Audio: Interview with Katrina Kibben, Three Ears Media: How to Break Tech Hiring Rules

Interview with Katrina Kibben, Three Ears Media: How to Break Tech Hiring Rules

By Jomiro Eming

Developers are in high demand across the world, and as software becomes more powerful, tech talent is only going to become scarcer. Katrina Kibben is the founder of Three Ears Media in the USA, and has worked with software engineers and technical recruiters from all over the world to help recruiters break traditional recruiting rules. Doing this, she says, makes their hiring more personal and enables them to communicate better with the talent they’re trying to reach. She discusses how to break the rules in tech recruiting by mastering a few of her tech recruiting ‘Power Moves’.

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Katrina spent time as the Managing Editor of RecruitingDaily, and spoke to a lot of people in tech about hiring and recruitment. It was there she realised that tech recruiters struggle to reach tech talent because they struggle to tell their stories. As a result, she started Three Ears Media to help recruiters communicate better with the talent they’re hoping to reach:

But since tech talent globally is in high demand, developers are constantly being reached out to. Katrina says that conventional approaches don’t work anymore; it’s critical to break traditional recruiting rules, and stand out from other recruiters and hiring managers. “If a recruiter can explicitly tell their story, “she explains, “in a way that a technical person can self-identify, know that they belong, and know that they can be successful, we can change the game.”

She realised the importance of this when she came face-to-face with how impersonal tech recruitment can be. Talking about a software engineer friend of hers, she says: “He opened his email, and had a folder called ‘recruiter junk’. We scrolled and scrolled, and 90% of those messages said the exact same thing. Because he had just had a baby, and a lot of big things happening in his life, he said to me: ‘Why would I jump at another cliché?’”

Katrina trains teams and individuals to use what she calls ‘Power Moves’ - being bold, looking at your context, and saying ‘no’ to what conventional hiring methods say you should do. “Instead of playing email roulette, it’s calling the person. It’s sending a box of doughnuts because you saw them tweeting something nice, and saying, ‘Let’s talk.’”

For Katrina, this personalisation comes in the form of being able to treat each candidate as an individual person, and authentically communicate how you are going to match the things that developer wants to achieve in their career. By understanding the talent you want to hire, and being able to speak to their intrinsic motivators, Katrina has seen people hire more successfully, and build stronger teams.

To create that personal, customised hiring, Katrina teaches a set of tech hiring ‘power moves’ that help communicate with tech talent as individuals, in a way they’ll respond. These include:

  • Ask past hires for feedback: Chatting to your current tech teams will help you customise and improve your candidate experience for each technical role you’re trying to fill. The people who you’ve already hired can help you find and improve on the weaknesses in the system.
  • Use technical assessments to your advantage: Instead of using a ‘one-size fits all’ test, mold and adapt them to different kinds of developers in a way they’ll end up valuing their time spent completing them.
  • Ditch the conventional interview questions: Asking the usual ‘yes/no’ questions don’t tell you much about the person you’re trying to hire. Katrina sees the value in asking things developers can’t practise for - or even not asking questions at all! This gets a completely different, but incredibly valuable insight into the people you’re trying to hire.
  • Hire for potential, not credential: Just because it’s not on a CV, doesn’t mean someone can’t become the perfect fit. Hire for their ability to adapt to their surroundings, as opposed to what they can do right now.

Ask past hires for feedback

The best way to understand a candidate’s experience of your interview process is to ask them. You can do this by reaching out to the people you’ve already hired and asking them to recall the things that stood out. “That’s going to float a few things to the top really quickly,” Katrina says, “because if there are trends, you’ll notice them almost instantly.”

Asking for feedback from the tech roles you’ve already hired, and asking for their input, is also a great way to better understand the people you want to hire. Katrina even suggests noticing things as nuanced as the kind of language they use, and respond to: “When you analyse language, sentiment, vocabulary, and really look at how they say it, trends always appear, and it’s fascinating. If you know people that well, you can recruit them all day”.

This enables you to:

  • Figure out where your process could be improved
  • Discover where candidates most commonly experience resistance towards your company, and from there
  • Create a customised, personal and improved candidate experience

And, since the majority of hiring managers and tech recruiters have only ever been on one side of a technical interviews, asking feedback from past candidates is critical to improving the process.

Normally, interviews are designed to deal with an input (a candidate), and spit out an output (a potential hire). This means all efforts go into the process and how to make it repeatable. However, instead of treating an interview process as a ‘sorting machine’, Katrina builds personas for the tech talent that’s needed.

Personas give hiring managers a better idea of how to mold an interview to a specific person, from start to finish. “And suddenly,” she says, “you picture a person, and not a list.”

To build these personas, Katrina suggests first figuring out which traditional practices you can tailor for current candidate experience:

“If people tell me, ‘The most memorable thing was my first conversation with the hiring manager, they really stood out to me’, the question I’m going to ask is, ‘How do I move that forward?’ I’ve done this for a client: We created a quick hiring manager introduction videos, we put it on the job posting, and people loved it. It actually increased their software engineering (team) growth that year by 11%.”

If you want to ask your tech team some questions for building personas of your own, these are some that Katrina has seen work well in the past:

  • What was the most memorable part of your interview experience, and why?
  • What was your first impression of the people/the office when you came in for your interview?
  • What part of the day made you feel the least confident about your interview?
  • What surprised you about the interview day, and why?
  • If you had to go through the process again, which part would you not want to do, and why?

Use tech assessments to your advantage

Katrina isn’t the biggest fan of tech assessments because of their tendency to be a ‘one size fits all’ approach. One or two assessments gets used for all roles, and she doesn’t think they are very representative of someone’s ability.

That said, she’s found that many engineers and developers respect what tech assessments show them about the company: “They think it’s a reflection of the culture of the team, and the company. They value it on that level.”

But using any technical assessment won’t cut it; it needs to be tailored to the person and the role they’re interviewing for: “It has to be nuanced. It has to be related to where they are in their career, and should also be reflective of the company and the projects you’re working on. It can’t just be a ‘one size fits all, everyone does the Java test’ thing.”

Breaking the rules and creating technical assessments with unique twists that a developer can respect makes business sense. Candidates that respect the technical assessment, Katrina says, are less likely to say ‘no’ to job offers in general.

An easy way to develop valuable technical assessment is to apply some of the advice from the previous section. In other words, ask for feedback from the people you’ve already hired for your tech team. If they’re the people you’re targeting, it makes sense to develop something they would value.

The goal is to understand what they value, what they’re trying to learn, and what skills that team needs, and incorporate that into the assessment.

Ditch the conventional interview questions

Katrina also trains tech recruiters and hiring managers on how to ask better questions. In her experience, people tend to ask questions that complete a checklist, or tick boxes they’ve predetermined - things like ‘yes’/‘no’ answers they can easily sort into criteria, or that only touch on surface-level indicators of successful candidates.

This approach limits the scope of knowledge interviewers see. Since machines are great at doing one thing really well, the people Katrina hires should have the scope of knowledge to do more than one thing: “I’ve never hired a unitasker,” she says. “If I wanted a unitasker, I could buy one.”

Candidates expect ‘the typical’ questions, and practise answering them; so, interviewers can only expect rehearsed responses that don’t actually tell them much about the person they’re interviewing or what they’re really like.

Instead, Katrina suggests asking questions that encourage candidates to give you narrative of an experience: “It’s often just about putting them in a scenario, and getting them to tell you a great story,” she says. Alternatively, try building scenarios that don’t need any ‘questions’ at all!

Tactics for questions that encourage storytelling

Frame questions positively

“Interviews should be facilitators of success,” she explains. “We should be asking incredible questions that make people feel empowered to tell their story.” Keeping this in mind, instead of asking, ‘Why did you leave your last company?’, which might make someone feel put on the spot, she suggests asking, ‘Why did you stay for as long as you did?’

Seek longer answers

Just asking ‘How long have you worked with this code?’ means that you won’t get an idea of how this journey looked for a person. Katrina suggests framing it as ‘What has been the most interesting/difficult thing about working with the code you have?’. This gives candidates the space to tell their story, as opposed to just giving a number or another one-word answer.

Stay clear of ‘yes’ / ‘no’ questions

In Katrina’s experience, “If it feels like a math problem, where there’s one right answer, it’s probably a bad question”. This is because interviewers should be looking for scope of knowledge. “And so,” she adds, “if they can say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, I’m not getting scope out of that”.

No questions needed - play Mario Kart!

The game can probably be switched out for any other, but the sentiment remains: interacting with candidates outside of simply asking questions brings things to the surface that won’t come to light in conventional interviews. Katrina has personally seen the outcome of this kind of unconventional approach:

“I was working with a company, where I did persona research, and we were hiring a data science team, which is very hard. I interview, and I realised that because this team lives in the middle of nowhere, what they do for fun is play video games. Mario Kart was their game, and they would even dress up as Mario Kart for Halloween. So I sent the company Mario Kart and a gaming console, and I said, ‘Put it in your interview waiting room’. No one wants to watch that weird little nature design, so plug in the video game and I want you to add five minutes to the beginning of your interview, and ask them, ‘Do you want to play?’ That’s all you’re going to say.

“It changed the entire dynamic. It’s simple, but it connects two people. It sets a tone, and you’ve learned things about their soft skills that the typical engineer probably isn’t going to be able to express in a normal conversation. The video game created a universal language that they all understood”.

Hire for potential, not credential

In Katrina’s experience, hiring managers and recruiters are typically very focussed on CVs and on-paper experience. However, one of Katrina’s biggest indicators of a successful candidate is their adaptability, and _not _necessarily the number of languages or years of experience they have on paper:

“I hire for what I call a ‘figure sh** out’ quotient,” she explains. “If I hand you a problem, you want to look at it from every angle, flip it over, flip it back over, and really think about it. If you want to just prescribe something say, ‘I’m going to check the boxes’, then I’ll do it myself.”

She says hiring managers should be hiring for potential, and not credential: In an industry like tech, where things are moving incredibly fast and keeping up is hard unless you’re able to adapt, check-list credentials don’t show you whether someone is able to think the way your company does.

In Katrina’s experience, this can be achieved by not weighting someone’s CV as much as you normally would, and using the scenario tactic above to understand how someone copes in situations outside of their comfort zone.

At the end of the day, Katrina says the single-most useful skill to hire better and break the rules of tech recruitment is to put yourself in your candidate’s shoes: “If you go back every time and you say, ‘If I were sitting in there, what would I need? What do I need to hear to be successful?’. If you truly put that filter on every single time, your recruiting becomes fundamentally better,because it’s human centric, and people can really feel that”.

If you’d like to read Katrina’s free e-book on how to write better job posts, check out her free book Job Post Writing Workbook. You can also keep up with her on Twitter, or follow her company on the Three Ears Media website for more.


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