Placing candidates on the tech ladder

Hiring for Tech
November 30, 2020

A ladder propped up against shelves of books.

Engineering requires a wide range of abilities, so the tech ladder is has many steps. Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash

Sometimes, your company has a very specific role in mind. In practice, however, you’re often building out a team with some flexible requirements. Take seniority for example. Maybe you already have someone who is extremely experienced in your team, so the next couple of hires don’t need to have decades of experience. But, you need someone generally independent, so you’re okay with an early senior or mid-range senior.

This is where looking for strengths is really important. Even if a candidate performs poorly in some areas, can they still bring something to the table? And, to make sure their strengths make up for their weaknesses, are their weaknesses coachable?

Can they be coached?

There are many areas we expect engineers to excel: coding and problem solving, system design and architecture, communication, and leadership to name a few. Especially early on in someone’s career, people have not developed all the skills. In fact, the reason they may want to switch companies is to grow in an area they are not yet proficient, like gaining leadership skills after being at a company that hasn’t given them an opportunity to lead a project.

When you find a candidate doesn’t have certain skills, ask yourself: can that skill be coached within your team? Are there others on the team that can give them the guidance they need? Of course you can’t hire someone without strong leadership experience if the role you need is a tech lead, but if you’re looking for someone to contribute to the team, maybe their other strengths are sufficient. Then, by training that hire, they will one day be a well-rounded contributor on the team.

Calibrating job levels

The other aspect to looking for strengths is to see if a candidate can be calibrated to a level of seniority best suited for them. This works when a range of experience levels are acceptable for the team.

One example I’ve seen is hiring someone for a particular job level, let’s call it L3. The job level has a wide range, meaning someone who recently was promoted from L2 will be much more junior than someone about to be promoted to L4. As long as the candidate meets the bar for that job level, you can decide after the interview if their weaknesses put them at the lower or higher end of the applicable range.

This calibration needs to be weighed against two considerations:

Just because someone is weak in certain areas doesn’t mean you should write them off immediately. Start by looking at their strengths and see if they would be a valuable member of your team. If so, ask if their weaknesses are coachable. If needed, bring them in as a more junior member in order to get their strengths on your team.

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