Is an openness to growth more valuable than hard skills?

Oct 20, 2016

Hiring technical people — particularly experienced software developers — is hard work. In Melbourne, the market for experienced Ruby on Rails developers has spiralled out of control. Demand has surged due to the presence of local Rails-based behemoths with deep pockets. Posting to social networks, job sites and discussion groups with expectations of Rails experience has yielded us sparse results. We knew the answer wasn’t to lower our expectations, but instead change what we were actually looking for. And by searching instead for a mindset that favours learning and growth we’ve managed to find some great people. Read on to see if this approach could work for you…

Growth is key in an industry of rapid change

It would be ideal if every candidate we interviewed had both the requisite skills and the hunger to learn more. The software development industry is unkind to those who sit still. The learning is constant; as the technological landscape shifts, so must we. Most developers (except those burrowed into some enormous enterprise keeping the wheels greased) can recount a long list of specialisations they’ve obtained before reaching their current area of expertise. Those who cannot keep pace (either through lack of will or opportunity) find themselves underemployed, stuck maintaining the same old pile of legacy code year after year. As the old cliché goes, “What if we train people and they leave?” … “What if we don’t and they stay?”

If you had to choose between the skills and the hunger to learn, which would you choose? For full-time employees in a fast moving industry, hunger is vital. A love of learning and a history of picking up new things are key pre-requisites of a development job with TrikeApps. If we need experience in the short term, we reach out to contractors and freelancers and try to facilitate knowledge transfer between the short- and long-termers. We have candidates complete Big 5 personality profiles in the first round of our recruitment process — not as a filter, but as an indicator to the sorts of things we may want to poke at in subsequent interviews.

Is hunger any good to your team if you don’t feed it?

There’s an inherent danger in selecting for these traits — if you stay still too long, technologically speaking, your team may become bored and look for the shiny new thing somewhere else. In a previous post, I wrote about the University of Trike: a collection of courses our team has put together to encourage exploration, sharing and learning of both technical and non-technical topics. Open debate about whether a particular technology stack is appropriate for a particular job is also important. A team that understands separation of concerns should be designing applications that can be incrementally updated to the latest, greatest and most appropriate piece of technology for the problem you’re trying to solve.

The desire to learn trumps all else

There will always be a baseline skill level you’re willing to accept as an employer, but a belief in oneself and desire to improve always trumps dot points on a resume. We still look for strong problem-solving skills and software development experience, but we’re less fussy about the technology stack. I’m not advocating a blanket hiring policy on anyone who manages to game a personality quiz. Being open to individuals with diverse backgrounds and the right attitude opens up your candidate pool and may result in you discovering exactly who you want to surround with as your organisation grows.

What’s your criteria? We’d love to hear about your experiences.

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