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Hiring these days is anything but ‘business as usual.’

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Amid a heated race to attract skilled developers and a shortage of senior engineers, companies are quickly altering their strategies – and that means putting the focus on junior developers.

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But that’s not all that’s changed. A huge 40% of organizations now regularly hire candidates from non-academic backgrounds. From bootcamp grads to self-taught coders and late bloomers, today’s talent pool stretches far beyond a few select universities or internship programs.

As Principal Engineer at CoderPad, I’ve seen this paradigm shift play out firsthand. In the last few years alone, there’s been an explosion of online resources that make it possible to gain coding skills from anywhere.

Lots of companies may feel skeptical or nervous about hiring someone without several years of experience under their belt. It’s a big investment, in both time and money, to bring a junior engineer onboard.

But there are also huge payoffs. Bringing in folks with a diversity of experience and backgrounds helps you build better products. Mentoring new hires offers growth opportunities for senior staff. And you’ll be creating a pipeline of engineers to promote from within who know your product inside and out.

I’ve conducted hundreds of developer interviews, and the best junior hires have a number of things in common that you can spot in the hiring process. Here are my top tips for making sure you catch them.

1. Start with a reliable skills assessment and a standardized live interview

The base requirement for any role, of course, is whether they have the skills to do the job. But if someone is just starting their coding career, their CV is not going to help you figure that out. Instead, skills assessments are the best tool to identify quality junior candidates. In fact, almost 60% of recruiters are ready to ditch the CV altogether.

Skills assessments offer insight into what candidates already know, how they approach unfamiliar questions, and where their problem-solving processes lead them. Let’s break down how you can develop best practices for tests that save time and identify good fits.

Large organizations and high-volume hiring

The more hiring you need to do, the more you’ll want to rely on automated screening. There’s a world of difference between staring down 500 candidates and 25, and these tests are usually the best way to make things manageable at high volumes.  But that’s not all an automated skills assessment can do.

I’ve found the best outcome of these tests is establishing a clear line between excellent, mid-range, and inadequate junior engineers. Although it might be easy to eliminate the ‘definite no’ applicants, it’s often much harder to distinguish the good and the great. That’s where assessments with a clearly-defined scoring system come into play.

Your test should incorporate questions that prompt candidates to search for an unfamiliar process or break down a complex problem with multiple inputs. That way, you get a more nuanced read (plus a corresponding score) on candidates from the very beginning. It also tells you who’s ready to go the extra mile, even if their answer isn’t perfect.

I recommend tailoring the exercises to be relevant to your product or business. You’ll stand out in the eyes of the candidate and get a better take on how their skills match with the actual work they would do in the role.

Hiring on smaller scales and conducting live interviews

If you’re hiring smaller numbers of engineers, it may make sense to use partner programs that identify talent for you. Many organizations (CoderPad has worked with YearOne, for example) can match recent bootcamp grads with new job postings and boost your company’s visibility.

After you’ve cut down the first round of candidates, there’s still the matter of conducting live interviews effectively. Start by coordinating feedback protocols among all interviewers and ensure questions are introduced in the same way. Standard interviewing procedures are essential for minimizing bias. Then, send candidates any relevant information on the live coding environment ahead of time to minimize surprises.

The live interview is a great opportunity to dig deeper into candidates’ problem-solving skills. To get the most out of your one-on-one time with candidates, I recommend choosing a platform with real-time feedback options, collaboration tools, and playback so that you can review candidates among a wider hiring panel later on.

2. Emphasize communication skills

Communication skills are equally important to technical know-how, especially as remote and hybrid work have become the norm.

By nature, a junior engineer will work closely with experienced team members on every project.  That’s why it’s crucial to be able to ask the right questions, flag issues proactively, and, above all, learn from senior engineers. So how can you spot communication skills in a short interview?

Live coding interviews are both a way to gauge skills as well as to get a read on culture fit. Does the candidate work together with the interviewer? Do they ask questions along the way and inquire for clarifications? These all demonstrate the potential for growth and ownership that we look for in engineers of all levels.

You can build communication ‘tests’ directly into the hiring process by pairing up candidates with team members from across the organization. For example, schedule a session with a product manager or designer and see if they can establish a productive dialogue. In an evolving company, cross-pollination is the norm – prioritizing communication among engineers pays dividends, so make it an imperative from day one.

3. Prize curiosity above all

You’re hiring a junior engineer to be in a stronger place a year or two from their start date, not to be a fully-autonomous team member right away. With new tech stacks, varying processes, and more, entry-level developers will be required to navigate new experiences every day. That’s why curiosity is the ultimate intangible, must-have quality. Seek out engineers who embrace challenges and don’t shy away from unfamiliarity.

The developers who make significant impacts – regardless of prior experience level – always possess an independent hunger for growth and an eagerness to try what works while learning from what doesn’t.

Bootcamp grads, for instance, might only have exposure to Javascript; from a strictly technical standpoint, that doesn’t give you a lot to work with. Look for a portfolio of personal projects and ask them about how they approached problems they didn’t yet know how to solve.

To try to measure curiosity, I always start with a few simple questions: How do you spend your free time? Have you ever taught yourself a skill? Are you interested in other technologies, languages, and systems not directly related to the position at hand?

Maybe they can show off a Github repository. Perhaps they love keeping tabs on blogs about emerging technologies and are excited to tell you about them. I even remember a junior hire with a particularly entrepreneurial spirit who made it clear they wanted to uncover where business and engineering could intersect. Whatever the case may be, take the time to ensure a candidate has ambitions to learn and grow beyond the job description at hand.

Set junior hires up for success

The responsibility of adapting to your company’s engineering environment doesn’t fall solely on new hires. It’s essential for your business to prioritize growth opportunities and skill-building – and make that clear to the candidate all the way from first-round interviews to onboarding.

Today’s candidates have more options than ever. By offering mentorship and space to explore new interests, you turn culture into a selling point all its own. A dynamic hiring and employee experience does more than help you overcome a tough market and attract great junior talent. It leads to stronger retention rates and turns green engineers into seasoned team members.

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