How to spot technical aptitude using an application form?
October 11, 2017 10:06 AM   Subscribe

I want to recruit someone to do some technical work on a family of websites. I can't afford anyone experienced, so I'm going to try to find a smart and capable candidate who will probably take the job to gain experience with the technologies we use and move on after a few years. How do I identify such a person from their application?

This person will document technical processes, raise support tickets, handle basic CMS requests, manage procedures etc. Someone expert in our CMS with experience of producing technical documentation would be perfect, but looking at the job market, those sorts of people earn a lot more than I can offer. So I'm imagining someone with little relevant experience (perhaps someone looking for their first job or returning to work after starting a family or shifting careers from a non-IT background), but a quick learner with an aptitude for the work.

I want to find a way to identify someone who can pick up technologies quickly, who looks at a repetitive task and tries to find ways to automate it, who can see how a procedure might fail and fix the leaks etc. I'm not looking for ways to identify this in the interview, rather I am currently trying to write the requirements for the application form so that I don't end up interviewing dozens of unsuitable candidates.

Asking for experience in specific technologies or in writing technical documentation would exclude the people I want to attract. But what experience or skills can I ask for as essential or non-essential criteria that would enable me to identify 5-10 people worth interviewing? I'm thinking of something like 'experience in using a range of web applications to an advanced level' which is vague enough not to exclude my target candidates, but which would produce answers that might identify the sort of person I want.
posted by Busy Old Fool to Work & Money (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You could present a few real-to-your-world examples in your application for interested candidates to fill in, such as "Here is a scenario, how would you approach this problem?", "Describe, in plain English, how to document this process." and "Here is another scenario, these are our clients, which tickets would you answer first and why?". You may be able to find reasonably suitable and technically sound applicants through an inquiry at the community college level - even some adjunct professors might be interested in a side-gig where they handle this as a supplementary income.

The great thing is, with an adept candidate, you can usually shape them to be the expert you need them to be in your specific software. Getting them to put their problem-solving hat on before they interview is a good weeder method to find the right kind of applicant. Keep it short but sweet on the scenario and description exercises - a handful of questions they have to solve or diagnose will complement a traditional work history/general knowledge application well.
posted by missh at 10:38 AM on October 11, 2017

Ask them what/if they had a problem that needed to be solved technically : what programming languages, concepts they learned in order to complete the task, what they built to do it (a website, a series of macros to save time on a task, a database to store data) and what they learned by doing it. Bonus points if they can articulate what they'd do over again, knowing what they know now and if they'd approach the original problem differently.
(programming languages or general concepts like databases, machine learning) on their own and built something with what they learned.

Also, bonus points for the candidate if they also included cultural changes in that project mentioned above, that may have been needed to be made (not always applicable, but often) in workflow or procedures or conducting trainings for fellow employees/classmates.

I've been in your candidates' situation and have taken the job because even if the money wasn't on par with other places (and it sounds like they won't have a big technical support network/team to bounce questions off of at your office which is a turnoff for potential employees looking to establish themselves into a new role, field) for a few reasons: my employer, the employer had realistic expectations (I wouldn't master the material overnight) (and paying for online classes or resources e.g. lynda or even in-person during work hours), and they had a great culture.
posted by fizzix at 10:39 AM on October 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

Do you have other people doing similar work - senior colleagues, competent management? You could call it an internship or apprentice-level position and note mentorship opportunities and supportive team environment, but only if you are able to provide such things. If you want to pay below market rate, can you offer anything else to an experienced candidate that could offset monetary compensation - extended time off, flexible schedule, distance work? There are likely many people who would do great work for less than market-rate pay if the compensation is offset by flexibility, reduced hours, low stress, and a supportive work environment - for example, people with experience who are also raising 4 kids, or caring for aging parents, or managing a chronic medical condition, or hoping to travel 3 months every year - such a person might be willing to turn in great work on a relaxed, more flexible delivery schedule.
posted by everythings_interrelated at 10:47 AM on October 11, 2017

Response by poster: Thanks for the quick answers so far - there are some useful ideas there.

You could present a few real-to-your-world examples in your application

Ask them what/if they had a problem that needed to be solved technically

Apologies that I wasn't clear. For policy reasons, all I can ask for on the form is their qualifications, skills, experience, knowledge etc. I can't ask them to solve problems on paper or answer hypothetical questions part of the application form.

My question is what skills, experience etc. I can ask about that might indicate technical aptitude. I can probe these at interview.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 10:52 AM on October 11, 2017

I think a good keyword is "scripting" and/or "scripting technologies". Back in the DOS days we'd just call them "batch files" but the word scripting can be a blanket term that implies that you're generating some small-to-medium sized automation to handle data, massage it into a certain form, stuff like that.
posted by JoeZydeco at 10:56 AM on October 11, 2017

Students that have worked in computer labs or journalism (where they may have used WordPress or a similar thing) may have relevant skills or background to get a fast start.
posted by typecloud at 11:29 AM on October 11, 2017

How to spot technical aptitude using an application form?
You can't. At least, not given your restrictions.

Any question you can ask about "qualifications, skills, experience, knowledge etc." will not get at aptitude. They may indicated competency, but you aren't willing or able to pay for skilled competent workers, by your own admission.

If you want to get someone who will take low pay in return for learn-as-you-go type deal, and you cannot ask questions on the application that are designed to reveal aptitude, then my advice is to pick lots of applicants for phone interviews, and use those questions to assess aptitude.
posted by SaltySalticid at 11:38 AM on October 11, 2017 [3 favorites]

You can try asking them an experiential question. These often start with words like “Tell me about a time when,” and are useful in learning about relevant experiences your candidates have had. The specific, recall-oriented framing of the question makes it better than hypotheticals which you can’t ask anyway.

“Tell me about a time when you improved a rote process by trying an approach or tool that was new to you.”
posted by migurski at 9:21 PM on October 11, 2017

You *might* be able to ask about troubleshooting or problem solving experience, or experience documenting things. But that sort of question may be too open ended, in which case... You may be trying to do the impossible here.
posted by Lady Li at 12:25 AM on October 12, 2017

Look for a history of getting stuff done. You don't want "I worked at ABC." You want "I set up a new system to replace an old manual system, and it works great."
posted by SemiSalt at 4:30 AM on October 12, 2017

Best answer: If you can, ask for a (link to a) writing sample: 500-1000 words, on any business-related topic. That'll tell you a lot about whether the person can write documentation. You wouldn't be looking for, "would this be good enough to use," but "is it packed with problems?" Watch for terrible grammar, a tendency to not capitalize the start of sentences, multiple exclamation points, headache-inducing run-ons... even a short writing sample will let you know whether they know how to explain things in text.

If you get to customize the form, ask for "other software experience," with three fields: Expert, Skilled, Beginner. Let them put as many things as they want in those; that'll tell you if they like working with different kinds of programs.

Ask that the resume be no more than 2 pages. If you see one that's longer and seems promising, request that they condense it. A person who can't condense their own experience to 2 pages of info related to this job, very likely won't be able to write documentation that covers the necessary details and nothing more.

Use the details in your post as job requirements:
* Picks up technologies quickly
* Finds ways to automate repetitive tasks
* Spots potential fail-points in processes
* Find ways to "fix the leaks" in faulty procedures
* Can create documentation for existing and new processes
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 2:12 PM on October 12, 2017

Look for any open-source projects they might have been involved with. Nothing say 'shows an interest' better than getting involved without immediate reward. As a personal example, back in the day I did some free tech writing for an Italian IF/Adventure Game IDE and I used that on subsequent CVs, which was a useful lead-in to discuss how my initial start in tech writing had moved into web scripting.
posted by Sparx at 8:16 PM on October 12, 2017

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