Indicators of Talent (and Heuristics) for Software Engineers

A recent Hacker News post by a man named Andrew was voted to the front page and received over 50 comments (as of my post).  The post was called Ask HN:  Would you hire me?, and Andrew specified that he was talking about a junior level position.

He provided the following details about himself:

  • 28 years old with a Finance Degree from a non-Ivy league school
  • Spent the last two years living overseas teaching English and learning to code
  • Fairly well versed in html, css, javascript, and PHP

He also included links to his:

  • GitHub – handful of repos, 7 months as a member, pretty active over the last quarter
  • Stack Overflow profile – 521 reputation, top 37% this quarter, 16 badges
  • Blog – Attractive UI, 7 overall posts (a few with some code), with the highlight being details of a Chrome extension he built and demonstrates in a video

Andrew received a fair amount of positive feedback, and not one single poster gave a ‘you are not hirable‘ response.  No CS degree, no professional experience, yet a highly technical audience were either mostly positive and at worst neutral on hiring (considering is more accurate) this potential applicant.  Only a couple responders mentioned looking at the one project he listed, and none referenced the quality of his code samples on his blog or GitHub, so we might assume that no one even bothered to look at his code.  Interesting.

Part of the explanation for the positive response is undoubtedly the makeup of the Hacker News crowd, which does not include a large contingent of HR reps from large companies who control a great deal of the hiring decisions.  Place this resume and story on Monster or Dice, and I expect that Andrew would receive responses from less than a quarter of his viewers.  Possibly less than a tenth.

I admit, if I were to see this candidate’s resume (assuming it reflected the details he put on HN), I would absolutely want to speak to him.  The clients I represent, which are mostly startup and early stage software companies, are more representative of the HN crowd (at least in terms of evaluating engineers) than most larger companies.  And even if I did not have a great opportunity for him today, I would think that a few years down the road he will be someone that I’d want to represent.

What is it about this candidate with no experience and no highly relevant education that gets our attention?  Of the details we have about Andrew, how many could have impacted my decision to speak to him?

When evaluating talent and the decision whether or not to interview a candidate for a software job, I must rely on several attributes that have historically been attached to quality talent that were successful in receiving job offers from my clients.

Let’s break it down.

28 years old with a Finance Degree from a non-Ivy league school - Most readers, including myself, probably didn’t give this any thought.  His degree in finance should indicate some math background, and if he had listed his specific school that would have had an impact.  Although most might be reluctant to mention it, the age demographic is probably a positive based on the industry, as he obviously has some life experience and maturity but will not fall prey to any old dog/new tricks bias.

Spent the last two years living overseas teaching English and learning to codeTeaching any subject to any students is valuable experience for almost any profession, and should indicate some level of communication skills.  The international aspect adds a bit more interesting background than if he were teaching domestically.  Some who chose to speak to Andrew may have been strongly influenced by the oversas aspect, as this could also show some willingness to face risk and change.

Fairly well versed in html, css, javascript, and PHP.  Just getting started with Ruby - His claim of being ‘well versed’ is only a self-assessment, but that could be at least somewhat validated (or invalidated) by anyone taking a look at his blog’s source or GitHub account.  This at least indicates that he is learning technologies that will give him some marketability based on demand for these skills.  We may question Andrew’s choices if he were learning a less popular skill.

GitHub, Stack Overflow, and Blog - For those that make decisions about technical talent, the fact that Andrew has both a GitHub and Stack Overflow account is probably more of an indicator of possible talent than what is actually in the accounts.  Most candidates in my experience don’t have a GitHub/Bitbucket or SO account, but those who do have accounts are historically more successful with my clients than those who don’t.  The attractive blog and few technical posts are yet another indicator, showing some passion as well as the ability to articulate his ideas in writing.

What other details may have led to the decision of HN readers or people like me who would at least want to speak to Andrew?

He reads Hacker News – Even if he isn’t a senior developer, he at least appears to have spent some time in one community where they frequent.

He comes across as modest and doesn’t appear to feel entitled - You don’t see anywhere in Andrew’s post a reference to how awesome he is or how he is ‘kicking CSS’s ass on a daily basis’.  His responses to feedback are very positive, grateful, and polite.  The choice of ‘well versed’ over some other terms that may be linked to overconfidence was wise.  Andrew also will not be accused of sounding entitled to a great dev job, and on the contrary he comes across as someone who knows he has to earn it.  Perhaps that is a function of his lack of a CS degree, but either way he appears to be taking the right approach.

He’s already creating product – Although he is only early on in his tech studies, Andrew has a product on the market that you can find in the Chrome Web Store that you can download.  There are developers with 20 years of experience that haven’t built any of their own tools or products yet, but this guy is two years in and has that mindset.  Some may question how great (or even good) a product someone at this level of experience could build, but the desire to produce and distribute a tool is something that perhaps can’t be taught.

Note:  Other indicators I use regularly include:

  • Past employers – Some companies frankly have a higher standard of hiring
  • Technical hobbies – Arduino, build robots, or create things at home
  • Speaking or writing – Presentations and publications are usually strong indicators
  • Tool choice – What blogging platform or operating system you run at home
  • User group and meetup – Shows interest and passion

Conclusion:  Hiring managers and recruiters are making quick decisions to interview and consider candidates, and as demonstrated by this HN post it seems that there are several recognized indicators of possible talent.  For job seekers, you may want to display links to your accounts prominently, and highlight details such as independent product development.

Of course, these indicators are not perfect.  I, too, have a GitHub and Stack Overflow account and a blog that covers technology (and I even run one of the best Java Users’ Groups in the world) – but I don’t write code.  Readers of HN should not hire me.

Discuss here or on Hacker News.

If you found this post useful, you may find my ebook Job Tips For GEEKS: The Job Search even more helpful.  You can also follow Job Tips For Geeks on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

6 comments

  1. Phil

    Hey Dave, this is a great article. Very interesting writeup. But I’m wondering why you said such a *great candidate would only get responses from between about 10-25% of HR reps who view it. Is it simply because of the lack of a degree?

    • fecak

      Thanks for reading. The short answer is no, not just the degree.

      The lack of response would be for a combination of reasons, which would be the lack of professional experience first and then the lack of a CS degree second. Your average HR rep or internal recruiter at a large firm (say a bank or insurance company) is probably tasked with looking for a variety of hires (accountants, customer service, etc) and not just developers, so they are checking experience first, and for junior level jobs they will forgo experience for education. In the absence of both (as in this particular case), they’ll pass, regardless of what other evidence is there.

      These HR/recruiters who don’t know tech may have never heard of GitHub or Stack Overflow, so having that on the application or resume might not be enough to get the attention of generalists.

      The lack of a degree becomes much less of an issue when there is significant experience, but your typical generalist recruiter/HR will not be able to use the additional info to make a sound judgment.

  2. Harry

    Ha, finance degree, teaches English abroad, self-taught web development?
    Is this Nigel, from accounts, who ran away to Thailand for some, err, professional development, and in his space time between part-time lessons and, um, other activities, picked up some basic web skills?

  3. Pingback: Geek Reading May 15, 2013 | Regular Geek

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