What should I be looking for when hiring a developer?

A creative image showing a recruiter selecting a candidate from a line up
Hiring (Image credit: Bigstock)

Java? .NET? Python? What skills should you be looking for in a developer? The correct answer almost certainly isn’t the name of a programming language.

When Rhona Kennedy of IT recruitment firm Cathcart Associates asked colleagues and clients what they thought were essential, “almost none of it was technical skills… they came back with flexibility, curiosity to tackle new stuff that they’ve maybe not seen before, being humble enough to admit what they don’t know, asking other developers for help when they need it or even just Googling stuff if they don’t know how to work it out… being able to learn stuff by having a go rather than needing specific training or lots of hand-holding.”

Although it can be challenging for candidates to nail an IT interview, by understanding what skills to look for in a developer you can ensure you make both of your lives easier and find the right person for the job.

Attitude vs aptitude

The answers were interesting, Kennedy said, and she had advice for anyone wondering how to explore these attributes during an interview. “That’s when you’d deploy your ‘tell me about a time…’ question. The wrong person would probably say ‘oh, that would never happen because I know everything’, but the right person would probably say, ‘well, I’d be working with a team so I’d bounce ideas off them to see if they’ve encountered it before, or use Google or Stack or GitHub or whatever’… It’s much easier to ask someone to write some code, then look at it and see if it’s reasonable, but these attributes are more challenging to interview for.”

The role of developer is changing almost as quickly as the technology. Don Schuerman, CTO of Pegasystems, explained, “you’re hiring people who need to understand not just how to build software, but how to actually deploy, monitor and support what they’ve built, which is a very different skill set than simply sitting in a cube all day, pounding out some code and high-fiving when it compiles.”

Pegasystems develops low code environments; organisations use its platform to build end products by stringing together functional blocks to create a process that meets their specific requirements, and Schuerman visualises a non-technical end user – or, as he refers to them, “Citizen X”.

“If you think about where tools are going in the AI and data scientist space, I think increasingly you’re going to see citizen data scientists; people who fit in the marketing or strategy or finance team of an organisation, but have at their fingertips pretty powerful predictive models that they’re using to interrogate and make decisions about their business,” he said.

In this respect, the traditional role of developer is being shared with the end user, allowing those who wrangle code within the organisation – further up the data chain – to become more specialised. But this doesn’t mean they need to narrow their focus.

A broad education

Schuerman points out that if you need a particular skill, and there’s no compelling reason to keep it local, “I can go [and] offshore to a place where I can get it done for the cheapest labour costs possible,” which would leave budget and physical space for skills that can’t be outsourced. Such as? “Human connection, the ability to sit down with one human and translate their needs into an actual piece of software. Making sure you’re bringing in people who have those skills, and the flexibility to understand that their role as developer is going to constantly change and evolve, especially in a service world where low code is a large portion of the way in which things get done.”

Schuerman recalls “the early stages of enterprise software development” when recruits’ backgrounds were in philosophy, the classics and more traditional sciences; what we’d now consider less conventional routes to coding. “There’s a part of me that wonders if, in some ways, by [focusing on] specific skill-based training programmes around computer science, not training people on the softer skills, the communication skills, the collaboration skills, the empathy skills, we’re actually missing out. Because if you give me somebody who’s a good problem solver, who knows how to take a problem and break it down into component parts and form hypotheses and test hypotheses, and do that really well, the syntax of getting that into whatever coding language happens to be the language of choice at any given moment is something that a smart problem solver can usually pick up relatively quickly.”

Similarly, Kennedy prefers that clients are open-minded when it comes to balancing what we might consider attributes and qualifications. She sees many people arriving in tech as a second career, lacking a formal computer science background. Ruling out an applicant on that basis “isn’t going to be beneficial because someone who’s inquisitive and curious could pick up new skills really easily.” Employers, she stresses, shouldn’t fixate on a specific qualification. What’s more important is aptitude and a willingness to learn.

Appearances can deceive

“There’s a statistic that a man will apply for a job if he thinks he meets 40% or 50% of the spec,” Kennedy said, while “generally, a woman needs to be quite confident that she has 70% or more of what’s on the spec before she would apply.”


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Naturally, this doesn’t help organisations recruit a diverse workforce and, if women often wait longer than men before applying, firms could be missing out on the best candidates.

So how can they help? “Maybe a different kind of interview,” Kennedy suggested. “But at the same time, you can’t give people advantages as you want to hire the best person for the job… one client that I work with, who is massively keen on having as diverse a team as possible, will always make sure that they bring another female from the team into the interview. Sitting in front of two or three men can be quite intimidating for some women and [it can be helpful] having a slightly friendlier face.”

Beyond the interview, Kennedy recommends that women not be shy to attend meetups or speak at conferences, both of which can help with visibility. She also sounds a positive note for any woman feeling under-represented, since if women have had to work harder to stake their claim within the industry, it might just have given them an edge. “When I have both female and male candidates interviewing, I usually feel slightly more confident about the female… generally, the people skills or that shy, introverted, nerdy developer stereotype doesn’t usually apply to women as strongly as it does to men. So, there are challenges, but I think there are intrinsic advantages, too.”

What should I be looking for?

“Languages,” then, might not be the answer, but language, and how it’s used, may be. Aptitude, attitude and soft skills are increasingly important in a developer. A rigid focus on technical training is likely to rule out some of the best candidates in the first sift, leaving those who are technically excellent, but sometimes a poor fit, to go on to interview.

Developers need to understand far more than frameworks, schema and version control. Increasingly, they need to understand people, too.

Nik Rawlinson is a journalist with over 20 years of experience writing for and editing some of the UK’s biggest technology magazines. He spent seven years as editor of MacUser magazine and has written for titles as diverse as Good Housekeeping, Men's Fitness, and PC Pro.

Over the years Nik has written numerous reviews and guides for ITPro, particularly on Linux distros, Windows, and other operating systems. His expertise also includes best practices for cloud apps, communications systems, and migrating between software and services.