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CXO Tech & Work

How to find and interview nontraditional tech job candidates: Tips for managers

The tech talent shortage may require your company to find job candidates who lack a traditional computer science degree. Here's how to overcome that barrier and find your next top performer.

Video: The 5 best questions to ask during a technical job interview

The tech talent shortage is requiring many companies to think outside the box when it comes to finding employees to fill tech roles. This means looking beyond standard computer science graduates and expanding your search pool to include some nontraditional candidates, including those for whom tech is a second career, those with disabilities, and those from a variety of unrelated backgrounds.

"There are more positions open seeking computer science degrees than there are computer science degree graduates right now," said Blake Angove, director of technology services at LaSalle Network. "So if you want to get your position filled in a timely manner and get the work done, you have to look at more nontraditional degrees."

Often, other degrees include skills that can relate to IT roles, Angove said. For example, LaSalle Network recently placed an IT project manager with a history degree at a company. "They had strong writing skills, they had analytical skills, so those relate well to a project management position," he said. "So even though it's a technical role, the person is doing well on the job."

Here are some tips for finding and interviewing candidates who could make a difference at your company.

SEE: Interviewing guidelines policy (Tech Pro Research)

Revamping job postings

Finding a candidate who can do the job often means rewriting job descriptions, said Mel Hennigan, talent expertise panelist for the Society for Human Resource Management.

"When you start to reverse engineer the position and you can base the requirements on what outcomes you need to achieve, you start to realize you can broaden your pool," Hennigan said. "You no longer have to say, 'You must have this degree to qualify for this position.' Instead, it's 'You must meet these objectives,' and that opens the spectrum up a lot."

Many companies require a bachelor's degree for every position, even administrative ones, Hennigan said. "You should really break it down into what tasks have to be performed in order to achieve success, and then let the best candidate win based on their skills and abilities rather than on their credentials," she added.

For positions such as programmers, it's easy to set up an online test that allows you to objectively judge whether or not they have the abilities to complete the job. "A recruiter no longer has to pick up the phone for the initial screen, when a recruiting tool can provide the candidate with a set of questions that will help qualify them or disqualify them, and it can do so based on their actual abilities rather than their credentials," Hennigan said.

Budgeting for training to catch nontraditional employees up to speed will also allow you to make faster hires, and eventually make your company more competitive, Angove said. "We're finding companies that are fortunate enough to have that budget to provide training or certification are loosening up some of the specific technical requirements and ramping the people up," he added. Building a mentor program is also a successful and cost-effective way to help new employees learn more tech skills, Angove said.

Identifying skills, not degrees

Candidates build skills in many ways, all of which should be taken into consideration, said Kelli Jordan, IBM's talent leader for New Collar Initiatives. "They can build it in a four-year degree program. They can build it in a computer science program at a community college, or in a boot camp," she said. "What we like to focus on is that application of the skill, and a lot of that does come out in the interview process."

IBM performs skills assessments for job candidates, regardless of their background. For example, when interviewing for a software development role, interviewers give candidates a coding exercise, examine their GitHub repository, and talk to them about the code they wrote.

SEE: How CXOs can develop a diverse workforce (Tech Pro Research)

The interview process for all job candidates includes behavioral questions about what a candidate has done previously, such as "Tell me about a situation where you had to evaluate competing priorities." It also includes situational questions, which tend to work well for candidates with minimal experience, Jordan said. These are questions such as, "Walk me through how you might handle an upset client."

"That's going to help you to understand that candidate's thought process and their potential future behaviors, and together, they help you build a really good picture," Jordan said.

It's key to listen for a nontraditional candidate's intent, Jordan said. This person may have some great examples of how they have handled a situation in the past, but they may have applied that knowledge in a different way or setting. "Focus on the skill and the application of what they've done versus where they did it," she added.

Making interview accommodations

To attract more diverse candidates, Microsoft undertook a number of inclusivity measures in recent years, including reworking job descriptions and training managers on interviewing nontraditional candidates, according to Neil Barnett, the company's director of inclusive hiring.

About two and a half years ago, Microsoft created an autism hiring program. Of those hired, about half had applied to jobs at Microsoft previously.

But now, "we train managers and teams ahead of time on neurodiversity and disability etiquette," Barnett said. "We believe that by demystifying and breaking down the stereotypes of disabilities, we can help eliminate any unconscious biases that recruiters, hiring managers and teams might have before they interview a candidate."

Microsoft also trains hiring managers to offer job candidates the opportunity to ask and receive customizations for the interview. This might include performing a technical interview on their own familiar device, spacing more time between multiple interviews, or lengthening the time of each interview--which might allow someone with ADHD or a cognitive disability adequate time to think and respond to questions.

"Managers found that offering customizations have made all interviews more successful," Barnett said. "Asking candidates what they need to have the most inclusive interview experience will pay off in finding untapped talent."

Image: iStockphoto/Wand_Prapan

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