How HR and Tech Leaders Collaborate for Hiring Wins
Tech leaders and HR don’t always understand each other. We recently hosted a highly informative webinar with Dawn Burke, HR leader and Senior Consultant at Recruiting Toolbox and Tech leader, Matt Cowell, CEO of QuantHub.
They discussed their experiences, successes and challenges working together at Daxko over several years to scale an engineering and tech department to 3 times its original size.
That’s a lot of technical recruitment!
Matt and Dawn had a candid and lively conversation about the challenges they faced when recruiting technical talent and their approach to overcoming them together. They also provided several practical strategies and takeaways that HR and Tech leaders can use together to ensure tech hiring wins.
Following is a summary of key points Matt and Dawn discussed and their advice on how HR and Tech leaders can partner with each other to ensure the right technical talent is hired at the right time.
If you’d like to watch the 30-minute webinar, click here.
Misconceptions that HR and Tech Leaders Have About Each Other
According to Dawn, a common misconception (or it is truth?) that HR managers have about Tech leaders is that they are super smart, however, they may not have the greatest social skills when it comes to interviewing candidates.
In addition, Dawn said, HR is always thinking that Tech leaders tend to go “rogue”. She has found that HR ends up having to chase down technical hiring managers for information. HR professionals also fear that Tech leaders might try to commandeer the hiring process.
Finally, Dawn added, it’s a common belief in HR that there’s a lot of bias in the technical recruitment interview process. Those in HR have also observed a kind of “bro culture” technical interview process that puts a lot of emphasis on “gut feel” and judgments like “Are they like us?” and “Can we see ourselves having a beer with this person?”.
Matt in return admitted that many of those “misconceptions” Dawn described are often “truths”. Matt explained that a common misconception that Tech leaders have is that HR’s role in the hiring process is primarily an administrative role, rather than a partner role.
Matt acknowledged that while compliance is important, that this is not how he feels the technical hiring process is supposed to work. Administration is not and should not be the essence of HR’s role in the hiring process, and it is certainly not the case in successful hiring processes.
Dawn added that unfortunately, HR managers do sometimes think that being an administrator is, in fact, their role, however, it’s not a value-adding one in her opinion.
Strategies and Systems that Work for HR and Tech Leaders
Matt and Dawn gave many examples of different approaches and systems they put in place at Daxko to ensure collaboration between HR and Tech leaders during the technical hiring process.
1. A Shared Responsibilities Mentality
Matt submitted that,
“Hiring is not something that is just the responsibility of HR…it’s really a shared responsibility.”
He emphasized that just because HR is struggling to find a candidate, it does not excuse him from delivering on his business goals, “I’m responsible for delivering on those goals, I need to be a partner in the hiring process.”
To that effect, Matt said the tech leadership at Daxko would partner with HR on a lot of things. For example, HR had recruiters that were very interested in learning more about the technology of the roles and understanding what the hires would be doing every day.
That mentality transferred into tactics that the tech and HR team would engage in separately and together. It also allowed for good, open and honest conversations about what recruiters needed to know in order to screen for good fits.
Dawn pointed out, too, that HR professionals definitely want to add value and share responsibilities with the tech hiring team. She too has seen recruiters interested in learning more about the technical aspects of a job role so that they can jointly recruit for the job.
On the contrary, Dawn noted that she often sees HR professionals try hard to hide the fact that they are not subject matter experts. She believes the right approach for HR professionals is to be willing to show more vulnerability when it comes to understanding technical roles.
Dawn suggested that it’s better to go into a discussion with a Tech leader saying,
“Talk to me like I’m a Kindergartner. Really break it down.”
HR is not the subject matter expert nor are they the decision-makers. “Just go in and call a thing a thing,” she advised.
2. Shared Responsibilities Agreements
Following on the idea of a shared responsibilities mentality, Dawn explained that at Daxko it was important to set some shared goals that outlined where HR was responsible in the recruitment funnel. So HR and Tech leaders would create a “shared responsibilities agreement”.
As at many companies, the team agreed that HR was responsible primarily for filling the top of the recruitment funnel. The team would also agree some timeframes and decide on some metrics, such as frequency of meetings, how long, timeframes for sourcing, etc.
Dawn emphasized that the goal of creating this agreement was not so that each team could go finger-pointing at the other. Rather it was to help establish a team culture of alignment. Having metrics, goals and deadlines in place was meant to give the team some momentum and keep it up. It also allowed the team to have open and honest conversations about the challenges each department was facing along the way.
Matt agreed, noting that through this process hiring issues would come to light. For example, one metric the team focused on was the amount of time a candidate spent in the hiring process. This metric is extremely relevant in today’s tight labor market.
The team looked hard at how long it took the technical hiring managers to respond and give back feedback after interviews. When HR told the tech team realized it was taking too long, they had an open discussion about the reasons for that and what the solutions might be.
3. Trust Building
So what makes the HR/Tech leader partnership work? Dawn emphasized that it’s about building trust, getting tech and HR aligned, and digging deeper together into the purpose of what they are hiring for, for example, by asking pointed questions such as, “Is pedigree important? Do candidates have to have a degree?”
This kind of deeper discussion and approach helps with the speed and quality of the hiring process, too.
Dawn suggested that to create a sense of trust and shared responsibility at Daxko, HR managers and Tech leaders sought to create shared experiences. She suggested that HR should make it a priority to learn how the tech team is working and vice versa.
For example, one recruiter at Daxko asked if they could learn agile methods. A Tech leader happily volunteered to teach him. Likewise, the tech team asked HR to sit in on technical interviews and invited HR to attend job fairs with them.
4. Sourcing Sprints – A Key Collaboration Tool
A primary way that HR and Tech leaders tried to create shared understanding and experiences at Daxko was through regular “sourcing sprints”. These were meetings where HR managers, tech peers, talent acquisition specialists, recruiters, and other decision-makers would sit in a room together and source candidates as a group, looking on LinkedIn and doing Boolean searches.
These sessions allowed Tech leaders and HR to really develop a shared understanding of what an “A+” candidate profile was. The value of these sourcing sprints too was education, mutual understanding and a list of target candidates that HR could reach out to. Most importantly, sourcing sprints were a tool for building a connection and trust between the two teams.
HR’s Strategic Role in Technical Recruitment
According to Matt, one of the biggest strategic impacts the HR team can have on the tech team is in sourcing candidates. In today’s tight job market finding and unearthing tech talent is very difficult. Matt thinks that it is critical to a hiring strategy for HR professionals to get out in the community and industry and engage in networking activities.
By working to become a well-known, trusted partner in the tech community they enhance candidate sourcing. When someone is thinking about making a job change, they’ll go to that trusted recruiter.
He noted also that HR plays a strategic role in the vetting of tech talent. It starts with making sure that HR has a shared responsibility for the job requirements. He has seen through discussions with HR managers at QuantHub that there are a lot of false negatives and false positives in the HR driven screening process based on keywords.
He believes that “keyword bingo” renders ATS resume screens ineffective for skills screening. Because of this, it’s critical that HR have a shared understanding with the tech team of the job requirements and the required skills. If this is in place then HR is able to source, screen and do skills assessments.
However when there’s no shared understanding or Tech leaders are unable to fully understand and agree on the requirements of a position, HR ends up getting a lot of unqualified candidates flowing through to the tech side of the process. This overwhelms the tech team and causes hiring process delays. Tech leaders can’t respond to all those interviews with feedback and the process becomes unscaleable.
Dawn added that the strategic value that HR can have goes back to being in a partnership and talking openly with Tech leaders about why an issue is happening and how to solve it. She noted that a lot of issues like this can be solved in a strategy meeting at the beginning of the hiring process by going deeper into the hiring needs.
How Valuable Are Resumes in Tech Recruitment?
Dawn and Matt agreed that resumes are not really valuable in technical recruitment. Dawn wholeheartedly agreed saying,
“You absolutely, positively cannot assess techical skills on a resume. Not at all. Period. Point blank.”
She noted that HR could be told what software stack candidates should have, and sure, if it’s on the resume HR will pass them through. But do they actually have the skills? Says Dawn,
“I could not possibly know that, unless I had a better understanding through assessments. Pre-hire assessments are invaluable, they’re the greatest predictor of skills.”
Matt added that what this means is that HR and Tech leaders have to start filtering candidates based on technical skills at the top of the recruitment funnel. Tech skills should be a basic requirement for the job. So tech skills assessments should occur early on.
He further suggested that the best way to reduce volume at the top of the funnel is to screen on technical skills early.
“If they can’t do the job, it doesn’t matter how great their soft skills are. The base requirement is technical skills and you can’t assess that on a resume, ”
Matt suggested that there are many other ways to assess technical skills, such as by looking at a candidate’s LinkedIn profiles and publications, Github profiles, Kaggle competitions, Stackoverflow comments, and things of that nature.
Dawn added once more her thoughts on assessments, “Pre-hire assessments when it comes to technical skills are invaluable. When we look at the relevance of being able to predict through an interview who is going to be the best match, it always comes down to the assessment and scoring well.”
As for resumes, Dawn believes that they are not going anywhere. They still can be useful but are certainly not the whole story.
Applicant Skills Testing in the Technical Recruitment Process
Dawn admitted that the applicant flow at the top of the funnel is very difficult with tech. There aren’t many candidates! She insisted that you must have an ATS, or some shared technology because it’s the quickest way to communicate. She added that a lot of ATS packages will link HR to different assessment tools, video interviewing tools and so forth, all of which will help HR to get a better understanding of the candidate than what is on the resume.
Matt added that in the technical screening process, Tech leaders should look for conceptual skills upfront as a way to weed out candidates. It’s important to know upfront if candidates understand concepts like statistics and programming. Matt also said that as a Tech leader he tends to think of that kind of technical screen as something to do earlier on in the hiring process.
Later, he said, you’ll assess on skills necessary for the job, with, for example, a case study or a challenge. This is how the QuantHub flow is designed, he noted. Test conceptual skills first, then provide a challenge that reflects the job skills.
Another big component, Dawn added, is testing cognitive skills, especially cognitive processing. So for example, how quickly can a candidate understand, analyze and disseminate information. She has observed that lately cognitive skills testing is an assessment used for many jobs because of the speed of change in work.
Cognitive diversity testing is a big topic that she has seen as well. These are the kinds of insights that you will not get that in an interview, she added.
Trends HR and Tech Leaders Need to Pay Attention to When Scaling a Tech Team
Matt said that from a sourcing perspective that diversity is an issue in tech. The reality, he said, is that HR and Tech leaders are not going to change that by doing the same thing they’ve always done. He believes that teams should intentionally seek out a more diverse pool of candidates, for example by partnering with Girls who Code or historically black universities.
Matt believes that Tech leaders can’t just post a job and engage in a “bro culture” interview process and expect to attract diverse talent. Worse, said Matt, this approach discourages people from applying as the word gets out about the subjective interview process. In Matt’s opinion companies have to be intentional and target places to get more diverse talent and look at their processes to make sure they are not discouraging diverse candidates.
Dawn added that it’s critical to always look at sourcing and how much you are getting into the top of the funnel. HR should make sure that they are having regular tech alignment conversations and be crystal clear on what is the talent that you are going to have to hire. Get clear on the job description, qualifications, and level of experience, she advised.
Dawn also warned that if you are in fast-growth mode, unless you are paying top of the market, then you are going to have to hire junior talent and figure out a strategy for how to train them up if you need higher quality talent.
She emphasized too, that it is critical for HR and Tech leaders to talk to Finance, the CFO, or CEO and tell them that they’ve got to listen to HR when they say, “here’s the competitive salaries and here’s what you are going to have to pay if you want a quick hire.”
Dawn said too that in her experience in scaling tech teams there will be tradeoffs. Usually, it’s money for time-to-hire.
Summary of Key Takeaways
Matt and Dawn certainly seemed aligned on how best to collaborate for hiring wins. Specifically, their suggestions and tips can be summarized as follows:
- HR is not an administrative role – HR should be a partner to Tech team leaders and these leaders should treat HR as such.
- Create shared responsibilities – Have regular strategic meetings and open, deep discussions that outline a “shared responsibilities agreement” between HR and the tech team. Aim for a “culture of alignment”.
- Create opportunities for building trust – Collaborate on sourcing, have strategy meetings, attend job fairs together or have HR sit in on technical interviews.
- Understand and agree on the job requirements together – Tech leaders should take the time to dig deep with HR into what they actually need and want in a tech hire. HR should endeavor to learn as much as they can about the technical skills and tools required for the job.
- Test technical skills early – Do not rely on resumes. Since technical skills are a basic job requirement, test for them early on to weed out candidates and make the Tech leaders’ job easier and decreased time in the process for qualified candidates.
- HR’s biggest strategic value is sourcing – HR should be networking in the industry and community to become a trusted recruiter. They should collaborate with the tech team on sourcing so that they get a true understanding of what an “A+ candidate” is.