Hiring Software Developers: The Agile Aptitude Test

Menlo Innovations' Richard Sheridan and Lisamarie Babik explain how "extreme interviewing" can help hiring managers choose Agile developers who are ready to apply its principles.

By Matt Heusser
Tue, January 27, 2009

CIO — The Agile development model has spawned hundreds of books and dozens of conferences. There's a significant track record of successful companies moving to Scrum, Extreme Programming (XP), and other lightweight, highly collaborative development models. Agile can fundamentally change the way software development is done, yet the methods for recruiting and hiring developers hasn't changed a bit. One company has adopted a new approach, and they share their methods here.

Richard Sheridan and Lisamarie Babik from Menlo Innovations
"Hire for talents rather than skills, build an environment where skills can be learned and reinforce the culture you are trying to build in the interview process itself. Too often, our industry hires for exact skill matches."—Richard Sheridan, with Lisamarie Babik

Most senior programmers and managers grew up in a time when software engineering classes emphasized "complete, consistent, correct" specifications and the ideal developer work environment was a quiet, private office. It was a time when the way to be most effective as a developer was to be left alone.

The management team at tech problem troubleshooting consultants Menlo Innovations needed to hire several programmers in 2004. But traditional interviewing methods, with the traditional résumé and interview process, failed to take into account a developer's aptitude to work in a highly collaborative workspace. Instead, Menlo's founders Richard Sheridan and James Goebel decided to implement an "Extreme Interviewing" event, led by Lisamarie Babik, Agile advocate and Menlo's evangelist. CIO caught up with Babik and Sheridan right before a presentation of their ideas at XP West Michigan to discuss practical implications of hiring for Agile aptitude, and how to add these skills to an existing enterprise.

CIO: Where did the initial idea for the extreme interview come from?

Sheridan: After experimenting with extreme programming for six months in 1999 at Interface Systems, where I was the vice president of development, my boss and CEO Bob Nero asked me to double my team—from 14 to 28 developers—as quickly as possible. I knew that traditional interviewing practices wouldn't work. My concern was that it would be impossible to describe what paired programming in an open and collaborative environment would feel like. My fear was that we would successfully hire 14 more people who would quickly learn to hate the new environment. I had to find a different way.

Babik: We used it for the first time at Menlo in April 2004. We were sitting around talking about how we needed to hire some folks for a new project we were starting. Rich offhandedly said, "You know, what we need is an Extreme Interview." I had heard Rich talk about it in passing, but didn't really know the nitty-gritty details. I was about to find out.

CIO: What does the interview entail? How is it different than a traditional interview?

Babik: The interview is more of an audition than a traditional interview. Participants are called together in a large group; each is paired with another participant who is interviewing for the same position and an observer who is a current Menlo team member. During the course of the interview, candidates are paired with three partners and assigned three problem-solving tasks.

What they are told, however, is that we are not particularly interested in the outcome of the problem solving. Rather, what we're looking for is good "kindergarten skills." In particular we want participants to "make their partner look good."

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