DH faces a dilemma:
I don’t have a college degree, and yet I am responsible for narrowing and selecting a pool of programmers when my company needs a new programmer (I’m the Senior Programmer). I used to have a programming in three parts test which asked applicants to write pseudo code to solve common problems. After receiving an application or resume I e-mail the first part of the test, and if they do well, they get another part with more difficult questions. After that an applicant would be granted an interview and be asked to do the third part of the test verbally and on a whiteboard.
Word came down from “upper management” that my interviwing procedures were unfair, and so, HR has implemented a standard hiring procedure that grades people “fairly” on 15 criteria. My programming test was eliminated.
Needless to say “my” last 4 hires have been CS degree packing incompetents who actually make more work for me. So I decided last year to simply not fill open positions. Half my department is empty now – 3 out of 6 slots – and I need to fill in the gap before the new year.
Any tips on how to weed out the losers knowing that 100% of them will have college degrees?
You need to attack this problem in two ways. First, I assume that you have documented the incompetence of the people that HR has forced you to hire. You need to find an internal champion at the executive level and use that information to lay your case against HR with him. Remember, many executives are competent and intelligent individuals whose access to accurate information is extremely limited by the managers immediately below them. They often make terrible decisions because their data is bad, not because they are stupid, malicious or solely focused on their personal gain. If you can find an executive who actually cares about corporate performance, you may well have found someone who will cheerfully take a chainsaw to that HR department. Many execs don’t think a whole lot of HR and see them as barely competent necessary evils anyhow.
Second, you should refine your interview questions to weed out the tools. Remember that a college degree isn’t necessarily an indication of incompetence, it just isn’t necessarily an indication of competence either. When I had to weed the tools out, I would ask an interviewee what their favorite game was. If they told me “Doom” or any other obvious game, I immediately asked them why it was their favorite and ask detailed questions about obscure things on difficult levels, the sort of thing that any aficionado could easily answer off the top of his head, but would catch a tool off guard.
Ask what industry magazines they subscribe to, or better yet, what web sites and mailing lists they follow regularly. Ask them seemingly innocuous questions about their familiarity with Linux and smartphone hacks, and other things of the sort that every college programmer worth his salt finds irresistable. A veteran programmer like you should be able to size up a genuine hacker from a classroom pretender without having to see them code; the trick is to trust your instincts.
Third, take the time to build up a pool of potential applicants that you’d like to hire even when you’re not hiring. When you have an opening, there should be a few people you can call right away to see if they are available or might be interested in changing jobs.
Finally, if you get it wrong, don’t hesitate to get rid of the zeros immediately. If HR demands to know why, you simply tell them that the zero couldn’t do his job and you have important deadlines to meet that don’t permit the carrying of dead weight. Ask them if they want to explain to upper management why project X isn’t getting done on time. Remember, they are usually cowards and busybodies who are used to being unaccountable for anything important, so directing a little pressure in their direction will tend to go a long way.
It can be so tempting to just let things go and look the other way when you’ve got an underperformer, but that is the hallmark of the weak and ultimately unsuccessful manager, even if it could work to your advantage in the short run. If you are careful to always pick office battles where you have the overwhelming advantage of the facts being on your side, sooner or later, the political types in other departments will learn to leave you alone and let you do your job. If you consistently ratchet up the pain each time they stick their nose in inappropriately, they’ll eventually knock it off.