I often say that there are two actions that define the line management role: one-on-ones and hiring people. This is specially true in growing organizations. If you nail these two actions, you have a good chance to truly influence, the ultimate goal, in my view, of any line manager.
One of the common strategies to speed up the journey from being an Open Source contributor to becoming a Good Open Source citizen is to hire talent with a solid Open Source background. The process of hiring such talent is different from what most organizations and recruiters are used to. That is so true that we have now companies specialized in hiring these profiles.
One key part of the hiring process is the interview, obviously.
This article is another one of those I have written the last couple of years about management topics, based on my experience working in Open Source as manager and consultant. More specifically, it is an attempt to describe some of the key points that hiring managers with little or no experience in hiring Open Source talent need to consider to increase their hit rate.
As usual, I would appreciate if you add in the comments section or to me directly your experience, criticisms or missing points. I would add them to this article as update.
Evaluate the candidate’s work in advance
If you only have room in your hard disk for one takeaway, it should be this point.
Most of your candidate’s work is public. Take the time to evaluate it or have somebody else doing it for you, before the interview. If the candidate have public talks, watch the videos or check the slides. If she has written articles, read them. If she has code available, study it, test it, install it… .
Having the candidate’s work in the open is a double edge sword. It is an advantage for the hiring organization because it can reduce significantly the hiring process, since you can evaluate in detail many of the candidate skills in advance, so the interview process can be reduced to a single interview, for instance (I strongly recommend this, by the way).
At the same time, if the hiring manager do not take the time to evaluate the candidate’s work or even worse, if the manager acts during the interview as if that work is not public, trying to technically evaluate the candidate prior or during the interview, for instance, the failure is almost guaranteed.
I always mention how wrong it is to ask a music group with published records or videos of their concerts available on the group’s website if they know how to sing. Or even worse, to request an audition during the hiring process for your birthday party. Who does that? Instead, watch their performances, skip the audition and go directly to negotiate other relevant points. Their work is public, did you check it?
By the way, the world is significantly larger than GitHub, thanks God. The candidate might have a strong Open Source background without having a great GitHub profile… or no profile at all.
The interview is not just an opportunity to evaluate if the candidate fits in your organization, it is a chance to attract that professional and her colleagues. Remember, the candidates code, processes followed, tooling used… are public. Your organization’s most likely not.
Who has more to inform about?
As result of this reality, the interview should look more like hiring a senior manager/expert than about hiring an engineer.
In summary, the goal of the interview shifts. It should be balanced between what both, the organization and the candidate looks for. This shift represents a challenge for hiring managers with limited experience in hiring senior talent.
Candidate’s future upstream participation
During the interview, be clear about the amount of time the candidate will have to invest in upstream work, specially if he candidate is working upstream already a significant amount of time.
There are plenty of developers who prefer to keep their work in the open as a personal activity. On the contrary, some others want to make a living out of their participation upstream. The best way to ensure a sustainable relation over time is to be transparent about the expectations related with the effort put in internal work vs work done in the open as well as in which projects.
If by working in your organization, the developer will have to reduce her current involvement in the open, specially in specific periods of time, say it clearly. If you cannot guarantee that the technologies the candidate works with in the open will be part of the company’s tools set, state it clearly. If your organization has plans to move towards Open Source and you bring the candidate to speed up that journey, make sure she understands the timelines and expectations.
No matter how experienced you are as hiring manager, there is always room for a candidate to surprise you about her motivations to participate in the interview and potentially join your organization. This is most likely true with professionals coming from an industry you might not be very familiar with.
Tooling, languages, technologies…
One of the great advantages of being an Open Source professional is that, because you use open source tooling, you can take them with you throughout your career, which makes you very efficient. Professionals with a solid Open Source background do not depend on certifications paid by their companies to learn how to use their tools, or having to change their base tool-set regularly, limited by commercial decisions. In other words, Open Source professionals have made their career supported in specific tooling and associated practices they have chosen and mastered. Often, they have even helped to develop or polish those tools. Some of them love to try new tooling on regular basis and some others love to focus their energy in other aspects, not in the tooling or associated processes, so they are conservatives.
In some cases, this specific point is so important for the candidate that using those tools and associated practices represents a requirement to join your organization.
You will need to consider and potentially embrace this reality. If you cannot or do not want to use those technologies or tools, make the point during the interview. But before you do, I recommend consider the following…
Are you open to reconsider such decisions if somebody prove there is something better? Is it something that can be reconsidered next year, when the current support contract for tool X expires? Do you have any specific department or project where you are willing to try new tools, processes, languages…? Are you open to assume that you might have made a mistake in such decision or that those decisions will not stand the test of time?
Many Open Source professionals, for instance, consider that, doing Open Source with Open Source tools is significantly better that using proprietary ones. Why?
At scale, adapting the tooling to the needs of the specific environment and integrate them with other tooling to improve the development experience is essential. Even more that to use a feature rich tool. To have full control of the tool’s evolution in your specific environment is another interesting point… there are many other strategic and practical reasons that leads to that mindset.
Learn from the candidate about those arguments during the interview.
Very often hiring managers see the candidate’s position in this front as religious or philosophical. Instead, I would take it as an opportunity to improve and innovate within their organizations. I suggest to embrace such experience the candidate can bring to your organization as starting point during the interview and take the conversation from there, instead of questioning her criteria and define this point as a no-go early in the interview or the overall process.
Recommendations and referrals
Open Source is about trust and networking, based on the work the potential candidate does within one or several communities. In many cases, the candidate recommendations and referrals come from peers from those communities.
If you are a hiring manager, take those recommendations as seriously as any traditional referral from a senior manager or a relevant figure in any big corporation. They are frequently equally valuable.
In Open Source, you are judged by your work and your influence, not by your position in a hierarchy of any organization.
Get help for the interview
If you have little or no experience with Open Source, bring somebody that do have it to the interview, in addition to a technical expert, specially if you are interviewing engineers. It is not relevant if such person is not an expert in the candidate’s knowledge area of expertise.
I am not a technical person and, when I join such interviews, the hiring manager often learn new things about the candidate because we both (candidate with solid Open Source background and myself) share a similar working culture. This is specially true when the candidate starts to ask questions to evaluate if the company is a good fit for her. In addition, it often plays in favor of the company to show to the candidate that there is Open Source knowledge internally and peers that feel comfortable working there.
Assume the candidate knows about your organization already
Do not underestimate how much candidates with solid Open Source background know about your company before the interview, even if your organization is not an Open Source contributor.
These kind of professionals might learn about your organization not just by interacting directly with your engineers or evaluating your products, but also by interacting with your suppliers and partners in the open, in some cases on regular basis. They might know about the hardware you use, the versions of specific software you ship, tools you use, release strategies you have, updates policies, etc. They might even point at clear deficiencies and strengths of your products and services as well.
I suggest to ask the candidates early during the interview what do they know about your organization and why do they want to join it. It is also interesting to ask about their evaluation/perception of your organization as a whole and your products/services compared to others.
It is not only about getting information from the candidate but also about informed perceptions. Such conversation might help hiring managers to tune the description about what the organization does and avoid providing superfluous information during the interview. It also helps to understand if the candidate is one of those who want to work in industry leaders or help you to become one, which is something I am always interested to learn about them.
Why do you need a CV?
Even today, I still come across former colleagues and great Open Source professionals who do not have a CV. I have helped several of them throughout the years to create one or update it.
For an Open Source professional, their work speak for themselves. It is a better presentation that any CV will ever be, in my view. It is the outdated business culture the one that should change and adapt to this “not so new” way of “filtering candidates”. It is simply better for all parties involved.
Many great Open Source professionals have a mediocre CVs or no CV at all because they never needed it. For some, this lack of CV is a way to filter organizations they do not want to work with. Their thinking goes in the line of… if you need my CV to filter me as candidate or evaluate my work, I am not interested in working with you. Check my work!
Instead of questioning the quality of their CV, take the opportunity to ask yourself why do you or your organization need a CV when the candidate’s work is publicly available. It might be a great introspective exercise. Maybe you end realizing that only a bunch of links and his contact information are really needed, instead of a formal CV.
Myth: Open Source developers are not good communicators
Open Source professionals, specially developers, are used to great levels of exposure to other professionals worldwide. In general, they need to become good communicators to succeed within their communities.
Open Source developers as people incapable to communicate is a myth. Such perception often depends on what you understand by communicating and to whom, but specially it is based on myopia often from people with a limited technical background.
It is true in my experience though that in general, many Open Source developers do not do great interviews. But that is mostly because they do very few of them. They do not go to 10 interviews with four different companies to get a job. They do not need to. And what is more important, throughout their careers, interviews are not used to evaluate them technically, again, because their work speak for themselves.
Evaluate the candidate’s written communication skills. Check the mails they send to dissent with others or describe their position, read the blog posts they write summarizing their latest work, check their presentations, their slides… Check how they interact with their users, code maintainers… You will soon realize they interact with profiles or groups of people on regular basis that many corporate engineers do not. And those interactions often face ore limitations that within any corporation, due to cultural differences.
When talking to managers unfamiliar with Open Source about this point I always ask them how many professionals they know that having done good interviews, are still incapable of standing behind their opinions in a meeting with senior colleagues or customers. Or how many people in their teams excel at describing complex ideas in simple words (in a 10 min presentation, for instance).
Public exposure to peers and users in Open Source projects are an outstanding learning environment for developing certain communication skills. Be careful with this myth.
In Open Source, most of the communication among developers take place in written form. This is due to the distributed and asynchronous nature of the environment they work in (software development at scale). Most of those developers have a better level of written English than spoken.
I always recommend to be careful when evaluating the candidate English skills only through the interview. To have a full perspective of the candidate skills, I always recommend to check her written communications and articles. If they have videos of their talks available, review them. You might perceive noticeable differences between their written and spoken English levels.
When doing an interview, it is very hard to be quick and provide sharp answers without thinking when you do not speak English on daily basis. I have experienced this myself.
My point here is that you might evaluate her English skills as poor based on the interview when, in many cases, they have solid written skills, so they need little time to develop the minimum level required to work in English.
Agile fans tend to underestimate how important it is to have a good written level in English compared to the spoken/conversation level. In Open Source (develop software at scale), the trend is exactly the opposite… for good reasons.
Many professionals prefer to live by the beach, in a cheaper place, than to commute for an hour to go to the office in a big city. At the same time, when developing software at scale, it is unrealistic to think you will find the talent you need in a single location; even in two different locations. It should not come to a surprise that the market is moving towards developing software in distributed environments where remote workers are not the exception anymore.
The number of “remote first” and “remote friendly” companies is growing in number and size at a fast pace. Open Source is about highly distributed, asynchronous and high latency environments. Some of the larger software engineering projects has grown and mature with those characteristics by design.
The candidate has probably made a career out of mastering working on such environment.
Instead of questioning the efficiency of distributed teams during the interview (common practice among remote work detractors, like radical agilists and traditional managers), take the opportunity to learn about it.
If you think that co-located, synchronous and low latency environments are more efficient, ask about how current tasks at your company could be performed remotely, how ceremonies can be adapted, how testing can be performed remotely. Learn from the candidate about how to develop software at scale, how he has acquire such experience and levels of efficiency in such environment.
I have worked in organizations where testing was done remotely, in a heavily distributed environment, for instance. Technology and creativity have made Open Source projects the best environment for developing software at scale. Even if your organization is small, the candidate skills might become an asset.
The network effect
Working in the open provides any professional the possibility of building a large network. That interview might well be the first and only direct interaction that such professionals might have with your company. If the experience is not satisfactory, her network will know.
Would you recommend a person you trust or respect to apply to a company that did not provide you a good experience during the hiring process? And I am not talking about hiring them. I have had good experiences with companies that chose a different candidate during the process. We are grownups. We can take rejection.
By ignoring the point on this article (or others i skipped), you are not just simply making harder for your organization to hire Open Source talent. You are shouting with a speaker your deficiencies.
It is not a coincidence that some corporation with pedigree have such a hard time hiring good Open Source professionals while some others less popular are so successful. It is partly because of the networking effect.
Do it right a couple of times and more talent will come. On the contrary, fail badly and you will pay the prize for some time.
How to move the candidate out of her comfort zone
Part of any interview’s goal is to get from the candidate things she did not plan to show or surface.
People used to work in the open, with high levels of exposure, develop a great sense of correctness and politeness when expressing opinions. That does not mean they are not passionate about what they do or that they do not have “radikal opinions”. They are and you want to know them.
Ask the candidate for her opinions about tools, technologies, projects from your competitors or technologies that the community project they participate on are struggling with. I believe these kind of questions are a fair way to move the candidate out of her comfort zone and get their “essence”.
But when you do, be aware about the trends and debates the candidate and/or the community she participates on have had about such topics. Be careful with making statements that are a no-go for the candidate simply because you did not prepare the interview well enough.
Avoid the typical myths around Open Source, the stupid arguments about battles between communities, superfluous statements about Open Source business models and their feasibility, etc. Instead, ask about, for instance, how do they see their community project in five years, what are the challenges they are facing, what are the deficiencies they need to overcome, etc. Do your homework about Open Source and the specific community the developer is involved in before the interview. Nobody wants to work for a person that seems a fool or lazy.
Again, if you do not know about these topics or had no preparation time, bring somebody with knowledge to the interview or state your ignorance up front.
Radical exposure to peers and users, development of public code, knowledge share with professionals from different industries and global organizations, etc. are characteristics about the candidate that cannot and shouldn’t be ignored during the hiring process, specially during the interview.
Instead of applying the same template that has worked fine in the past for your organization, hiring managers will need to evolve it or even change it in order to attract people with solid Open Source background. This is yet another of those transformations and culture changes that any organization will need to go through to fully embrace Open Source.
To me is very simple, if you want to become a Good Open Source Citizen, you will need to hire people with a strong Open Source background if you intend to speed up the journey. Either you adapt your hiring processes, including the interviews, or you will most likely fail in such goal.
To adapt, hiring managers and experts need to develop new habits. That can only come if they question the current ones. This evolution will take place faster and with a smaller impact for their organizations if they get help.
I think this topic has gotten less attention that it deserves.