Interviewing a Technical Candidate When You’re Not a Techie

By Paul Falcone July 7, 2020
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Interviewing a Technical Candidate When You’re Not a Techie

Even self-confident managers find it daunting to interview technical candidates. It's easy to feel vulnerable when you're responsible for interviewing, recommending or hiring technicians with expertise beyond your scope. Still, you'll probably have to do it—and make hire/no hire recommendations or decisions at some time in your career. Here's how:

Start by stating your knowledge limitations up front and asking candidates to evaluate themselves according to their own criteria. This spares you the embarrassment of pretending that you understand the technical nature of their job and should provide you with enough information to make an evaluative recommendation based on a candidate's self-analysis of his qualifications, potential of career progression and history of achievements and shortcomings.

Let's assume you're hiring a lab technician who is responsible for gene sequencing, an important role on your team.  Here's how you might start the interview: 

"Laura, as a business manager in this unit, I focus more of my time on the behind-the-scenes administration of the lab. I've got my degree in microbiology, but I'm not as familiar with gene-sequencing techniques. I'd prefer if you answer my questions in layman's terms and teach me what you're doing by explaining it as if I've never had a day of biochemistry in my life. Would that be all right with you?"


Then, ask the candidate to evaluate herself according to her own criteria. You might begin with her current role: 

"Let's look first at gene sequencing, an important part of the position you're applying for in our lab. Tell me about the gene sequencing you're doing at your current organization. What exactly do you do now?"


You'll also want to be sure to ask candidates to talk about the challenges ahead in transitioning from their current companies to your organization based on differences in product lines, computer systems, research methodologies and the like. You might follow up your initial query with a question like this: 

"Your current lab focuses on genome sequencing; our lab, as you know, does cancer genetics. What do you think you'd be doing differently from a gene-sequencing standpoint in our lab as opposed to what you do now in your current lab?"


Then, let the candidate help you assess her technical skills. Ask: 

"On a scale of 1 to 5, how do you rate yourself from a technical standpoint? In other words, if a '1' means you aren't very technically advanced in your field, and a '5' means you truly are 'leading edge' technically, how would you rank yourself?" 


Most candidates will rank themselves as a 3 or a 4, depending on their experience and level of comfort with the position for which they're interviewing. Few will rank themselves a 5 for fear of being perceived as cocky or arrogant. Once they rank themselves as a 3 or a 4, ask: 

"Why would you rank yourself that way?"


Finally, ask the logical follow-up query: 

"What would you add to your background to make you a 5?" 


At that point, you'll have enough information to measure the gap between the ideal credentials and this candidate's background. Still, to help you focus further on the issue of "technical match," ask another follow-up question: 

"Where would we need to give you the most support, direction and structure in your initial employment period to make sure that you excelled in this position from a technical point of view? What else should I know relative to how you see your qualifications for this position from a technical standpoint?"


Armed with this information, you should be able to confidently assess the candidate versus the position to either make the hiring decision or write a recommendation to a hiring manager/Ph.D. biochemist. 

Remember, supervisors aren't always expected to have the same level of technical competence as the people they hire—especially when you are talking about arcane fields of study. By focusing your interview on career progression potential and achievement profiles, you set the stage for counteroffer possibilities, reference checking and salary negotiations. Be sure, however, to be able to touch on the technical aspects of the interview enough to discuss your concerns or recommendations, ask relevant questions and come to an informed hiring decision.  

Paul Falcone (www.PaulFalconeHR.com) is CHRO at the Motion Picture & Television Fund in Woodland Hills, Calif., and author of 101 Tough Conversations to Have with Employees: A Manager's Guide to Addressing Performance, Conduct, and Discipline Challenges (HarperCollins Leadership, 2019).

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