In this post I want to talk about how to hire novel specialists. There have been thousands of pages already written on hiring in-general, and I don’t have anything to add there. However, twice in my career I’ve needed to hire a novel specialist into the organization to bring in new skills. I’m defining novel to mean: someone with highly technical skills that your current organization does not have the capability to evaluate effectively. My hope is that by the end of this post you’ll have a clear idea of how to effectively hire specialists into your organization as well.
Surprisingly enough, I’ve never come across anything written about how to actually hire specialists. For most roles the combination of a strong cover letter, transparent references, and behavioral questions can get to the bottom of a candidates suitability for the role. But for highly technical roles like your first accounting hire, first engineer, or first data scientist, its important to have a good understanding of a candidate’s skill w/in their field as well. In any organization that already has this competency somewhere, hiring for these roles is no different than any other. However, if your organization needs to hire a chemical engineer and you’re all programmers & business people, your odds of hiring a great chemical engineer aren’t great.
Keeping in mind that (at least in my experience) it makes sense to minimize the chances of a false positive when hiring your first XXX, there is a lot you can do to improve your organization’s odds of hiring a great candidate. To start with you need to understand, in as much detail as possible, why you’re hiring for this role and what success looks like. This is no different than hiring for any other role, except for other roles you’ll already have in internal precedent. So, how do you establish a picture of what you’ll need in the role? You do some research. Learn who some of the best at this skill are. Read what they’ve written or watch their talks. Then, reach out to anyone in your network that is in the field or knows someone in the field, then pick their brain. Your goal is to learn what a great first chemical engineer would look like in your organization.
Once you understand what you’re looking for and how you expect the role to fit into your existing org, its time to determine the signals you’ll use to identify potential candidates. These signals should mostly line up with the signals you use when hiring for any other role, except for the technical ones. For the technical skills, you’ll want to distill your research into 3-4 different dimensions you can evaluate candidates on. Combining those dimensions with the standard signals your organization uses for other roles, you should be in a good position to determine most of the interview questions you’ll need.
Unfortunately, because this is a novel role for you, you aren’t in a position to effectively perform a class “whiteboard” skill evaluation on candidates. In its place I recommend one of the following. First, you can use a Socratic questioning approach where you ask a series of questions about the candidate’s experience to determine the depth of their knowledge and skills. To do this effectively you need them to explain the pyramid of increasingly complex concepts that contributed to a project on their resume. This takes a bit of practice to do well, so make sure to practice with your teammates before trying it during a live interview. Second, you can bring in an outside expert to serve as an interviewer. Assuming you were able to get in touch with someone in your network that impressed you, reach back out to them and ask them to help you interview candidates for the role. On the surface this may seem like a simpler option than Socratic questioning, but it requires tight coordination between you and your expert, and trust in your assessment of their skills. There are other options as well - like skilling-up and conducting assessments yourselves -, but in my experience the two options above put you in the best position to effectively evaluate candidates skills without wasted effort.
To recap, hiring a novel specialist is distinct from typical hiring. All the work you’d put into hiring a new teammate apples for novel specialists, but you also need to do the extra work of evaluating skills that your organization doesn’t have. Thankfully, the recipe above will put you in a great position to succeed! Just remember to learn what great candidates look like, figure out which signals identify great candidates, then use an outside expert or Socratic questioning to identify those signals. Good luck & happy hiring!