Two Candidates. One Position.

© 2004 Johanna Rothman. This article was originally published in Better Software, February 2004.


You have one open position to fill—two outstanding candidates. What do you do? Both candidates performed well in the interview and on a technical audition. You used behavior-description questions to understand what each candidate has accomplished professionally, and consensus decision-making to verify everyone in the group would like to work with either candidate. You can’t get approval to hire both candidates. What now?


If you can’t decide between two great candidates, you may not have enough information about what you want or about what each candidate offers. Ask yourself these questions:

  1. What can the candidate can contribute to my group today, not in the future? Sometimes, we forget about our immediate needs and look at a candidate based on anticipated future performance.
  2. How quickly can each candidate learn the product internals—and the problems the customers want the product to solve? If the candidate has worked on similar products or in a similar industry, the candidate may be able to adapt her skills and expertise more quickly to your project.
  3. What technical and non-technical expertise does the candidate bring to your group? I like to build groups where each person has some unique skills, so I can use the group to mentor and coach each other.

Make sure you've done all your homework. Turn on your personal “Way-back” machine and journey back to the time before you started interviewing candidates. Go all the way back to when you determined your hiring strategy, analyzed the job, and wrote the job description. When determining your hiring strategy, you answered the questions, “Why am I hiring?” and “What am I looking for?” Maybe you decided you were looking for a person with similar abilities to the group you already have. Maybe you were looking for someone with unique technical skills or someone who could shake up your group. Whatever your hiring strategy, you defined why you were looking for a person. Revisit those reasons with respect to the candidates you have.

Take a look at your job analysis—your requirements definition for candidates. In the job analysis, you considered the non-technical skills, such as communication skills, initiative, organization, as well as the technical skills. If working in an agile environment, for example, you considered verbal communication skills, not just writing skills. People who have to talk to each other daily need to be articulate.

When you wrote your job description, you thought about the relative seniority of the ideal candidate—whether he should be more senior or less senior than your current staff. You also considered the kinds of functional skills and domain expertise required. Functional skills are the abilities of a developer to analyze, design, develop, and debug. For a tester, functional skills are the variety of ways the tester knows how to test, how to plan testing, and how to report problems. Domain expertise is the understanding the candidate has for your product, both on the problem side, and on the solution side.

If you haven't done all of these things, take a few minutes and fill in the parts you missed. Make sure you've clearly defined the performance you're looking for in a candidate and why. Determine which “soft” skills you require and how to interview for them.

Discover what your interview team thinks of the candidates. Try asking “What makes this candidate a perfect ten for us right now?” Listen for the similarities and more importantly, the differences between the candidates. Then review your hiring strategy and see which candidate fits your immediate needs best.

If you’ve done all of this and still can't choose between the candidates, it's time to create another audition. List the behaviors you want to see in a candidate. If you're interviewing project managers, you may want to see their negotiation skills, or their ability to understand the project state, or their ability to make difficult decisions. Create a situation in which the candidates demonstrate their work. For example, to continue a project manager audition, gather your project data, look for examples of where you would need someone to exhibit negotiation skills, understand project state, or make difficult decisions. Then explain the audition to the candidate, “In this part of the interview, I want to see how you work in action. I want you to negotiate with me for more time in the schedule. Here's the information on the project so far…” Then have the candidate negotiate with you.

One audition may not be enough when you're interviewing numerous excellent candidates. Develop enough auditions that if you need to, you can ask the candidate to participate in two or three thirty-to-forty-five minute auditions. At the end of that time, you'll know how well this person will fit into your group.

Once you've reviewed all your steps and discovered where you can differentiate among suitable candidates, bring the candidates in for one more interview with your refined questions and auditions.

People are not identical, so you won't find identical candidates. However, it’s not uncommon to have to choose between two good candidates. When that happens, make sure you've completed all your preparatory work, so that you interview for the appropriate behaviors and skills. If you're still stuck, make sure the candidates can be successful and add another dimension to your group. Finally, create another audition (or two) and evaluate the candidates' performance during the audition. Your reward for following these suggestions?–a clear-cut choice!

Like this article? See the other articles. Or, look at my workshops, so you can see how to use advice like this where you work.

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