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For many leaders at many organizations, it’s tough to hire a tech team. After all, while you have a deep understanding of your own business, if you’re not a software engineer or IT specialist, it can be difficult to tell if the person you’re talking with can actually do all that wonderful stuff he or she is promising. (That’s why you need help in the first place!)
A lot of business owners and executives without technical expertise often select their engineering hires or partners based on the things they are more confident assessing – how well a person presents and the cost of hiring that person or team. And while those metrics are certainly helpful, they are often not the best metrics to figure out if the person or the firm you’re interviewing can actually do the job well.
That leaves many executives hoping for the best and crossing their fingers. Given that IT budgets are often some of the biggest costs for an organization, given how critical these systems are, and given the increase in cyber attacks, choosing incorrectly can have dire consequences.
I’ve led three different technology companies over the last 15 years and have seen a lot go wrong. Today, as Chairman of a software development company called Plan A Technologies, one of the most common requests I hear comes from leaders who have chosen incorrectly…and need us to help bail them out of a bad situation.
So what are some of the pointers we share with our clients about how to avoid such situations in the future? Here’s a quick list of what you should be listening for and what you should be saying.
Cover the basics
Make sure the person or the firm you’re talking to is friendly, easy to communicate with, follows up quickly, and behaves professionally in all your interactions. Make sure to ask for (and check!) references, and make sure those references are from legitimate companies and not friends and family.
Are they asking multiple relevant questions?
The external firm you hire or the individual you hire should have a lot of questions for you about your vision, the problems you may be facing, and your current tech stack. They should be asking about how everything has been designed, where everything is hosted, the front-end and back-end technologies that were used to create or integrate your applications, and more. In addition to technical questions, external firms should ask at least a few big-picture business questions as well: about your timelines, budget, how you’d like to differentiate yourself from your competitors, etc.
But are they only asking questions?
Yes, questions are good. But at a certain point, they should also be making suggestions off the cuff. There’s an old saying in writing: show, don’t tell. The same is true for a good engineer or software engineering firm. During your conversation, they should be showing you how much they know about the issues by speaking about potential solutions, potential pitfalls, and more.
Are they condescending?
Mediocre engineers often throw around a lot of technical words and try to intimidate a non-technical audience by showing how much more terminology they know. But great engineers are usually also great teachers and have no problem explaining complex concepts to a non-technical audience.
Do they seem to know your industry?
Ahead of time, check their history to see if they’ve worked in your field before. And when talking, ask yourself: Do I believe they’re capable of handling my business? This is something you can question them about with confidence—after all, you know your business. Ask specific questions about how they’ll handle your specific needs. If you’re unsatisfied with a response, ask follow-ups.
Can they talk details?
Let’s say they show you a case study about building a mobile app for a hospital. Even if you’re not experienced in health care, you can still dig in: Walk me through how you built it. What was your biggest concern going in? How did you handle privacy information? Did you find a way to show ER wait times? Etc.
Can they spot the trick?
Do some research ahead of time about a technology that’s pretty new (say, 4 or 5 years old). Then ask: “Do you have at least ten years of experience with X?”
If they proudly say they do, it’s time for the next candidate.