©2005 Esther Derby

This column originally appeared on

Back in the late 90s, both demand for qualified people and salaries were high. Hiring managers scrambled to make offers within hours of seeing a promising resume and bidding for the best people was intense. It was a sellers market and qualified candidates could pick and choose from among the top compensation packages.

Those days are gone, at least for now.

Many companies (and candidates) are taking a more sensible and reasoned approach to finding a good fit between the needs and wants of both company and candidate.

But in some companies, the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction. Instead of an obsessive focus on chasing the top candidates and offering top salaries, some companies are now focusing on hiring at the lowest salary possible.

My friend, Roxanne, works for such a company, Pennywise Corp. Pennywise immediately eliminates candidates who are asking for the high-end of the salary range for a job. Of the candidates who meet minimum skill qualifications, the job goes to the candidate with the lowest salary requirement. Not the best qualified within the range Pennywise can afford – Pennywise chooses on the basis of who will take the lowest salary.

The people Pennywise is bringing in with this strategy aren’t bad people. But as Roxanne points out, “The people the company is hiring don’t have the experience to do the work the company wants to do. With all the inexperienced people we’re hiring, we’re actually falling further and further behind.”

Even if you aren’t working with truly silly hiring policies, you’re probably working within a budget and have limits on what you can offer candidates. When you can’t find or can’t afford the perfect candidate, what can you do to enable less-experienced or less-skilled candidates to do the work you need done?

Here are some strategies to keep work moving forward:

Hone your hiring skills
In good times and bad, you want to hire the very best people that you can afford.

Look for value. The fact that a candidate lists a lower salary requirement doesn’t mean that he isn’t competent. It may mean that he has less experience or is willing to take a lower salary to move into an area where his experience and skills are not a perfect fit. These may be just the people you want to find.

When you interview, focus on functional skills and ability to learn. Look for how well the candidate’s work style and personality fits with the group. (For more on hiring, read Johanna Rothman’s forthcoming article, Ready, Aim… Hire, which will appear in STQE March/April 2003).

Prioritize relentlessly
Development managers and test managers are always juggling more work than the staff can handle. If you can’t adequately staff all the projects on your agenda, staff the highest priority projects appropriately. Put the lowest priority projects on hold. You can always pick up low priority projects again when the more important work is complete. (But check before you start them up again. Sometimes those projects slip from “low priority” to “no priority.”)

Avoid spreading people too thin
Some people believe that if you move forward a little bit on every project, some how, all the projects will be accomplished. This may work when there is no time frame and no quality criteria specified. For most people, 10% time here, 15% there, in bits and pieces adds up to much less than 100% productivity. To get the most work done most effectively, assign people to only one or two projects.

Manage coaching proactively
Mentoring and coaching is part of the job description for many tech leads, test leads and team leads. There are limits to how much coaching one person can do and still accomplish their own work. Don’t expect 40 hours worth of deliverables each week from someone who is coaching other team members. If you have an inexperienced staff of five or six and one team lead, count on one – two days of coaching time a week for your lead.

Schedule “coaching time” in blocks so that the lead isn’t subject to constant interruptions. An open coaching session where all less-experienced team members attend can provide a good learning opportunity. Each person will learn from the answers to others’ questions as well as their own.

Use reviews and walkthroughs
Reviews are almost always a good practice to consider and they are essential when you’re working with new or inexperienced staff. Technical review aren’t just for developers, any software product can be reviewed: requirements, use cases, designs, test plan, test cases, test scripts, install scripts, and of course, code.

In addition to finding errors, reviews provide passive learning. As with open coaching sessions, each reviewer will learn from the issues they find and from the issues that others bring up in the review.

Walkthroughs focus more on education than on finding defects. Walkthroughs can be an effective way for new people to increase their product knowledge.

The pendulum may have swung the other way for a time, but no matter what the economic conditions, hiring the best people you can afford and managing proactively won’t go out of style.

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