The 3-A’s of Agile Interviewing

I spent about 3-years working at a company called iContact from 2009 – 2012. While there I reported to their CTO Ralph Kasuba.

Ralph was a wonderfully skilled leader and I’ve been reminiscing about him of late. Sure, we still stay in touch, but it’s not the same as working together each day.

Ralph had one “pet peeve” that I’d like to share and it involves interviewing. At the time, iContact was growing quite steadily, so it seemed as if we were always interviewing team members for our technical staff. We went through a period where no one seemed to pass our technical screens.

It was frustrating because the recruiters kept saying they were sending us qualified candidates, but the team-based interviews would just chew them up.

The language we started to use was that we were looking for Unicorn’s and not finding any.

The Three A’s

Given this situation, Ralph came up with a philosophy change for our interviewing approach. He called it the three A’s, which were:

  1. Attitude
  2. Aptitude
  3. Ability

And he emphasized that we need to evaluate them in that order. Let me drill into each one with a bit more explanation of how we interpreted each.

Attitude

I know attitude is an intangible characteristic, but it was our most important hiring factor. For example, we were looking for candidates who were optimistic, good team players, open-minded, self-aware, and mature.

For us the key was how much time we spent with each other on our teams, so it was important to hire folks who you simply “liked” to be with each and every day. People who blended well into our culture and who were (largely) a joy to work with.

Aptitude

I guess the key here was adaptability and learning potential. We focused on trying to understand each candidate’s career path and looked for how many things they had learned along the way. We looked not just for learning on the job, but how much responsibility they had for continuous learning.

Were they curious? And how did they approach the unknown. Another key here was flexibility in their jobs. For example, if they were a software developer, we’d ask how they felt about “helping out” with testing in their agile teams?

Ability

The final criterion was ability. Here we were looking for their raw experience and skill level. This is where we focused all of our attention when were looking for unicorns, as I mentioned earlier.

Here we deferred to third in our level of importance. Sure, we were looking for folks who had skills, but we felt that an individual with a great attitude and aptitude, but mid-level skills, could be trained by our other great hires.

And we learned in practice that this was true.

Degrees

We had also been stuck on degrees in our recruiting. For example, you had to have a hard computer science or engineering degree to be considered. And it had to come from a top-notch engineering school, for example: Carnegie Mellon or Virginia Tech.

As we changed our philosophy, these mattered less and less. I remember a software developer candidate who had a PhD in Music and he was a member of a Jazz ensemble. Historically, we would never had hired him because it. But with our renewed focus, we decided to hire him as a candidate with outstanding potential.

And long story short, he joined us and blew us all away.

Leadership Vision

One of the things Ralph was very good about was reinforcing the philosophy. We were so entrenched in our previous approaches that a one-time delivery would have just “bounced off of” everyone. So he didn’t do that.

Instead, over the course of several years, he continually reinforced this change – in large meetings, management-level meetings, and in hallway conversations. Every relevant chance he could find, he would make the case for and remind folks of our 3 A’s strategy in recruiting.

He was doggedly persistent, patient, and consistent in sharing his goals for how we built our teams.

The Proof

I alluded to it in the title and earlier, but I want to emphasize it now. We were a committed agile (Scrum) organization. And this approach and strategy, of putting people first, really helped us in creating high-performance agile teams.

But more than a few years have passed since I worked with Ralph. And In that span of time, folks have left iContact. Indeed, it has gone through several acquisitions since then.

But the real proof in our recruiting strategy, agile team development, and person development has been the journeys of our team members.

You see I run into ex-colleagues all of the time. And I observe two things:

  1. they speak about their time at iConact as being one of the best jobs of their careers;
  2. and they all seem to have grown tremendously professionally and have continued to become great leaders themselves.

As a leader who aspires to build great agile teams who are ultimately measured by each individual’s long-term growth, then Ralph’s strategy was an incredibly sound one.

One that I thought I would share.

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