A few words about communication skills
Developers, Testers, Analysts, Project Managers, and technical people in general, often complain that recruiters working in the IT industry have no idea what their interlocutors are talking about. Let me ask a rather perverse question then: Who does this really reflect badly on?
The IT world is constantly changing — new technologies and new approaches and solutions continue to emerge. I would venture to say that no other industry is so dynamic. To keep up to date with the latest innovations, you need to constantly update your own knowledge — and this applies not only to technical people but also to all the other positions around them that enable IT companies to operate. At the core, there are software developers who write the code, but would their code be worth anything if it weren’t for the salespeople who find clients interested in purchasing specific apps? Would the company be able to operate without recruiters who keep looking for new people to join the team? The work of salespeople and recruiters would not be too easy either if it weren’t for marketing activities aimed at making the organization recognizable on the market. And the company itself would never have been founded and could not operate if it weren’t for its administration department, which ensures that all the formalities are complied with and every single document is signed on time. As we can see, the IT industry is one giant ecosystem where all elements are dependent on one another. Being able to cooperate smoothly is worthwhile. In this article, I will focus on the relationship between the technical person and the recruiter, as this is where misunderstandings often occur (for which both parties are responsible, and both must work to prevent them from happening).
A recruiter is not a technical person!
IT recruiters are people who CANNOT PROGRAM — at least this one thing is obvious, isn’t it? Although HR professionals interact with technical people on a daily basis, this fact alone does not make them one. While it is clear that they gain some kind of technical knowledge and so know slightly more about it than the average person, they still don’t know every single IT-specific term or concept. And it would be rather unreasonable to expect them to — programming/testing/project management is simply not their job. The recruiters’ and HR professional’s role in the organization is different, as they specialize in areas other than the technical ones.
And — just to be clear — I obviously do not intend to justify cases where a recruiter:
- doesn’t know the difference between frontend and backend;
- offers a React Developer a job involving React Native technology — just because both sound so similar, after all;
- thinks that if someone only tests web apps, they can easily handle mobile app testing too without additional training.
Everyone, even a novice recruiter, must know the basics.
What can we learn during an interview with an HR representative?
An initial interview with a person from the HR department is not intended to test the candidate’s specialist knowledge (this is what the task stage or the technical interview stage are for). So what is the purpose of the initial interview?
- Talking about the company, the position, the projects, and the stages of the recruitment process.
- Looking into the candidate’s needs, finding out what they are expecting from the new employer, and letting them know what they can actually expect at the new company.
- Answering various types of formal questions such as the form of contract, the date of commencement of possible collaboration, office location, salary brackets, or benefits offered.
- Verifying the candidate’s command of English, if it is required at a given company.
- And, most importantly, conducting the so-called ‘soft’ verification of the candidate, i.e. testing the famed communication skills, among other things — after all, how else to verify them if not simply by talking to each other?
How should one talk to someone from the HR department, then?
The main purpose of an interview with an HR representative is to check whether a given individual fits in with the company in terms of their culture and personality, whether they will bring a positive attitude to the team, and whether they will be good to work with. And, of course, it is impossible to be absolutely sure of all this after a conversation lasting 30–60 minutes — after all, no one can read another individual’s mind or predict the future. But it is the way they communicate during their first interview that can give us some indication of how collaboration would look in the future.
When talking to another person, we need to adapt the vocabulary we use to them. Just imagine you are talking to a physicist or chemist who uses the same words they would use when talking to another scientist — it would hardly change anything in the state of your knowledge. Likewise, hearing about the technical details of a project adds little or nothing to an interview with a recruiter. If we want to portray ourselves as truly communicative, it is not enough to just talk a lot — we need to talk in such a way that the other person knows what we mean. The old adage — if you are unable to explain something so that even a child can understand it, then it means you yourself do not understand it well enough — suits perfectly here.
If the recruiter asks you to elaborate on your work experience, focus more on telling them what a given project was about, what a given app was used for, what obstacles/challenges you faced along the way, and how you dealt with them. You could also talk more about the team you worked in: Was it small or large? Did you have the opportunity to work with people from abroad and speak English at work on a daily basis? Or maybe you were in charge of introducing new employees to their duties or teaching junior staff members? You can tell the story of a given project from many perspectives, not necessarily listing all its technical specifications. And don’t get me wrong — it is not that you cannot take pride in the fact that, for example, you worked with the latest version of a given technology. The names of programming languages or frameworks are known to recruiters, and if you do not mention them yourself, you will certainly be asked about the knowledge of the technologies used at the company you are applying to.
Why is this communication so important?
Once upon a time, the stereotype was of the software developer sitting in front of their computer screen all day long, with not a soul for company. Nowadays, however, apps are so complex that an individual is not able to take care of everything by themselves, so they have to work together as a team and get along with others to achieve the goal. For this reason, it is important for IT companies to hire people who can easily find their way into a group and are able to properly communicate all kinds of problems and issues to be solved. At this point, it is not enough for an IT specialist to be a master in their respective field and just to write flawless code. If you aren’t able to work in a team, you won’t achieve the expected results. When working in a team, we are dealing with the synergistic effect, which in simple terms means that 2 + 2 gives us 5. Of course, no one is saying that everyone has to become the life and soul of the party all of a sudden! Just make your point clearly and share your knowledge and experience. For those who love to dominate a conversation, this is also something of a challenge — they will have to learn to give space to the more timid individuals to speak. It is important to realise that dominating a conversation is to some extent to our disadvantage — on the one hand, we get our opinion across, but on the other hand, we don’t learn anything new, we don’t get to know our interlocutor’s perspective and, ultimately, we don’t get anything out of the conversation.
Why should a technical person make sure that the recruiter understands them?
The recruiter is the person who takes you through the entire hiring process, which varies from company to company, but usually consists of an initial interview with an HR professional, followed by a technical interview and an interview with the hiring manager / decision-maker. During the first interview, as I mentioned earlier, the candidates’ communication skills are tested. What can be the consequences of being assessed negatively in that category?
The first one may be that the recruiter decides not to process the candidate further and then they no longer have the opportunity to demonstrate their technical skills. This is, of course, the worst-case scenario, and it probably doesn’t happen that often because recruiters know that there are many reasons why a candidate did not put themselves across in the best possible way. And it is well known that a technical person will easily find a new recruitment process and a new company (and probably not just one, but as many as five of them!), but is that really the point? Sometimes they may lose out on the chance to work in an organization that would have provided them with great opportunities, and, as we know, it is always better to have more options to choose from.
Coming back to the negative consequences of an unfortunate first interview: if the recruiter does not fully understand what we have been doing so far and what interests us, they may throw us into a long recruitment process, which may eventually end up with us securing a place for ourselves at the company, but not necessarily in the position we had expected, or under different conditions. Another negative scenario may be a situation in which the recruiter provides the manager with not entirely positive feedback about us, and the manager finally decides to offer the job to another person who performed similarly to us or even worse in technical terms.
Communication noise, i.e. all kinds of distractions, means not only the use of incomprehensible words, but also the actual noise present in our surroundings. At my work, from time to time it has turned out that a candidate — despite having made an appointment with me for the interview at a specific date — did not have the right setup to take part in such an interview. In the era of the pandemic and remote working, no one blames anyone for children playing in the background, but talking on a crowded bus is not comfortable for either party. Similarly, talking while driving does not allow you to focus 100% on the other person and convey all the most important information. Cooking dinner and talking to a recruiter is not the best possible combination either! Tapping a spoon against a frying pan does not blend too well with talking about your work experience. Let me debunk the myth of multitasking a bit here — the human attention span is limited and if we do several things at once, we have to bear in mind that we will only be able to allocate a certain percentage of our concentration to each of them (even if they are simple activities, performed automatically), which contributes to obtaining worse results in general. And I guess we want to show our best side and not miss any important points during a job interview, right?
So what will be the positives if the first interview goes well and the recruiter gets a proper idea about you? If the person from the HR department is sure that their candidate is a perfect fit for the position, they will do everything to make the manager think the same too, and to convince them, firstly to include the candidate in the process, and secondly (if the technical interview goes well) to offer them the job. Apart from that, when determining the salary with the manager, the recruiter will have arguments as to why the candidate should get as much as they expect (e.g. because they will bring the principles of good communication to the team and, as a communicative person, they will perform well in a leadership/mentoring role). It is no secret that we care more about the interests of people we like and get along well with.
Coming back to the question: Who does it reflect badly on if the recruiter doesn’t know what we are talking about?
The question is a bit perverse, but of course the above situation reflects badly on both parties. If something goes wrong during the interview, both parties are responsible for that, and both parties can undertake to put it right.
How to deal with it then?
Let us begin with what the recruiter can do, namely:
- keep learning, expand their knowledge, and read articles — so that they are familiar with the industry jargon;
- tell the developer straight that they are not a technical person and ask them to expound on the topic using colloquial rather than specialist vocabulary (based on my own experience, I can say this: It really works! A change takes place immediately, and the interlocutor tries to convey everything as if they were giving the interviewer some kind of training);
- show some understanding for the developer, who uses certain words on a daily basis and may sometimes find it difficult to come up with a substitute word quickly (we mustn’t give up on anyone right away, throwing them into a bag labelled ‘non-communicative);
- rephrase the technical person’s statement in our own words to make sure we have understood it correctly;
- don’t just ask one question, expecting the other party to fully elaborate on the topic and cover all the points we are interested in — we should keep asking additional questions as we go along, thus specifying what we are interested in.
Tip: Use positive reinforcement — if the technical person answers our question in a clear and understandable way, tell them so and praise them for it! Then, the next time our interlocutor gives us their answers, they will follow that lead and keep answering in a similar style.
And what can a developer do?
- the first step would certainly be to realize that they are talking to someone who does not have to deal on a daily basis with the specialist vocabulary that they themselves use every day, as well as to try replacing it with more colloquial words;
- prepare for the interview with the recruiter — think about what other-than-typically-technical aspects of the project they can talk about (team, challenges, the greatest achievement, additional responsibilities such as introducing others to their duties, being a mentor/leader, or conducting workshops with the client);
- ask themselves if they speak in an understandable way and keep adjusting their communication style on an ongoing basis (an interview with a junior recruiter will certainly be different from the one with a senior recruiter — if possible, the developer should check the recruiter’s LinkedIn profile before the interview, as they certainly have one ;) )
Tip: If there are some typically technical questions that you need to know the answer to before you decide to take part in the recruitment process, don’t be afraid to ask the recruiter to answer them. If they don’t know the answers, they will find out and get back to you.
End credits and a final request
And finally, as an IT recruiter myself, I ask only one thing of you for the sake of my HR profession: please have sympathy for us. Believe me, we do our best to educate ourselves as much as possible. And this is not just empty rhetoric! — You can see it in the number of courses available on the market, industry articles, and handbooks, not to mention internal training courses and the daily exchange of information within the team. And the industry is not easy at all, and keeps changing all the time. To recall my words from the beginning, we all live in one ecosystem, so let’s all take care of good communication and relations between departments.