What does it mean to hire the brightest talent for a software engineer role? If the definition and hiring process do not include assessing critical soft skills, then the best and brightest engineers are not being hired, even if they are technically sound.
Some companies pay more attention to soft skills than others. Others just talk about it but do not incorporate this essential component into their hiring process. If a company does not include a soft skills inquiry when hiring engineers, then competitors are more likely to hire the top talent.
The three critical soft skills to look for in the hiring process
Every software engineer needs sound technical skills, but they also need soft skills such as ability to collaborate, resolve conflict and communicate in a crystal-clear manner. These soft skills complement an engineer’s technical knowledge and provide the company with employees who can solve technical problems effectively, efficiently, and in a way that reflects a broader understanding of the company’s needs. Here are three soft skills to assess when interviewing engineer candidates.
- Collaboration. To solve a technical problem in the optimal manner, an engineer must understand the problem completely. This requires a mindset that considers all scenarios that could go wrong or negatively affect another area. One person cannot do this alone; it takes a village. Problem solving is a team effort. Software engineers need to reach out to other engineers and stakeholders for their input to come up with a solid design when managing a project. The engineers who understand other people’s perspectives and broader concerns, are the ones that will arrive at the optimal solution.
- Conflict resolution. Conflicts are bound to arise, even as engineers collaborate. When there are 100 brains in the room, there will be 100 different solutions and multiple ways to execute the same solution. When software engineers work with other individuals and teams, they need to learn to balance competing priorities to agree on the solution. They cannot consider only the technical elegance of a particular solution. Time to market or improving the customer experience may be a higher priority for the company and thus require a quick, targeted solution. If the business wants to roll out a solution in 15 days, a quick fix may have to do until the tech team has resources to invest in building a long-term solution.
- Communication: Communication is the critical soft skill without which, neither collaboration nor conflict resolution can happen. When software engineers collaborate and work to resolve conflict, it is crucial they get their point across to everyone in the room, including the nontechnical people. The best software engineers can articulate and explain their work and ideas in technical and nontechnical terms so anyone can understand them. They also need to communicate final decisions quickly and clearly to all interested parties.
During the hiring process, it is important to look for more than whether the candidate got the “right” answer to a technical question. The real purpose in asking technical questions is to assess how the candidate arrived at the right solution. Even if the candidate solves the problem exactly as the interviewer wanted, the interviewer must see and evaluate the process the candidate went through to reach the conclusion. The process of how candidates do their work and approach problems is where they display soft skills, or lack thereof.
Interviewers should look for candidates who do not jump into solving the problems right away but ask clarifying questions. To pull the process out of a candidate, interviewers can ask general, open-ended questions like how the candidate would traverse a graph. A candidate with soft skills won’t pick one of the five algorithms commonly used to traverse a graph and start working on the problem. They’ll ask questions to decide which one of those algorithms is the best solution for this context. Open-ended questions require inquisitive candidates to ask the interviewer questions to learn more about the problem’s scope.
To gain insight into how a candidate handles conflict resolution, interviewers should ask project-based questions as part of a behavioral interview, an interview technique used to assess how a candidate has handled past work situations. After asking what past projects the candidate is most proud of, the interviewer can follow up by asking how many coworkers and different teams were involved in the project. Then, the interviewer should ask where push back occurred during that project and how the candidate handled it. These questions will reveal the candidate’s communication and collaboration skills through their conflict resolution process. It might not be the best answer if candidates talk about standing their ground and pushing their solutions through.
Instead, interviewers should look for candidates who do not exhibit tunnel vision but take a step back to see others’ perspectives. If the team selected the candidate’s position, was it because the candidate communicated the value of his or her vision? Did the candidate get on board if the team opted for an alternate solution? Perhaps the candidate shares how understanding another person’s perspective changed the candidate’s vision on the components of the best solution. These are all responses that show high soft skills ability.
To hire the brightest software engineers, hiring committees must focus on a candidate’s problem-solving thought process as much as whether the candidate answers correctly. A candidate who hopes to get an offer must always demonstrate technical soundness, but if that’s all a company looks for, the company is missing out on well-rounded candidates. During this shortage of skilled developers, companies that provide soft skills training don’t have to pass on junior engineers with high technical skills, but under-developed soft skills. They have resources to develop that candidate’s soft skills.
It is just as critical for companies to train their software engineers who will interview candidates in soft skills assessment. The interview room is an unnatural atmosphere because no one works in that kind of silo. Interviewers must know how to present conditions for candidates to share how they will approach a problem or as they describe an experience. Everyone wins when both sides of the interviewing process possess soft skills.
About the Author:
Prasad Memane is a senior software engineer with six years of experience working with top technology providers. He has a master’s degree in Computer Science from Northeastern University and his primary areas of focus are project management, hiring and growing the engineer teams, designing sturdy and scalable software systems, operation readiness for launching a new product and mentoring junior engineers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org