Hiring for agile – Why HR department plays a huge role in the success of agile transformation

Published on the 10th, June 2019 author: Anja Radoičić

I remember the day I graduated and was wondering whether my professor mentor would invite me to stay and work at our university’s computer centre. We got together to discuss the previous six months of my practice and the conversation lasted for an hour.

I was expecting questions about programming languages I knew, maybe about code libraries I had chosen to use, and something about network traffic that I had monitored in my final project. But we focused on those only for a few short questions. We actually talked much more about the things I had learnt. He asked me what I would’ve done differently if I were to begin the same project again. Also, about my colleagues and the lessons we had shared.

I got the job and stayed there for eight years, enjoying the great culture we built. Time and time again I’ve gone back to that conversation, thinking about those questions and the way he decided to hire me. Come to think of it, I realize that my professor knew then what I know now: that a growth mindset is what matters the most.

We often hear that “Agile is not a methodology, it’s a mindset”. Start reading about agile and you will inevitably read about collaboration, trust among team members. Furthermore, accepting and even welcoming inevitable change, about the ability to adapt to new-found conditions, and ability to steer, if needed, early and fast.

Thinking about all these traits and abilities, we quickly realize that we are not just talking about methods and rules but more about a philosophy. We know that changing someone’s character (provided they are willing to change) is usually a long and slow process.

Whichever agile framework you choose to use, whether it’s Scrum, Kanban, XP or a combination of some of their elements, you will end up wanting transparency, real-time communication, and fast reaction to feedback.

Hiring people who are able to thrive in such an environment can significantly influence the success of agile adoption in your company. If employees do not get agile, the business will most definitely not be agile. But if teams consist mostly of people whose values are aligned with agile values, then continuous improvement comes naturally. That is why, during the hiring process, process, we should be asking questions which give candidates the opportunity to demonstrate their core beliefs and values.

These are harder to measure for sure, but it can be done. The beauty of interviewing for agile is that we engage in meaningful, authentic conversations. In addition to talking about technical expertise, we are also going into some more intimate topics.

For example, we should not be shy to know how our candidate has failed and what lessons they have learnt out of it. Not an easy thing to talk about during an interview. But once you realize that it is the failure that makes you smarter when you learn from it, it becomes easier to talk about it.


Questions to ask when hiring for agile


So here are some questions that can help us go deeper into the candidate’s way of thinking:

  • Tell us about a project that you followed through. What were the biggest lessons there?
  • What was the last project that you are proud of? Here we should notice if there was a team involved but candidate goes into detail about how they contributed.
  • When you look at your professional life, what is it that you struggle with? What are you doing to solve it? This is a tricky one. It’s personal and it’s about something that people are maybe not so comfortable talking about. But, if the candidate is capable to talk about it, and even more, if they are already working on the ways to solve it, that tells us so much about their ability to learn from their shortcomings. Note: this question is certainly not the one to ask at the very beginning of the interview.
  • Is there anything that you used to do in a certain way until recently but then decided to change it? Why? Here we want to see if we are talking to a person capable of accepting different ways and opinions if these prove to be better.
  • Do you think that one person can play multiple roles in one team? Have you ever worked in a cross-functional team? How did that work out? Common issue when working in an agile team is getting people to jump out of their field of expertise into something less known. We are always on the lookout for those famous T-shaped people — someone who is able to do many things, and is an expert in one. This adds flexibility to our team and makes them capable of adapting to different circumstances.
  • What do you do when you don’t know how to do something and there is a tight deadline to deliver? Checking if we have a candidate who is comfortable asking help when needed.
  • What is it that you do when you finish your task earlier than planned?
  • How do you stay focused?
  • How do you decide on your daily priorities?
  • You have been working on a piece of software for a few days. Imagine a stakeholder coming and saying you need to throw that away and start working on a different solution since the market conditions have changed. What do you do? The next two questions, together with this one, actually question the candidate’s ability to accept changing reality but also to stand together with the team when making a decision, no matter if it was against their wishes.
  • Was there ever a time that you didn’t agree with a decision your team made but you needed to be a part of it? What did you do?
  • Was there work needed to be done that was boring or repetitive but you had to go through with it? How did you keep yourself motivated?
  • How have you failed in the past and what have you learnt from it? Again, it’s a personal question and a difficult one. But agile is all about learning fast from your mistakes and trying hard not to repeat them. If a person is to thrive in an agile environment, they should be able to give us examples of having already been thinking that way.

Also, when doing an interview, look for obvious red flags:

  • a candidate saying they went into computing because they never liked human interactions anyway
  • generalization: saying they hate meetings since these are a waste of time
  • no failures to mention, they can’t remember any of them, or even more unexpectedly, there have been no fails.

It is important then that we hire people who share an agile way of thinking. In markets where everything changes so quickly, having a team of right people can give us a big competitive advantage. That is why your agile transformation needs the HR department to be fully on-board with the agile goals.

And remember, I am not saying that we are not going to talk about the technical expertise. We are simply putting mindset over field-specific knowledge. It is still about coding, testing, continuous integration and deployment, but at the same time much more about continuous improvement.

Anja Radoičić

Anja is a Scrum Master, with over a decade long career in tech organizations. She began as a software developer. Eight years later, she took on new roles, first as a Project Manager, then as a Scrum Master in tech startups. Anja's goal is to help companies improve their processes without sacrificing product quality. Looking for ways to achieve this, she decided to tackle the issue from two sides. On the technical and product side, she started using agile methodologies. On the people side, she underwent psychological education and now works as a business coach. The central part of her toolbox is transactional analysis and cognitive behavioral coaching.