Hiring for an Agile Project

© 2005 Johanna Rothman.

If your agile projects are like most of the projects I've encountered, they started because a bunch of people already in your organization decided they needed to use agile techniques to be successful. Those projects have been successful, and now it's time to hire more people. Now there's an even more important question: How can you tell if you're interviewing and hiring people who'll fit your agile team(s)?

Aside from the standard resume filtering, phone screening, interviewing, and reference checking, I add these steps:

  1. Check interpersonal skills with a pre-qualifying phone screen
  2. Ask behavior-description questions to verify the candidate has the technical and collaborative skills to work in an agile team
  3. Verify collaboration and technical skills with an audition

You've probably heard of phone screens, where you, as the hiring manager, call a candidate to ask elimination questions. But you might not have considered how to extend your phone screen technique. Ask an administrative assistant, or anyone else who's lower on the hierarchical totem pole to contact the candidate first. That person asks the candidate a couple of questions to make sure it's worth your time to phone screen the candidate. If you're hiring for an agile team and the candidate is rude or boorish, you know the candidate is not for your team. If the candidate passes the pre-qualifying phone screen, you can schedule the regular phone screen.

During both the phone screen and the in-person interview, make sure you ask behavior-description questions to verify that the candidate has the skills necessary to work on your agile team. First, I ask behavior-description technical questions, such as “Tell me about the design of which you're most proud.” Once I know the person has enough technical skills, I ask questions that deal with cultural issues in the areas of success, challenges, and environment.

Behavior-descriptions questions are questions that ask a candidate to explain past experiences. A success question might be, “Tell me about a time you've been most successful. What caused your success?” A challenge question might be “Tell me about the greatest challenges you've encountered in your most recent role.” After the candidate explains those challenges, you can ask, “What caused those challenges?” and “How did you work around those challenges?” For the environment question, I like to ask, “What kind of environment do you need to be successful?”

These questions aren't easy — they require introspection and some thinking to answer well. If your candidates aren't accustomed to these kinds of questions, make sure you give them time to think. I've found that these kinds of questions expose a candidate's preferred work culture. As the candidate answers the questions, I mentally compare the candidate's answers to the culture in the agile team.

Assuming the candidate has passed the question part of the interview, it's time to watch the candidate in action. An audition will expose a candidate's collaboration and technical skills. If you're using extreme programming, set aside time in the interview for the candidate to pair with a couple of your developers (one at a time). If you're using another agile method, consider other opportunities to assess how a candidate works. For example, if you use test-driven development, ask a candidate to start developing a feature. Look for the tests and how the developer has added to the code base. I particularly like to see how technical people estimate their work. You could ask a candidate to estimate a piece of work — and see if the candidate asks to talk to other people to refine the requirements, understand what's already in the code base, including the need to refactor, or see what other steps the candidate takes to estimate. Make sure you allow enough time for whomever runs the audition to ask debriefing questions at the end, so you understand what the candidate has or has not done and why. As a rule of thumb, I limit auditions to about 45 minutes or an hour.

Your project's culture is unique, so you'll need to adapt these ideas to your environment. Just remember, hiring for an agile project is hiring for much more than sheer technical skill. You're also hiring for a highly collaborative self-organizing team. Make sure you've considered what's important to your team so that you continue to staff agile projects with people who can help your agile projects remain successful.

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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