Robert Sweeney, the Founder and CEO of Facet, a fast-growing software development company, recently wrote about a major hiring whiff he made while in leadership at Netflix. Before we talk about the whiff, I want to tell you who Robert Sweeney is. Prior to Netflix, he worked at Microsoft as a Senior Software Engineer. He also founded two other tech companies and is well respected as a thought leader in an extremely competitive space. His greatest accomplishment: adding the “automatically play the next episode” feature in Netflix. A simple idea, but so helpful when binge-watching your favorite show!

Now back to the hiring whiff. Sweeney turned down Daniel Buchmueller for a job at Netflix. After a 60-minute interview he was on the fence and concluded that he “wasn’t senior enough.” What did Daniel do? He interviewed at Amazon, got hired, then co-founded Amazon Prime Air (their drone delivery service.) He then quickly rose to #2 on Fast Company’s “Most Creative People” list. Daniel is a difference-making employee – the kind who drives change and moves an organization forward.

How could an expert like Robert Sweeney make such a mistake? He admitted that there was a flaw in the way he evaluated talent. “At some point, we programmers are going to have to admit that we really can’t judge another programmer’s technical abilities in a 60-minute interview,” Sweeney said. “We end up hiring programmers that are good at interviewing, but not necessarily good at doing the job. And we miss out on engineers like Daniel.”

At LOOP, we help companies identify and hire tech talent in industries and markets with shallow talent pools. What we’ve learned is that Robert Sweeney is correct – you can’t judge someone’s technical ability in a 60-minute interview. You typically have as many questions as answers after spending an hour with a potential candidate. There are a few lines of feedback we’ve heard with some consistency after a technical assessment or interview.

  • “The candidate is great, but we don’t think he is ready for a senior-level position”.
  • “She checks a lot of boxes but has limited experience with __________ (insert any brand-new programming language or technology.”
  • “We don’t know if he wants to work in this type of development environment.”

The common thread in this feedback is that the hiring manager is making negative assumptions about a candidate, the kind of assumptions that rule a candidate out as a potential hire based on guesswork and gut feelings. Negative assumptions are completely detrimental to the interview process and should be mitigated as much as possible in the hiring process. Positive assumptions- assuming a candidate is great when they’re really average- aren’t as harmful long-term in this competitive job market. We’re advising our clients to err on the side of making positive assumptions if they are unsure about a candidate. The potential reward inherent to a great hire outweighs the risk in most cases, and future employees will be grateful to hiring managers who took a chance on them early on.

Negative assumptions are especially crippling when the talent pool of candidates for hard-to-fill roles is very small. It gets even smaller when you leave major cities and tech hubs. Trying to fill a high-level technical position in a market like Augusta, GA (our hometown) typically means relocating someone, which further shrinks the pool of candidates. In today’s recruiting landscape, focus on quality over quantity when it comes to interviews. You might only get one or two qualified candidates for a position- becoming further laden by negative assumptions often brings that number to zero.

After conducting an interview with a candidate, make a list of reasons why you should not hire that person. That’s right – what you DID NOT LIKE about them. Then conduct a follow-up interview (this can be done in-person or over the phone) and address the concerns. The conversation should go something like this:

  • “Mr. Candidate, we enjoyed the interview and have a few items to follow up on. We think you’re technically sound, but your experience makes us think you’re more of a mid-level developer. Can you tell us why we’re wrong?”
  • “Mrs. Candidate, we talked about coding languages in your interview that you aren’t familiar with. Do you have experience learning other new languages in a short period of time? How long would you anticipate it taking you to get up to speed? Would you be willing to take a training course or attend a boot camp if we hire you?”
  • “Mr. Candidate, you have all of the technical skills needed to excel in this role, but we aren’t sure if you’ll enjoy this development environment. What is your ideal work environment? What is your experience in Agile or Waterfall environments? Do you prefer to work with teams, or do you work better in a quiet place on your own?”

Your questions need to be pointed and direct. The goal is to eliminate as much doubt or hesitation as possible, so there won’t be motivation to rely on assumptions. Candidates may struggle to answer the questions or tell you the opposite of what you want to hear. But if the questions are answered correctly and logically, then you just avoided a hiring whiff like the one made by Sweeney, and filled a role with an employee who has the potential to move your organization forward.