Aligning on the Role

11 minutes, 10 links


Updated August 24, 2022
Technical Recruiting and Hiring

You’re reading an excerpt of The Holloway Guide to Technical Recruiting and Hiring, a book by Osman (Ozzie) Osman and over 45 other contributors. It is the most authoritative resource on growing software engineering teams effectively, written by and for hiring managers, recruiters, interviewers, and candidates. Purchase the book to support the author and the ad-free Holloway reading experience. You get instant digital access, over 800 links and references, commentary and future updates, and a high-quality PDF download.

Your team will most likely be involved in the interview process, they may bring in referral candidates, and they will be working with the new hire day in and day out. The team is a resource for defining and refining the role, at any stage.

The process of defining a role may end up being iterative. A hiring manager may have an initial set of criteria, but as you share them with your team, and as you test them out in practice, it’s best to incorporate what you learn back into your criteria. For instance, maybe a certain set of skills is rare and extremely difficult to find; or maybe that set doesn’t really correlate with what you discover you need to hire for. Listening to your team along the way will help you iterate.

Candidate Personas

Some teams fail to fill a role for months, only to realize they were all looking for different things or assessing candidates in different ways.

Finding agreement on certain questions at the role-defining stage will help your team avoid such situations. These may include:

  • Which of these skills are must-haves, and which are nice-to-haves?

  • Do candidates like this actually exist?

  • If so, how do we find and identify them?

  • Would they really want to join our company?

  • Do they have the skills and values needed to thrive in the role?

  • How do we assess each of these skills and values?

Creating candidate personas can help the team align on each of these.

A well-crafted candidate persona puts you in the shoes of your ideal candidate.Krysta Williams, Marketing Content Specialist, ZoomInfo*

A candidate persona is a description of the ideal candidate for a role. Preparing a candidate persona can help the team agree on the types of candidates to look for and how to identify and attract them (especially at the top of the funnel).

Like marketing personas, candidate personas are fictitious archetypes that represent the candidates that might go through your funnel. With a candidate persona in place, your team has a physical document that you can look at together to check for inconsistencies.

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To create a representation of your candidate, here are a few areas to think through (if you haven’t already):

  • Background. What sort of work would an ideal candidate have done in the past and why? What kind of companies might they have worked for, and what roles would they have held?

  • Skills. What skills and experience might they have? Which ones would they list more prominently on their resume or profile and why?

  • Employment. Where might they work right now? An obvious place might be at your direct competitors, but you can get creative. Do you have any functional competitors (companies that employ people with transferable skills/interests)?

  • Job-search behavior. How do they find jobs, or how do employers find them? Would they check job boards? Do they work with recruiters? Do they mainly use their network?

  • Use of time outside work. Are they part of any groups or meetups? Do they spend time on certain sites? Do they contribute to open-source?

  • Long-term career goals. Do they want to specialize in a particular technology? Might they aspire to start their own company?

  • What excites them. Do they want to work on and solve hard problems? Do they want to be part of a company with a positive mission?

  • Decision-making. How else might this candidate make decisions about where to work? What would get them excited, and what would turn them off? Who would they consult with as they were making their decision? What would they research?

It’s important to involve your team, rather than doing this in a vacuum. You can interview top performers on your own team, recruiters, and other hiring managers. You can think back to other people you’ve worked with in your career and consider which of their attributes would make them a good (or bad) fit for your current role. If your team is small, you can use your network and talk to investors, advisors, or managers who have hired for similar roles.

Once you’ve answered these questions and consulted with your team, put what you’ve learned together into a format that is easy to read and use as a reference. You can find structured templates on the internet, but a shared document with a few sentences can be a lightweight method to achieve the same effect. Once you share that document with your team, you can incorporate their feedback to ensure you are all in agreement. If this is your first time doing this, it might be worth getting feedback from more experienced recruiters and engineering managers as well.

In addition to identifying inconsistencies, good personas will help you accomplish a number of essential recruiting tasks that we’ll cover later in this Guide:

  • Craft a role narrative that captures the imagination of your ideal candidate.

  • Select the types of candidates to screen for at the top of the funnel. Based on the personas, what attributes might a candidate exhibit in their application?

  • Identify the channels and messaging to use when reaching out to candidates. Where might you find candidates who are passive, and how can you best get their attention? How might you ensure that active candidates are able to find you, especially at the opportune time?

  • Be prepared to tailor your story and value proposition for each candidate, especially in the first conversation.

danger Personas, if taken too literally, can be overly restrictive and even lead to discriminatory hiring practices. Here are some pitfalls to avoid:

  • Over-generalized assumptions. For instance, a persona for a candidate for an early-stage startup might specify that they thrive under the pressures and urgency they encounter on the job. You might not typically find such candidates at larger, slower-paced companies, but there are always exceptions that you might not want to miss out on. People are unique, complex, and constantly evolving.

  • Sticking to your personas too literally. Hiring clones of your personas will create a homogenous team. Another way to avoid this is to have multiple personas per role. For example, let’s say you need to hire an engineer for a data-intensive early-stage startup, and their work will require both “scrappiness” but also the ability to work with large-scale data. For that position, you could hire someone with a startup background who has an interest in working with large-scale data, or you could hire someone who has experience with large-scale data at a large company but is interested in joining a startup (and has, for example, exhibited that through side projects or attendance of meetups). Those might be two different personas for the same position.

  • Discriminatory assumptions. Correlating attributes to personal details (like age, marital status, or gender) is unfair and illegal.

important Remember that personas are simply a tool for you to use. They are representative and illustrative, rather than prescriptive.

Further Reading on Creating Candidate Personas

Defining Unfamiliar Roles

There are things you may be unfamiliar with and therefore cannot appropriately judge. Not only will a knowledgeable person help you find better candidates (and maybe even candidates who can grow from the small five-person early-stage team to the very different manifestation of the same role when the team grows to fifty people…or five hundred), their knowledge may help integrate the new person more efficiently and help you better appreciate the role.Vinod Khosla, founder, Khosla Ventures*

In some cases, you might find it difficult to even begin defining a role if you or your company have never hired for it before. If you’re in that situation, one solution might be finding someone outside of your company (through friends, former colleagues or classmates, or investors) that you believe—and can validate—has been really successful in that role. Assuming you can’t hire that person, you can at least ask them what characteristics they believe make someone successful in this sort of role, and how they would determine whether someone has those characteristics.

Another potential solution is for you or someone on your team to try to act out the role yourself. That is, you can pretend for a day that you’re the person hired for the role in question. This will reveal any false assumptions you made about the role, specific skills needed that you overlooked, and much more. Wade Foster of Zapier suggests that by doing the role yourself, “you’ll also be able to write a more compelling job description and be better able to define how the role relates to the company and its success.”*

When it comes to an all-new position at the company, we like to try to do it first with the people we have so we really understand the work. If you don’t understand the work, it’s really hard to evaluate someone’s abilities.Jason Fried, co-founder and CEO, Basecamp*

important Depending on the role, your background, and the amount of time you have available, testing the role yourself may not always be feasible. But if there is someone on your team who can act out the role and share their insights, the results can be tremendously illuminating. In addition to helping you get clarity on your needs, the experience will allow you to write a more accurate job description and increase your empathy with the candidates and the person who ends up joining the team.

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