How To Hire Top Talent

You want to hire a fantastic DBA or database developer.

You want someone who can hit the ground running, who you can trust to maintain your current system and tune it like a pro. Plus you want someone who can see key improvements, communicate effectively, and drive change in your system.

You want it all.

It’s incredibly hard to find this candidate. First of all, you’re not the only one looking.

But guess what? You’re probably looking for the wrong person. And you’re almost certainly asking the wrong questions.

Newsflash: You’re Not Looking To Hire an IT Pro Who’s Done the Same Job Before

Hiring top talent just got a bit more fashion flair
It’s hard to hire people who are superstars and don’t have something unique about them. Like a mask.

I’ve talked to many hiring managers about what they’re looking for and how they look for it– I’ve asked these questions both as a candidate and as someone who’s helping them find the right person. I typically hear this:

I’m looking for an IT pro who has five or more years of experience with our technology, is an expert in several of those areas, and who can communicate effectively.

This limits your field too much right from the start.

Managing and developing data environments is interesting because of the variety of work available. There are common patterns and practices, but environments are highly unique and technology varies widely.

Say you want someone who’s worked with highly available internet applications. Is the person who’s already worked with a website just like yours and happens to be looking for a job now necessarily the best person?

Instead, consider this:

I’m looking for an IT pro who adapts quickly and has five years or more of experience managing or developing data environments. Strong production change experience is absolutely necessary.

There are small changes here, but it makes a huge difference. You’re open to many more people, but you’ve specified if there are any particular types of experience that are absolutely required.

Maybe you’ll find someone who hasn’t worked on Windows in several years, but has an interest in your company. Maybe they’ve worked on related technology, but different components than the ones you use. Don’t shut them out. Instead, open your mind.

Break Out of the Recruiter Room: Ask the Right People “Who Is A Great Candidate?”

Your recruiting staff is overworked. They use common tools for hiring for different departments– they probably have one or two websites they post to regularly and some established channels for finding candidates.

You want more. You need to use smart alternatives to find great candidates. Here’s how you do that:

  • Write a good job description. The job description says a lot about your business and you as the hiring manager. Write it like you care. Think about the person you’re looking for, not just the position you’re trying to fill. Be clear if the job entails on-call duties. Mention if you have a flexible working option, and if relocation is available. Please– if you list requirements for “X years with Y product”, make sure you get the product name right and that someone can realistically have been working with it for that number of years. (I don’t have 10 years of experience with SQL Server 2003, and I never will.)
  • Throw your net wisely. Find out where your recruiters are listing, and supplement with other sites if you can. Not all recruiters post on StackOverflow.
  • Use your network. Let your network on LinkedIn, FaceBook, and Twitter know that you’re hiring. Send emails to former colleagues who may have leads.
  • Reach out to community leaders. Drop a line to community leaders in the area you’re searching. Include the job description. Ask if they know anyone great who’s looking, and ask them for feedback on the job description. You can find these leaders on Twitter and in blogs. (We’re happy to help.)

You Won’t Hire a Great DBA or Developer By Asking Boring Interview Questions

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been asked about the difference between a clustered and non clustered index, I’d be blogging from a private island. Questions like this imply you’ve phoned it in and you don’t really care about your candidate.

Don’t try to find experts with nit-picky questions, either. If you have Senior SQL Server DBAs ons staff, they probably think your next Senior SQL Server DBA should be able to wax poetic on how to change collation or write a dissertation on the nuances between data types. Once you work with a product for a while and you do certain things you get this mindset– everyone should know that. But this knowledge is typically based on how your own applications are developed.

These questions also turn off great people. Your best candidate may or may not be able to answer these immediately in extreme detail– but if they couldn’t, they could find the answer and test it out in a matter of minutes. So why not find that out?

Screen candidates by asking about their experience, not about your own experience. Become good at asking probing questions, and drive through the experience questions to find out what knowledge they have about the technology they were working on.

If you don’t have a big support team and you need someone to come up to speed immediately, don’t panic. Ask questions about times when the candidate needed to learn new skills quickly. Spend time on it– find out how much they remember and what they found difficult. You want someone who can learn, and who can describe hurdles they’ve overcome in learning in the past. Your great candidate is someone who knows that not everything comes easily, and they’ll tell you about that.

Use Timed Labs in an IT Job Interview

If it’s critical that your new hire already have certain skills, don’t try to determine that with Q&A.

Set up a VM with an environment job candidates to work in. Build questions, or have someone build them for you. If you really need those skills immediately, they should be able to fix broken things in that environment, and do it under a time limit with someone sitting in the room with them.

If they’ll have the internet available to them while they work, make it available in the lab environment, along with any standard tools.

Call in an Interviewing Professional

What if you’re in a small company and you need to hire an expert in an area where you don’t already have an expert? How do you know to ask the right questions or set up the right lab?

In this case, build the parts of your interview that cover team fit and interaction with related teams on your own. For the specialty area, rent an expert.

Be Consistent Across Job Interviews

This is a trick. Because guess what? In order to be consistent, you have to be prepared.

It’s good to be consistent for HR reasons, but it’s even better to be prepared with a set of good questions. And make sure that all your interviewers across different sessions know what they’re asking about, and have a set of prepared questions to ask as well.

You won’t end up having the same conversation over and over again because good questions start conversations where you use good follow up questions, or probing questions.

Never forget: top candidates are interviewing you, too. They have choices and they’re judging on multiple criteria, including team dynamics, manager effectiveness, and whether you appear to have your SharePoint together.

Prepare your questions and be a little serious, but also be human and have some fun. Share interesting things about your business and your team. Show that you listen. Listening makes you interesting. Top talent often will pick the team that’s fun and interesting over the boring team that pays a little better.

Make sure that you do your research and read the candidate’s blog. Make a place in your interview structure where you ask the candidate about specific blog posts they’ve written. Ask why they did something a certain way, or what they might do differently now.

Are Your Change Management Styles Compatible?

There are cowgirls and there are bean counters, and there’s everything in between. Allow a little time before you start asking about the candidate’s change management process and style– because this candidate should be asking you about that.

Make sure that you cover this in the interview process at some point. You want to find out how the candidate handles change and if they can fit well with your process. If you have a really heavy process, it may drive them nuts, and cause you endless trouble. The opposite can also be true.

This is also a good place to find out how your candidate has handled errors in the past. If you’re looking with someone with experience handling critical downtimes smoothly and calmly, devote a lot of time to asking them about past situations and how they handled it. You may also include several hypothetical questions in a time limit, in either a written or verbal format.

Ask Candidates for Feedback

Let every candidate know at the end of their interview loop that you welcome feedback about the interview experience at any time. Make sure they have your card with your email address. If they send you feedback at any time, read it, keep it, and review it later. You may see patterns you want to change.

You Can Hire a Top DBA or a Superstar Database Developer

You can hire great talent. When you do, you’ll find they aren’t what you picture ahead of time.

They have a varied work history, possibly. They may be significantly older or younger than you would expect. They may not have the degree you’d assume. But they have a passion for data, an enjoyment for learning, a love of technology, and a level head on their shoulders when everything goes down— and that’s all that matters.

Previous Post
The $1,000/Hour Consultants
Next Post
SQL Server 2012 CTP3 is Here! Five Things to Know About the Next Version of SQL Server

19 Comments. Leave new

  • A lab is not something I have done in the past but it is a great idea.

    I think the most successful people I work with know that they still have stuff to learn. I look for this in every candidate I interview.

    • Glad you like the lab idea. I’ve done it and it was completely worthwhile.

      The lab doesn’t have to be very time consuming to set up, either. Definitely virtualize– you can use a virtual machine using Virtual PC or VirtualBox if you don’t have a larger virtualized environment. This makes it easy to reset the lab between candidates.

      The questions can be a mix of “fix this problem” and “make a recommendation about possible changes” questions as well, which is really interesting.

      • in 20- years I have interviewed at *one* company that had a lab in the interview. Ended up being a fun contract in part because the people there were not interested in showing off about esoterica.

  • Brady Upton
    July 11, 2011 9:59 am

    Couldn’t agree more with this article. There is so much to learn about SQL Server, there’s no way one person can know it all. Way to go Kendra!

  • In my v. limited and mostly non-technical experience, I’ve found that the companies who judge candidates based on more their personalities and potential to fill roles than on their experiential knowledge seem to have the most engaging workplaces and devoted employees. You can always teach someone how to do something–teaching how to be</em is much harder.

    • Hiring can be so hard. One of the worst hires I ever made was a *perfect* technical fit. But the day-to-day team fit was a disaster, and when things went wrong this person just didn’t want to help out. (Ever.)

      Many of the best teams I’ve been on have been incredibly diverse– what people have in common is an aptitude for learning and a willingness to share information. And for some jobs: the ability to not panic under pressure. Those things sound simple, but they’re really advanced skills.

      • People who typically have this skill set have paid little attention to selling skills, so they are not the best at promoting themselves particularly in an interview setting. They promote themselves through the extra effort in their work.

        Also, curiosity (interest in new fields and continuing professional development) and passion for their field are great indicators. Candidates with those qualities will do whatever it takes to be successful.

  • I LOVE the lab idea and with personal virtualization (i.e. MS Virtual PC, VirtualBox, VMLite, etc.) it’s such an easy thing to setup. I think I may get Adam to implement that here with the DBA candidate interviews. Gets very boring going through a static checklist of things instead of seeing people in action.

    • Definitely– having a lab frees you up to talk about more interesting things. That helps sell the candidate, too– if the interview loops are set up so the interviewers get bored, they’re going to feel it.

  • Robert Miller
    July 11, 2011 11:37 am

    I agree with Claire. In fact, this was a standing motto at a previous employer — Someone may not have all of the skills we are looking for as we can teach missing skills, but a clashing personality cannot be corrected.

    Like everyone else, I have never of setting up a lab environment. In the past, I usually put someone in front of a white-board, but considered this to be limiting without Internet access and the lab environment better represents a normal environment.

  • Wickedly insightful post!! My primary take-away as a future hiring manager is the conistency of interviews across candidates. It makes perfect sense when reading it objectively, but I am amazed at how many interviews are done completely off-the-cuff and consistency in questioning and tactics are thrown to the wind.

    Thanks (once again) for an enjoyable read!

    • I’ve been in some interviews where the questions are so haphazard that you wonder– did they forget I was coming today?

      Having consistent questions really frees you up to pay attention to the candidates. As long as you’re asking them about experience and can do good follow up questions, you’ll never get bored or have the exact same interview twice. But you’ll always seem collected and organized.

      • I’ve had that happen, and it’s often “X is out/busy, so I’m sitting in instead”. Boy, that gives you the warm and fuzzies, doesn’t it? Heck, I’ve had interviews where I got two different impressions of a company from different interviewers.

  • Great post, Kendra. I’m amazed sometimes at interviews (and interviewers) who are looking for right answers out of BOL. I care about someone’s experience, and assume based on their other well rounded skillset, have the ability to look up some specific WITH clause in BOL. I love giving interview questions that paints a scenario and I see how they answer it. It shows me their thinking skills, troubleshooting methodology, etc.

    Another problem is that for that “all in one” person you talk about earlier in the post, often times people aren’t willing to pay for that expertise. I get pings all the time to do A through Z, yet completely lowballed in price. What I sometimes tell those people (nicely of course) is that if you can find that person for that price, snag them!

    When I’ve been on the other side as an interviewee, I couldn’t agree more with the fact that I’m sizing them up as well. I’ve had more than one interview experience in my career where on paper things seemed great but there was something about some of the people or the company that put me off after going through the in person experience.

  • “Write it like you care.”
    I hope I see more job descriptions written with care. At least in my experience, I haven’t seen a lot. I definitely like this article!

  • Wow… you hit it right on the head in the last paragraph with “passion for data”. To me, that is what separates the good from the great.

  • Pavel Nefyodov
    July 13, 2011 3:30 am

    Kendra – This is a little gem “I don’t have 10 years of experience with SQL Server 2003, and I never will.”
    Once I have been interviewed for a job and member of panel (who was the head of their IT BTW!!!) said that they have saveral “SQL Server 2003” and JD literally asked for “N years experience with SQL Server 2003”. I thought this is happenning to me only!

  • Thanks Kendra. I appreciate the time and effort you put into this post and it really resonates with me. I’ve had interviews ranging between the negative extreme of “…ok so tell me everything you know about database technology including change control, administration, storage concepts and security management in 5 minutes….GO!” type to very thoughtfully laid out and executed “discussions.” I have to say I much prefer the latter type but the former have a use, too, as an interviewing skills sharpening tool and a second interview repellent 🙂

  • Kendra, I just love this post.Feel like reading it again and again.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.