Questions to ask about a candidate

Hiring’s hard, and the cost of getting it wrong can be fairly high. Sometimes new employees will do harm; often they just won’t do as much good as the candidates you didn’t hire. So here are three questions to ask about a candidate that may help you make the best hiring choice.

Do they bring something unique to the mix?

What’s special about this candidate? What in their background and experience is unlike anyone else’s on the team? What about them makes you say “I didn’t know that was a thing”?

The cookie-cutter hiring methods in the tech industry tend to produce teams with a lot of overlapping skills and big gaping holes. Ideally, you should identify those holes, and start hiring to fill them. So when you’re interviewing, focus on what makes a candidate unique, and how they can close the gaps you’re seeing. And maybe, see if they can close gaps you hadn’t even realised you have.

Do they show potential?

Potential for tech writers has two elements: technology and writing.

Technophobes make weird tech writers. Not uncommon, just weird. A lack of comfort with new technology, a reluctance to try it out and come to grips with it, creates writers not much better informed than their readers. So what you’re looking for here is someone who doesn’t mind trying, erring and learning. Someone, in other words, who could potentially master new technology.

Technical writing takes years to master, and it’s not often that you find a relatively inexperienced – or even experienced – writer who can really write. What you can find is someone who can clearly learn to write: someone whose general writing skills are already great, and who shows an ability to break things down to digestible parts. That’s all you need for a potentially great writer.

Are they teachable?

“Teachable” means “able to learn by being taught”, as opposed to either learning only from their mistakes, or not at all.

Not being teachable is one way people waste their potential. It’s obvious for people who won’t learn at all, but almost equally true for people who only learn from their own mistakes. It’s a massive waste of time to repeat everyone else’s mistakes, and limits their learning to what they’ve experienced.

Unteachable people are also harder to manage: they don’t adjust to a new company and team, or to new working methods. They can appear stubborn, when they most likely misunderstand the situation and are perhaps demonstrating a fear of the unknown and – to them – unknowable.

How to find out

The CV and writing samples should get you part of the way; they’re where you can see some of the candidate’s background and writing potential.

For the rest: just ask. Don’t be oblique when interviewing candidates. Preface a question with “I want to see how willing you are to learn from others”, or “I want to find out how comfortable you are with new technology” (saying “I want to make sure you’re not a technophobe” is perhaps a touch aggressive).

The hardest question for people to answer honestly is “What makes you unique”, because the industry encourages a sameness and people won’t always risk being different. If you’ve identified the gaps in your team, ask gap-specific questions rather than generic questions. You can also put some effort into diverse hiring practices, because different backgrounds produce different skills and viewpoints.

If you’re a candidate, and you’re worried about the “unique” question backfiring on you, you can try doing the interviewer’s work for them: what gaps might this position be trying to fill, and why are you the right person to fill them? Spin that as your uniqueness. But you can also give the interviewer the benefit of the doubt: if they asked about uniqueness, maybe they really do value it.

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