Posted On: Friday, 03 July 2009 by Rajiv Popat

Screen And Pick People For Your Team Like Your Professional Life Depends On It.

A very senior manager at Multiplitaxion Inc, has picked a few candidates from the cream colleges out there based on IQ tests and Math questions. He expects me to on-board them on my team and begin their training.

I am looking at his condescending eyes as I speak the unspeakable - "I'll need to interview them again before they join my team. Not all will qualify."

Suddenly I find myself involved in an argument where I'm being asked if I feel that the selection criteria of Multiplitaxion Inc isn't good enough.

Breathe --- I tell myself.

My professional career as a manager at Multiplitaxion Inc, depends on who works on my team and who doesn't.

This is one thing where intimidation and pressure techniques will not work easily. 

No-one is joining my team; not till they give another interview and pass the team's selection criteria. Not till they convince me that they 'fit' and that they have at-least one super-power.

Of-course; they are all 'good' --- I am sure some even smarter than I am; but the question that is on my head is different.

How many of them can clear the litmus tests? --- I find myself thinking aloud.

The Litmus Tests

During the course of working with multiple teams which worked on some decently interesting products; we came out with a set of litmus tests.

Before we go ahead with the whole idea of litmus tests; it is hugely important; dear reader; that you know and understand one dirty little secret of recruiting genuine builders.

This is big.

So big that most managers go into denial when they are told this secret of recruitment.

Steve Yegge; explains this deep dark secret of recruiting genuine builders with true competence in his post on Smart-And-Getting-Things-Done. He explains:

The second prong, that of the ability to recognize true competence, has major ramifications when we conduct interviews. That's what Joel was writing about in Smart and Gets Things Done, you know: conducting technical interviews.

How do you hire someone who's smarter than you? How do you tell if someone's smarter than you?

This is a problem I've thought about, over nearly twenty years of interviewing, and it appears that the answer is: you can't. You just have to get lucky.

So you can go out there; 'formalize' your interview process; conduct five rounds of interviews; check all the past experiences, educational background and take all the IQ tests you want but if interviews are your only means of selection; chances are; that if you are not lucky; you can land up with a hardcore whiner.

Now that you know you cannot pick the most genuine of builders without getting lucky; the best approach; to take; dear reader; is to eliminate as many whiners and the assholes as possible and throw them out of the pool before you get yourself blind-folded and throw the dart.

The more whiners you have been able to weed out before you take your pick; the higher your chances of picking the genuine builders will be.

This is precisely where the litmus tests of recruitment come in.

If you really want to understand what Litmus Tests are take a look at some out there. A very famous example of a litmus test for programming logic is the famous Fizz-Buzz example illustrated at Imran explains:

So I set out to develop questions that can identify this kind of developer and came up with a class of questions I call "FizzBuzz Questions" named after a game children often play (or are made to play) in schools in the UK. An example of a Fizz-Buzz question is the following:

Write a program that prints the numbers from 1 to 100. But for multiples of three print "Fizz" instead of the number and for the multiples of five print "Buzz". For numbers which are multiples of both three and five print "FizzBuzz".

Most good programmers should be able to write out on paper a program which does this in a under a couple of minutes. Want to know something scary? The majority of comp sci graduates can't. I've also seen self-proclaimed senior programmers take more than 10-15 minutes to write a solution.

While FizzBuzz questions act as a good litmus test for programming logic; multiple other litmus tests exist which can help you cover areas ranging from design; testing to general work interest and enthusiasm. Here are some examples of litmus test questions that you; dear reader; can use out of the box to access the overall technical competence, approach and attitude of the candidate.

Tell me any three technical questions that you can answer and then answer them.

Is the candidate lost; can he think of three questions he can answer confidently. Does he stick to simplicity or does he pick a complicated set of questions to impress you and then ends up blowing it. Based on the questions candidates pick; probe deeper and you know who not to hire.

Talk about three of your strengths and three of your weaknesses.

Most candidates when asked these questions describe their strengths rather articulately but come up with ridiculously stupid and artificial weaknesses; the I-cannot-lie weakness being the stupidest example. When you cannot talk about your weaknesses openly it just tells me that either you haven't done any soul-searching what so ever in your career; or you are a blame driven asshole who points a finger at others every time the sky starts falling.

Talk about one project where you were hugely successful and one where you failed miserably.

Any candidate who tells you that he hasn't ever failed falls in either one or all of these categories:

  1. He has never taken a chance and has always remained in the realms of mediocrity.
  2. He is a compulsive liar.
  3. He goes in denial mode every time he encounters a failure. Chances are that he loops in the infinite loop of failure all the time.

Failures in your professional life are just as important successes. After all if you haven't had seriously colossal fu@#k-ups and failures chances are; that you haven't learnt enough and that you're not going to be successful.   

The Thing About Litmus Tests.

"Ok Pops. I get the idea." --- you say.


Now you can go out there and create a few of your very own litmus tests. The one thing to remember about Litmus tests is that they are not supposed to help you pick the genuine builders for hiring. All they are supposed to do is weed the whiners out. Put simply; the fizz-buzz question; for example; will not tell you if a candidate is a good programmer; but it'll tell you if he is a bad one.

Go prepare your own set of litmus tests that are based on your selection criteria and weed out as many whiners as you can. Then take a chance and hope that you get lucky.

I wish you good luck.

What do you do to weed out whiners and pick genuine builders who; if left alone will automatically create remarkable work and play environments?

How many times have you been successful in picking genuine builders and how many times have you failed?

What litmus test questions do you use while interviewing candidates, dear reader?



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