Nothing kills a distributed team faster than hiring the wrong kind of team member. There are a few characteristics that I’ve found over the years to be critical when hiring a distributed team:
- They are clear communicators
- They work well in isolation
- They work independently
Clear Written Communicator
It stands to reason that, with a distributed team, most of your team will not see each other face to face or be standing at the same whiteboard to work things out. The most critical skill to look for in your new hires is the ability to communicate clearly via written media. Chat, drawings, diagrams. These will be the lifeblood of your team’s everyday communication along with regular video and voice chats.
In technology products, this means the ability to both understand and deliver complex ideas in a clear, concise way. How do you test for this in the interview process? I am a firm believer in the test project or audition process as the best way to test both hard and soft skills.
To test communication skills, you can incorporate things like the following into your test project:
- Given a set of product requirements, design an initial simple architecture to address the problem and then walk the rest of the team through your design
- The product team needs to communicate to the CEO how a feature we’re working on meets the customer need. Can you do a one-pager on feature X?
- Create a channel in your favorite chat program (Slack, etc) for their test project and run the entire project through that channel just as you would if they were working for you.
At each turn, you’re looking for someone to engage with the rest of the team in a productive, healthy way.
Works Well in Isolation
Often overlooked is explicitly asking about a person’s ability to work separate from the rest of the team. Physical isolation is not for everyone. Some people thrive on it, but others will start to go crazy and will crave the personal interactions with other humans. To evaluate this, ask the candidate very specific questions:
- Have you ever worked out of your house or away from the rest of your team before? If the answer is no, it’s an immediate cautionary flag. Time to dig deeper on how they like to work and how they thrive.
- What are the distractions in your environment that we’ll all need to pay attention to? TV? Sleeping in?
- What’s a typical day look like for you in your current team? How do you manage interruptions? How is the team run? What do you like and not like about it?
In many cases a distributed team crosses a number of timezones. Naturally there are times when your team members are going to be working without others online. They have to be able to function well in this context or they’re of little to no use. Someone that requires constant supervision and communication will create a drag on the rest of your team. They also have to be able to work with incomplete information. There will be times when you think you’ve provided all that’s required, but there are still questions. The team has to be able to move on their own.
How do you test for this?
- During your audition, intentionally leave gaps in the task descriptions and see what kind of assumptions they make. Do they make solid assumptions about your intent and keep moving or come to a full stop on the smallest questions and wait for instructions?
- Ensure that all directions you did provide were followed explicitly. Nothing is more frustrating than wasting a day on something because someone didn’t read. If you say you want it done a certain way, it should be done that way or discussed before the work starts.
By testing for the ability to clearly communicate, work well alone, and work independently, you’re going to clearly see whether the person you’re hiring is a good fit for your team.
As an aside, these things must also be true of you! If you find constant struggle with any of the above, you need to refine and hone your skills in addition to requiring the same of the rest of your team.
In our next post, we’re going to talk about the different ways you build a distributed team.