding skills and more about your ability to leverage your team.  Simply put, you are responsible for more than you can do yourself, and the quality of your help is of paramount importance.

Recruiting is a huge time sink, and often feels like a burden because we all have "real work" that needs to get done.  But its much worse to recruit poorly and end up with engineers that don't produce good results or need too much hand-holding.  These things become a long-term (and often hidden or intangible) time sink, whereas the recruiting burden is only temporary.

So when I'm in recruiting mode, I maintain a couple key principles:

1. Invest a lot of time, especially in preparing for the interview
2. Keep your standards high...don't settle!

Invest the time

Strategies for the interviewer are a topic for another post, although Joel Spolsky's article is a good start when it comes to good advice.  The point I want to stress here is that interviews are an extremely brief opportunity to get to know someone well enough to make the hiring decision.  You had better make every second of the end-to-end interview process count.

To that end, I always do the following...

  • Write a concise but detailed job posting.   Think a lot about words and style and how it will attract the type of person you're looking for, as well as scare away the ones you don't want anyway.
  • If you have a recruitier on the front lines, give them a list of pre-qualification questions and insist on seeing a write-up with the answers before you'll consider a candidate.
  • Read every resume thoroughly (until you can safely conclude "no thanks").  I don't buy the old adage that a hiring manager only spends 30 seconds on a resume.  I spend a good five minutes or more.
  • Treat every candidate differently.  They all have unique histories, strengths, and weaknesses.  A boiler plate set of questions won't give you as much info as questions you tailor based on what you already know about the candidate.
  • Prepare for the phone screen, for at least half the time of the phone screen itself.  You don't want to get stumped by the awkwardness of the first encounter and waste that time.  You should have a script going in that is tailored to the uniqueness's of the individual.   Ask them questions about their resume, know what you want to hear, anticipate the responses and have follow-up questions prepared, so that no line of questioning is wasted.
  • Do the same for the interview itself:  Prepare.  I have a library of several dozen questions I am constantly revising.  There's never time to ask them all, so before each interview I read through it and pick the ones that are best for this particular candidate.
  • Make sure your interview team all does the same.  You may only have 45 minutes with this person, but they'll probably spend 4-5 hours or more in the total interview.  If any of that time is wasted by too many softball questions from inexperienced or ill-prepared interviewers, your risk of a bad decision is increased.

Keep your standard's high

I agree again with Joel here:  "If there's any doubt, say no."   You may feel that you really want to be done with recruiting and get back to developing product, and hence be tempted to compromise.  You may see some really positive attributes of the candidate, but "just one red flag".  But imagine if that red flag turns out to be the dominating attribute of the candidate....  Sure, you've lost a couple hours on this person so far, but if you hire them you'll be regretting it for months or years to come.

In writing this post I thought of many aspects of recruiting and interviewing worth discussing, but I'll have to save the rest for later posts.  The bottom line for today is:  Recruiting is serious business.  Spend the time to do it right!