The Way We Work
August 7, 2009 by Brian Goler

There is a ton of good advice available about hiring online workteams, but I find that I’m often pressed for time and cannot do everything that one “could” do. At the same time, I never want to settle when it comes to hiring, especially when I’m looking to build a long-term relationship – which is pretty much always the case. Here are steps 2 & 3 of my advice for hiring better online teams:

2. Interview by email first. I much prefer email to other approaches of first-round interviewing (phone or chat).

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Email has four advantages:

1. You get a chance to collect more information with minimal additional time investment since you’ll be sending a nearly identical list of questions to each candidate.
2. If a candidate’s English-language skills slow down real-time communication, you’ll save even more time.
3. It’s asynchronous, so you don’t need to schedule time to talk with the candidate.
4. All candidates have an equal opportunity to shine. I hate to admit it, but I’m less consistent with real-time interviews. Sometimes timezone issues require that I do an interview at an odd hour when I’m less alert or I might be rushed. Real-time conversations might also take you on tangents that bias your decision.

I’ve found that candidates at this stage are also more motivated to provide you with information because you’ve confirmed that there may be a good fit. I suggest positioning the questions as a prelude to a real-time phone/skype conversation or chat if it looks like the candidate is still a promising fit. The specific questions you ask depend on the work you want done and I am more confident asking for more information the larger the work opportunity is – e.g., I’ll ask more if I’m hiring for a long-term, full-time position than I would if it’s a smaller engagement. Strategies for specific interview questions are probably better suited for another post, but here’s a rough list of things I’ve asked freelance software developers at this stage for a long-term, full-time engagement:

# What experience do you already have building this type of technology? Please include a description of past projects that best illustrate your capabilities in this area.
# What is your development methodology? How do you ensure quality? Extensibility? Maintainability?
# How do you like to interact with your clients? How often do you do builds that we can see and test?
# What questions do you have about the engagement? What other info would you need from me in order to start work?
# (If the engagement has a set deliverable or clear initial milestone) How long do you think it would take to develop [the technology or achieve a certain milestone]?
# What factors will determine the actual amount of time? Where is there risk? Where do you need more info?
# What’s your availability to work on this? Number of people and hours per person? (If a provider company) which of your team members will be doing the work?
# What is it about your work that most differentiates you from other providers?
# Assuming that the initial “version 1″ project is successful, what would you charge me for follow-on work? How will costs change as we scale? [I’m trying to pre-negotiate good rates if the team grows with this question]
# We’re looking for a long-term partner, would you be willing to commit to a long-term relationship with an extended notice period should we decide to end the relationship at some point down the road?
# What questions do you have for me? [reciprocity is a key part of the process and long-term relationships need to work for both parties, so encouraging the candidate to ask questions is important]

I’ve used this strategy to reduce candidate queues from ~10 people down to 3 to 5 finalist candidates.

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3. Test drive. By hiring your most promising candidates for short “test drive” projects, you get a chance to see the candidates in action and both you and the candidates get an opportunity to see if your working styles are compatible. oDesk makes it very easy to hire people and set a maximum number of hours they can bill. I recommend assigning the exact same project to your top candidates so you can make an apples-to-apples comparison. Also, I put the assignment in writing and send the same copy to all candidates, so that there is less risk of my guiding one candidate to a greater extent than I guide the others. Plus, it saves time to re-use the same project.

If you’re hiring an analyst, you might send the candidates a data sample and ask them to analyze it and present their findings in a 2-3 PowerPoint slides. You might ask software developer candidates to port a small open-source program from one language to another.

If all works according to plan, you’ll know exactly who your superstar is by the end of the test drive without having to waste any time. Plus, by following all the steps in the process above you will have laid the foundation for a great long-term work relationship.

Please leave a comment if you have a question or suggestions for other strategies that work for you!

Brian Goler

Enterpreneur

Brian Goler served as Vice President of Marketing at oDesk. Brian has more than 15 years of management experience spanning several online community and publishing businesses. Brian co-founded and launched YorZ, an online community dedicated to helping people advance their careers. He held several senior positions at LookSmart including Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing, Senior Vice President of Product since January 2001 and… read more