Desired Traits and Values

6 minutes, 11 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.

In addition to skills, it helps to consider what traits and values could help a candidate succeed in their role. In a startup, you might need people who are highly adaptable to changing circumstances and are able to weather the volatility and ambiguity that come with building an early-stage company; or you might be looking for highly mission-aligned candidates who share your company’s vision.

I always made it a habit of talking to people that I knew de facto were world class, and then asking them specifically: ‘What are the key traits or characteristics that you look for? What are the questions that you ask, and how do you find them? And if you’re looking for the next person that’s as good as you, where is that person working right now?’Ben Silbermann, co-founder and CEO, Pinterest*

Traits are characteristics of a person that describe how they tend to feel, think, and behave, such as patience, adaptability, and being detail-oriented.

Values are fundamental ideas and beliefs that guide a person or organization’s motivations and decisions, such as honesty, transparency, and being helpful.

If your company does not yet have a clear set of values that will help you assess candidates on that dimension, visit Appendix B.

Many engineering leaders have very specific traits and values that they viewed as highly predictive of on-the-job success:*

  • Dave Story, who has built teams at Intuit, Adobe, and Tableau, always tests for “self-motivation,” or the desire and ability to perform well and work hard even without oversight or encouragement.

  • Jean-Denis Greze, head of engineering at Plaid, looks for a focus on impact—the desire and ability to perform even without oversight or encouragement—as a highly prized personality trait.

  • Ozzie Osman, Monarch co-founder and former Head of Product Engineering at Quora,* advocates for finding people who value conscientiousness.

Thoughtful leaders all have something they look for in hires—and it takes experience to know out how to find it. Ozzie Osman shares why he prizes one trait above all others, in “Hiring for Conscientiousness: Why startups should hire conscientiousness people—and how to find them,” on the Holloway blog.

caution Traits and values can be viewed as an extension of nontechnical skills, and many companies combine them into one bucket called “culture fit.” This can introduce dangerous biases that hinder diversity and downgrade your hiring standards.

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Instead, we advocate splitting nontechnical skills—which are often more learnable (like communication skills)—from personality traits (like low ego and adaptability) and values (like honesty and transparency), and being very structured about what each quality is and why it matters. That said, the line between nontechnical skills and traits or values is not always clear. Other ways of considering these qualities include the following:

contribute Do you have a great resource to help candidates and companies think about traits, values, and nontechnical skills? Or would you like to write about the topic for Holloway? Let us know!

Mission-Driven Candidates

Hiring: values first, aptitude second, specific skills third.Sam Altman, chairman, Y Combinator*

Veteran venture capitalist John Doerr once said that he prefers to invest in entrepreneurs who are missionaries, not mercenaries. The same can be said for hiring, especially if your company has a strong mission.

Hiring for mission means that you seek out and hire candidates who resonate with and are motivated by the impact your company is working to have. When hiring for mission, you might seek a candidate with passion accompanied by qualities like intrinsic drive and raw intellectual power, and weight skills and experience much less critically. Note that this is stronger than just considering passion for the mission as one hiring criteria—it entails viewing passion for mission as the main hiring criteria. The underlying belief is that if you find someone who is motivated by your mission, is intelligent, and is highly motivated, these things will be better indicators of success in the role than previous experience or meeting a laundry list of hard skills. As Mark Suster suggests, “Choose attitude over aptitude.”*

Desired Experience

When defining a role, it’s crucial to consider its level—that is, what degree of experience and impact you need and expect from a candidate. Are you hiring a junior engineer, where they may require a significant amount of time to ramp up, or should they have enough experience to be able to hit the ground running? How independently can they operate? Are they going to be given well-defined tasks to execute, or will they have to proactively identify problems and break them down into solutions? How much of their role is individual work versus influencing and leading others?

In general, for higher job levels, less guidance is needed to achieve an outcome, and greater impact is expected of candidates. In a more senior candidate, this represents a mix of technical skills, soft skills, and experience or talent in technical leadership or management. Such candidates typically have more overall experience than junior employees, or have been at the company longer. A senior employee may be more involved in high-level planning and directing junior employees in the day-to-day work needed to meet an outcome, deadline, or goal.

GitLab distinguishes between increasing degrees of values alignment, technical competencies, and leadership competencies across their seniority levels, which they present in a career matrix. As an engineer progresses through levels of experience, they are expected to take on more capacity in each of those three domains. In particular, as the engineer’s level of seniority increases, they must handle a higher degree of ambiguity along with a greater scope of responsibility (The discussion on levels in the next section goes into further detail). GitLab captures this succinctly: “The most senior engineers may even be in a position where they know that something is wrong, but they are not exactly sure what it is—and they work to define the problem.”

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