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  1. Terrific Question for Assessing Culture in a Job Search
  2. Certifications in Hiring, Part 3: Hiring Tips
  3. Certifications in Hiring, Part 2: Hiring Traps
  4. Certifications in Hiring, Part 1: A Certificate’s Value
  5. Interview with FogCreek About Hiring for Technical Fit
  6. More Recent Articles
  7. Search HTP – Johanna Rothman, Management Consultant
  8. Prior Mailing Archive

Terrific Question for Assessing Culture in a Job Search

In The One Question You Should Ask About Every New Job, Grant says,

Ask people to tell you a story about something that happened at their organization but wouldn’t elsewhere.

There are four categories of stories:

  • The human-ness of senior management (or not)
  • Promotion opportunities for anyone
  • How the organization fires/lays off
  • The consequences for mistakes

A terrific question for cultural fit. Does this organization make decisions the way you want a potential employer to make decisions?

Grant goes on to ask about the one universal practice: How does this organization have meetings?  (See Ask Questions of the Hiring Manager and the Interview Team for this and other questions.)

If you have not articulated your values—what culture means for you—consider drawing a timeline of your career. (I have more guidance in Manage Your Job Search, but the blog post is a good start.)

If you interview with enough people, you can ask these questions during your interview. You can ask the questions on a phone screen. Don’t wait to ask until the interviewing is over and you already have an offer to ask. That’s a little late. You can rule out toxic cultures before then.


Certifications in Hiring, Part 3: Hiring Tips

How can you use certifications in your hiring? In Part 1 and Part 2, I discussed the value of certifications and hiring traps. Let’s see how to be positive about certifications and use them during the hiring process.

I’ve already said that a certification might be a sign of perseverance and interest in the field. I think of those as positive qualities for a candidate.

I’ve also said that certifications might be shorthand for what you want in a candidate. Let’s consider what you want when you do a job analysis. (Download all the Templates from Hiring Geeks That Fit.)

Analyze the job

Consider your certification specification as a kind of job description (or management) debt. (Tip of the hat to Dave Gordon for suggesting that metaphor.) You have a certification defined, how can you refine that and manage the risks of too many resumes, not finding the right person, and the cost to hire?

Let’s try an example. If you want a CSM (Certified Scrum Master), do you want someone who:

  • Can facilitate an agile team?
  • Can coach members of an agile team?
  • Can remove impediments for an agile team?
  • Looks for/helps define the goal of a sprint?
  • Has successful agile experience?
  • Can help a team retrospect and improve its process?
  • Has agile understanding, interest, and practice?

You might be looking for other qualities, preferences, or non-technical skills. You might have reasons for what you specify. Notice that when you start to specify these items, you can see there is a big difference between agile understanding, interest, and practice and the ability to facilitate or coach agile teams.

Let’s take the difference between: facilitating an agile team and removing impediments for an agile team.

For facilitating an agile team, you want a candidate who is:

  • Able to help a project team see their reality.
  • Able to coach others.
  • Able to accept coaching from others.
  • Facilitate meetings to accomplish what they need to do. (This is a little vague, and might include standups, retros, planning and any other meetings.)

This candidate focuses at the team level.

For removing impediments for an agile team, you want a candidate who:

  • Can work via influence at the team level.
  • Can influence one level of management.
  • Can help people understand change and the effects on people and teams.
  • Maybe some of the other abilities as above.

This candidate might work at the team level, and also works with management and across the organization. A CSM does not confer capability as to whether a person can work across the organization.

Since I don’t know your situation, I don’t know what you want or need. You might need both in one person (for a small organization,) or you might only have money for one person, or you might be able to hire two people. What are your constraints?

When you approach analyzing a job like this, to discuss who the candidate will work with, and what your constraints are, you can decide: is a CSM sufficient, or even likely to help you find a person? What is essential for this person’s success? What is desirable?

Using a certification will get you partial information. But it won’t get you the essentials of what you need in a job description or a candidate.

Here are tips:

  1. Use the certification in your first draft job analysis as shorthand. Expect to iterate.
  2. Describe the activities and deliverables as part of the job analysis.
  3. As you analyze the job more, or once you move to a job description, tease apart the roles you want the certification to provide. Lead? Facilitate? Coach? Protect? Consider verbs so you understand what you need in a candidate..
  4. Ask yourself, what experience do I want to see on a resume that will help me learn if a candidate can do these things (all the verbs, activities, and deliverables you specified).

Start with a certification. And, don’t stop there. Look deeper and see what you need to explore in a job analysis, so you find the candidates you need.


Certifications in Hiring, Part 2: Hiring Traps

In Part 1, I discussed the issue of certification vs. experience. One of the problems in using certifications to discriminate for or against people is that some people might have the experience you want, and might not have the certification paper that represents that experience to you.

Here’s an example. I coached a project manager as she was looking for a job several years ago. She had used timeboxes, asked her project teams to develop with small features, and insisted on continuous integration. That allowed the project to show progress every one to three weeks. (She didn’t use timeboxes in the sense that many agile teams do. She helped the teams timebox their daily work, so they could integrate at least every day, not once every two weeks. She had figured out kanban by using stickies for “this week’s work,” and rolling wave deliverable-based planning.) She had discovered a reasonable successful way to shepherd projects to completion. She did not use retrospectives or demos, but she and her teams were close to agile.

She loved her job. The project teams appeared to love her. When we met, she had received 17 or 18 recommendations on LinkedIn. The recommendations actually said words such as, “servant leadership,” “facilitation,” and “coaching.” She was an agile project manager, or if you will, a Scrum Master. Not in the classic sense, but once she read the Scrum Guide, she realized what she was.

Her company merged with another, and she was laid off.

She was having a terrible time getting a job. She did not have a CSM. Her previous job title was “Project Manager.” She was drawn to agile approaches, but she could not prove she was agile. She finally decided to get a CSM, even though she regretted spending the money on the class. (She was unemployed and wanted to keep her money.)

She did learn some things, especially the language. She found that useful. But the hiring managers or HR people who insisted on the agile certification? They were not agile. She said to me, “They wouldn’t know agile if it bit them in the face.”

We developed her questions to ask of the hiring manager. She also developed her target list of companies, so she could find work not based on certification. She started asking some questions during the phone screen.

She found a job and now has the “real” agile experience in addition to her previous “non-agile” experience, which seems pretty agile to me.

The traps hiring managers fell into:

  1. Believing that a certification is the same as experience.
  2. Believing a certification provides you sufficient knowledge to do the job.
  3. Believing you can use a certification to differentiate among candidates.

By now, you can tell I’m not a fan of certifications when used to discriminate against people in hiring. One of the comments on Part 1  said that the hiring manager looked for training—not just the certification—from the same trainers. That’s not useful.

In Part 3, I’ll talk about tips for certification, how you can use the fact that a candidate has a certificate.


Certifications in Hiring, Part 1: A Certificate’s Value

There are a ton of certifications these days. Many demand only that you sit through a 2-day or even 1-week class and then take an exam. Some certifications demand that you prove you have worked in the field for some number of weeks/hours the previous year or so.

Most certifications do not demand that you show proof of your successful expertise in action.

Let me tell you a story about the last certification exam I attempted. It was the ASQ Software Quality Manager, back in the early 90’s or so. I had been a Manager and then Director of software quality for several years. My companies appreciated my work. I helped the testers learn to improve their skills, which helped everyone. The developers were happy because they believed the testers helped. The testers were happy because developers and other managers took them seriously. I was happy (as well as our customers and managers) because we had fewer defects and were able to release faster. We had systems that worked for us.

I took the exam. I got all the multiple choice answers right, except for one or two about ISO. The problem was this: you couldn’t pass the exam and receive the certification unless you got some credit for the open response questions. There were two open response questions. People marked those questions. I got zero (0, null, nil, nada) credit.

When I called ASQ to understand the problem, I asked for my exam. I wanted to learn from it. The woman told me she could not send me my exam. She would kindly offer me 50% off the next exam.

I checked. Was there any way someone else could explain to me why I scored zero on the open-response? No, there was no way.

Now, I knew which questions I had flubbed for the multiple choice. They explained that to me in my results letter. But the (to me) most important questions? The ones that might show how effective you might be? No. No answers as to why I got zero.

That’s when I realized that—for many professional organizations—certifications are a way to remain relevant and keep making money. You need to get people to take the exam. You ask people to do ongoing learning and maintain their certification. That was the way ASQ did it. It’s the way PMI works. It’s the way the Scrum Alliance works.

In return, these organizations establish a demand on hiring managers and especially Human Resources. Why HR? Because the HR people often have no way to discriminate among candidates. When you use a certification as shorthand for knowledge or experience, you can include the certified people and exclude anyone without a certification.

Now, I have long said that the value of the certification is in the learning. You want to know about project management? Study for a PMP. You will learn about Markov scheduling, which is why Theory of Constraints and agile work. (The more you optimize the entire system and manage the current critical path (the current constraint), the easier it is to have schedule advances. Also, see PERT scheduling/estimation.) There is even a part of the PMP study guide that deals with people. It doesn’t say servant leadership, but it comes close.

You want to know about agile? There are a gazillion certifications out there. I am sure that many of the CSM classes are much better than the one I took in 2006. (Even by the end of that class, people were confused by the notion of a timebox at the end. I swear. I cannot make this up.) The Scrum Alliance and ICAgile are just two of the certification bodies. I suspect that many of the teachers affiliated are great teachers.

However, teaching and learning are not the same as doing. As I said in Hiring Geeks That Fit, I spent 3-5 years early in my consulting career rescuing projects from PMPs. As I have hired people throughout the years (or coached my clients), I see people with all the “right” certifications who cannot be adequate Scrum Masters or agile coaches or agile managers or agile project managers or agile product owners. It doesn’t matter how many certifications they have.

They have book/classroom learning. They have no experience to back up their certifications. The result? You hire someone and then you don’t understand why they don’t work out. Or, you say, “Agile doesn’t work for us.” It might. You don’t know because you haven’t hired people with agile experience.

HiringGeeksThatFit.150In hiring, a certification means that the person was interested enough to pursue the certification. And, with any luck, they learned something through study. If you use certifications to discriminate among candidates, your filter is too narrow. See more in Hiring Geeks That Fit.

The next post is Certifications in Hiring, Part 2: Hiring Traps The third post will be about tips.

Update Jan 12, 2016: My friend and colleague Bob Woods posted Alphabet Soup: I’m Certified Therefore I Am! It’s worth your two minutes to read it.


Interview with FogCreek About Hiring for Technical Fit

Several weeks ago, the nice folks at FogCreek interviewed me. It’s here: Technical Hiring and Cultural Fit – Interview with Johanna Rothman.

The interview ranged over many topics:

  • Cultural fit
  • Diversity
  • What to do when you look for a job
  • Much more

I hope you enjoy it.

HiringGeeksThatFit.150If you want to read more about how to hire, check out Hiring Geeks That Fit.

To read more about how to find a job, see Manage Your Job Search.


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