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Next are the signals you can collect from all of a candidate’s past roles.
Notable Roles and Achievements
Getting an offer and holding a job at a company that has a well-known, high hiring bar is a notable positive signal. For some companies, the stage at which a person joins may indicate level of difficulty in being admitted; for example, it was probably harder to get a job at Google in 2005 than in 2015. The same caveats apply to name-brand companies as to name-brand schools. Key here are unique high-responsibility roles. Someone who is tech lead, architect, or manager of a team with significant importance to a company is a particularly strong signal.
Notable achievements can include open-source projects, businesses or products built, or patents. This includes traction. Do any businesses or projects (open-source or otherwise) have objective signs of interest and value to others? GitHub stars? Numbers of users? Revenue?
Career Transitions and Trajectory
The set of job transitions a person has had can indicate one of two patterns:
Job hopping. Does the person tend to stay at some jobs for a longer period, or do they tend to move on after a year or so? How much of a signal this is depends on the length of someone’s career so far. For more senior candidates, the pattern can be more obvious.
Very few job changes. Has the candidate been in their most recent job 10+ years? Were there signs of career advancement? This may not be a negative signal, unless it’s most of the person’s career and that past work differs greatly from the new role. If the candidate has only had one role, and that was in a very different environment or domain than the new role, there may not be a fit.
controversy How much you can infer about someone based on “job hopping” is a controversial topic. Switching jobs once or twice quickly is not a negative signal. If a candidate has had six positions, and never stayed at any one of them more than a year or two, that indicates a pattern worth considering carefully. This may mean that they are difficult to work with or have had poor performance in the past. That said, URG employees do leave companies at higher rates, often due to unwelcoming work environments or discrimination, and that’s important to note as another plausible cause for frequent transitions. Overall, it’s important to learn more and discuss with the candidate before judging.
When evaluating a candidate’s career trajectory, a number of factors are worth considering. How far has someone come in their career? How have their roles evolved, and how quickly? Where have their roles shifted?
Career trajectory is one of the more powerful signals a resume carries. However, it can be difficult to tease apart real career growth from flowery embellishments, and to put growth in the context of the candidate’s circumstances. One of the surest positive signals comes from consistent increase in responsibility over a number of years, both within a single company and at company transitions. In a healthy and growing company, such as a mid-stage startup, a strong employee will take on more responsibility every year or two.
The most immediate and obvious way to spot growing responsibility is to look at job titles, but it’s not always that straightforward. Titles are typically not standardized—startups often provide much broader exposure to problems, higher levels of ownership, and more rapid growth opportunity given the distribution of problems to the people able to own them. Reading leveling documents, like Square’s open-source framework, might also give you a good idea of what to look for, but it’s important to remember that most startups won’t be at the point where they have a formalized leveling system. (See Setting Levels and Titles for more.)
Note that at more mature companies, lack of visible promotion may not be a negative signal. At large companies, it can get very difficult to get a promotion, especially when working in hyper-mature product environments. For example, when working on infrastructure at a huge search engine, the only way to get a promotion might be through squeezing nanoseconds of latency out of returned results, after hundreds of other brilliant minds have already tried. Certain types of engineers might be well-suited to this, but others may have a much more rapid trajectory in a broader, more exploratory environment.
Of course, the candidate may have moved between companies often as well, so it’s worth considering if their role expanded or evolved at each transition.
Descriptions of Past Work and Roles
Candidates can also stand out in the way they describe their experience. A candidate’s ability to write about their work with clarity is highly valuable, and is likely to translate to good communication skills in their work.
It’s easy to forget what clear communication looks like because it’s rare; when you read a bunch of bad descriptions in a row, they start to seem normal. And it’s hard to deprioritize or even reject candidates who have gone to great schools or have worked at top companies just because they didn’t describe what they did at their last job particularly well.
importantWhen looking at an actual resume, the ultimate test for whether a description of a role is well-written is to read it, and then try to explain it out loud, in your own words. If you can’t do it, the description isn’t effective.
Especially with nontraditional candidates, good writing is everything, because the rest of their resume will likely not have as much helpful information—either they’re junior or they’ve worked at places you haven’t heard of. In these situations, how well they understand their work and how much they care about it is the best signal you have.
A well-written role description:
Includes quantifiable, results-driven descriptions of the impact of the candidate’s work.
Demonstrates an understanding of the nuance really required to own a function.
Has simple and direct language that’s not fluffy or riddled with obscure or confusing phrasing.
Goes beyond lists of tools to give details of the candidate’s work in the larger context of their team or the company.
candidate When describing past work, focus on giving the reader as much context as they need to understand your role and its impact on the company. What were you responsible for and why did it matter? If there is a role you’re particularly interested in, you may also choose to highlight experiences that represent your interest in that space, or any relevant tools or techniques that demonstrate skill and context. Visualize explaining your work to someone who is intelligent but knows nothing of what you do. Where do you start and where do you end? You probably wouldn’t jump into the middle, with lots of internal jargon or specific bug fixes; you’d go “top down” and explain why your work matters and what makes it interesting or difficult, include any key results, and omit extraneous details.
Note that the same rules may not apply to LinkedIn profiles, as those are in the public sphere, whether a candidate is looking or not, and often candidates who are in high demand will purposely keep their LinkedIns sparse to discourage recruiter spam.
Personal History and Trajectory
Considering how a candidate got to where they are gives insight into their abilities. Some people call this “grit,” or “distance traveled,” or “affirmative meritocracy.” Where did this person begin, and where are they now? Have they come further than one might expect? Are there signs they have overcome significant obstacles in life through hard work or creativity? Candidates with a less advantaged background may have had to work very hard to get to the same position another candidate attained more easily. A job at an elite tech company is much easier to land after a Stanford CS degree than for someone from a small community college far from any technology hubs.
story Many years ago, when I was working as a software engineer at a small company, one of the existing engineers referred a close friend of his from high school. Though they had taken many of the same classes and spent a good amount of time building projects together, their paths diverged pretty wildly after graduation. The employee graduated from a top 10 computer science school. His friend, on the other hand, attended a much lower-tier college for a semester before dropping out, and at the time of the referral, he was doing data entry. When we first looked at the referral’s resume, we had no idea what to do with it, and most people on the team wanted to pass on him. But, one thing on his resume stood out—he had spent several seasons teaching programming at a prestigious summer program for gifted high school students. This type of leadership and initiative were largely at odds with what we expected a candidate with his profile, and ultimately that’s what tipped us into hiring him. To this day (close to a decade later), he works at the aforementioned company, and has ownership over much of the application’s backend architecture. —Aline Lerner, co-founder and CEO, interviewing.io
How Did They Learn to Be a Programmer?
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