Last week, I was talking with a senior technical director who handles major defense contracts for advanced weapon systems. He lamented that he could not find enough top hardware and software engineers because the recruiters he is using are not strong enough to assess technical skills.

The situation was worsened because he wasn’t permitted to discuss the projects with the recruiters other than in general terms. He went on to say his engineering leaders were part of the problem, because all they did when interviewing candidates was box check skills and experience and use random brain teasers to separate the skills-competent engineers into hirable and non-hirable categories.

I offered a simple solution to both problems that I’ve been using successfully for years.

How to assess candidates technical skills

The first problem to address is helping non-techie recruiters interview technical people. I also refer to this as the Sherlock Holmes interviewing technique.

The core of this solution involves asking the candidate to describe the projects he or she has been assigned 90-120 days after starting any new job or being assigned to any project team. During the fact-finding for each assignment I find out if the project was a stretch project or an important project or if it was at or below the person’s current skill level. This quickly tells you what the person’s supervisor thinks of him or her. I then ask what projects were assigned to the person as a result of his or her performance on the first project.

Part of detective work involves finding out if the person received any special recognition for doing a good job. Recognition could be in the form of a pat on the back, some special award or letter, a promotion or simply being asked to handle a critical task. The task assigned usually uncovers the person’s dominant strengths. Doing this for 3-4 jobs quickly reveals if the person is in the top half or top quartile of his/her peer group. (Note: For customer-facing jobs, like sales, consulting or public accounting, ask about the clients the person was assigned to work with soon after joining the team. The best people are quickly assigned to the most important and/or the most difficult clients to work with.)

The assessment point here is that the best people get assigned by those who know them to ever increasing important assignments. They’re given exposure to important people including company executives and clients early in their tenure with a new company and are asked to lead or join critical project teams. As critical, for the strongest people this happens on a regular basis in different companies with different leaders. While non-technical interviewers can’t fully assess technical depth and knowledge, using this approach they can accurately assess the results of the person’s technical, project management and team skillset.

The senior technical director was blown away by this approach and agreed it would be a great method for his recruiters to use. Then he asked what he could do to improve his technical leaders’ ability to assess these same people. I then described one of my favorite assessment techniques inspired by Charlie Rich’s epic song, Behind Closed Doors.

How to work with hiring managers on assessing technical candidates

Over the years, I’ve arranged interviews with hundreds of technical people with hiring managers who were not very good at interviewing. In the beginning, I wasn’t doing any training, but I came up with a technique that worked wonders. It started by asking the candidate to summarize in two or three paragraphs his or her most significant technical accomplishment most closely related to the requirements of the job. This could range from working with marketing on developing the product roadmap and preparing the detailed specs, designing a high pressure valve for use in deep water drilling or leading the UX design for a new e-commerce application.

I’d then send this write-up along with the candidate’s resume to get the hiring manager to agree to interview the candidate. But here’s the kicker: I asked the hiring manager to review in detail the major accomplishment as soon as the interview started and reject the person outright if the accomplishment wasn’t good enough to meet the manager’s requirements for job success. Managers loved this approach. More importantly, the approach minimized the impact of first impression bias and the manager’s tendency to box check skills and ask brain teasers.

The senior technical director excitedly stood up, laughing, screaming “Yes, yes, yes, that would work!” and gave me a virtual high five on his Zoom info conference screen.

While you can’t control what goes on Behind Closed Doors you can certainly set the stage using inference and deduction to assess candidates and by giving both the candidate and interviewer a script to follow. And if you listen closely you’ll hear some screaming behind those doors. It’s likely Sherlock Holmes.