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How to Evaluate Technical Skills in an Interview

by Josh Burnett
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Published on August 25, 2020

One of the toughest challenges facing managers and supervisors in IT is accurately assessing the hard skills of job applicants. Few standards are universally agreed upon, and that isn't surprising. Qualifications for tech employees are as broad and varied as the people who hold them and the paths they took to learn them.

Self-assessments are notoriously unreliable and often produce inflated estimates of how competent someone is in a particular arena. This trend isn't necessarily due to dishonesty. A truthful candidate can indicate that their proficiency is a four out of five in a certain area when it's more accurately a two out of five. This tendency is easy to understand if you keep one simple principle in mind: you don't know what you don't know.

Candidates with less experience may simply be optimistic about their capabilities when, in reality, their self-reported advanced skills would be intermediate in comparison to an experienced technician.

Despite the lack of a universally agreed standard, we've compiled a list of best practices that you can incorporate into your candidate evaluation processes. Whatever you choose, make it part of an intentional process that is continuously refined until you are consistently selecting the kind of employees you want to find.

Do Your Homework: Learn IT Certs, Skills

Importantly, you’ll need to do your homework for each role and responsibility. It’s not enough to know a little about IT or development as a whole and then riff during the interview. You don’t have to be a subject matter expert yourself, but it does help to know what certifications and skills to look for.

Thoroughly leverage IT certifications. The IT world revolves around experience and certifications. Where certifications and degrees aren't necessarily great indicators of a candidate's potential, IT certifications at least give you a baseline. Standard approaches and consistent protocols are much more likely to be part of a sysadmin or network professional's job — and these are often validated by various certifications. Clarifying which certs could indicate a candidate's value when creating the position description will shorten the evaluation process considerably.

Identify supplementary skill sets. One of the things you owe your employees is a developmental path within your company. If you don't have this, you're inviting your hires to jump ship as soon as they've exhausted the limited experience that position has to offer. These could push someone toward fostering programming skills and working with APIs, or perhaps embracing security responsibilities within their IT team and begin working toward a career as a network security professional.

Thinking one step beyond the immediate hire will not only set your employees up for success, but also pave the way for subsequent fills down the road as higher-level positions become available.

Ask about Technical Hobbies

You should always ask candidates about what they're doing and learning in their spare time. Someone passionate about IT is almost certainly going to be working on continuing education or a personal project (possibly more than one) on the side. This is where you can get two additional bonuses.

Gauge excitement in learning. First, you'll get to hear the excitement in their voice as you dig into what they're passionate about. It's almost always preferable to hire someone who is excited about what they do over somebody who is just working to earn a paycheck.

Maybe there’s a better role for them. Second, you'll find out what they're interested in, and that might direct them to another position you have that's a better fit. Whenever you can align someone's 9-to-5 with what they love doing, the more of a win/win it is for everyone.

The Pros & Cons of Various Exercises

There are a number of exercises hiring managers use to evaluate technical candidates. While these may have their benefits, they also have pitfalls. You could miss excellent talent because an otherwise-qualified individual stressed out and froze up when asked to perform in front of a conference room of people with a job on the line — something their job will most likely not require them to do.

Live troubleshooting exercises are popular and take numerous forms. Some managers ask candidates to solve problems in front of them on a whiteboard during the interview itself to test their logical skills. The advantage of this approach is that you can generally preclude any possibility of cheating: he or she will perform the requisite task in front of you with no access to outside resources. The flipside of this approach is that it may not replicate the tasks you're hiring for.

Play IT Jeopardy. More experienced candidates might view this as a somewhat elementary exercise, but they should also understand that you're establishing a baseline across all candidates. Example exercises could include drawing out a network topology, troubleshooting network or system issues, or possibly reciting the Linux boot process in their interview.

This goes back to making sure you're clear on the specific responsibilities of the role for which you're recruiting: the real-world tasks required of that position should drive your content.

Some employers temporarily hire applicants who have reached an advanced stage to perform a small amount of work on a current, actual project. This is undoubtedly the most realistic assessment and can arguably produce the most accurate results. However, if you do this, be confident that all of your legal I's are dotted and T's are crossed.

Allowing candidates to see what could be proprietary information should require a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) at the very least, and potentially more extensive precautions. You'll also want to structure any temporary employment agreement so that it doesn't imply a guarantee of a permanent position. Work closely with your HR and legal departments before doing this.

Deciding Which Option is Best for Your Situation

There is no "one-size-fits-all" option, and if you find any resource billing itself as such, be wary. The tools we've covered here each offer distinct pros and cons, and the best recruiting and hiring processes will leverage several in a complementary fashion. The first thing you should do is sit down with your technical supervisors and decide what hard skills you need to see in a candidate and how best to evaluate them. These could include certifications relevant to the immediate position as well as a proposed developmental pathway that encourages your employees to develop more advanced skill sets and invest in a career with your company.

If you choose to utilize live logic or IT troubleshooting exercises, you'll need to invest enough time developing the problems to ensure that they're realistic and there aren't alternate solutions you've overlooked. The same is true for IT Jeopardy: invest the time upfront to come up with numerous categories that could be mixed and matched to create the right combination for a particular position.

The last thing you want to do is rely on a static set of questions and penalize a potentially excellent applicant because they didn't know something that had little to do with the position at hand. The temporary hire option will require coordination with your HR and legal teams to ensure that you're correctly structuring the evaluations in a way that will protect you from any adverse repercussions.

The good news is that the majority of this effort is upfront — consider it an investment. Ironically, the worst time to put a ton of energy into recruiting is when you need to hire someone: business is growing, and your team is overworked to the point you need to hire someone else. Establishing as much of the process as possible beforehand will streamline your recruiting procedures and simplify hiring to the greatest extent possible.


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