Embracing the Weird and Other Non-Traditional Hiring Practices From a CTO


As the Great Resignation continues, companies are looking to hire valuable talent and are expanding their candidate criteria to include those with non-traditional backgrounds. Learn from Miles Ward, CTO, SADA, why every technology leader should embrace the weird in candidates and how they can build dynamic, productive teams.

I remember the weirdest hire I ever made.

He missed several interview call times. When he finally arrived for a rescheduled interview, he literally could not sit still: he completed the interview while sitting under a desk. Yes, he was an unorthodox hire. This was in the early 2000s, before most companies were familiar with the concept of neurodiversity. Within his ‘weirdness,’ I saw brilliance. He joined our team and built a user interface that helped the company raise $63M in venture capital funding, and he did it while working in 35-hour (!) sprints. After which, he’d sleep for two days. Non-traditional!

In a job market punctuated by remote work, distributed teams, and video calls, flexibility is the most important trait for both today’s employer and employee. With the Great Resignation still alive and well, employees seek challenging, meaningful work. Meanwhile, employers are expanding their candidate criteria to include those with non-traditional backgrounds, experience, and skills. Why should every technology leader embrace the weird in respective candidates, and how can they build dynamic, productive, and effective teams? Let us embark!

The Capacity To Learn — And Continue Learning — Is the Most Important Job Skill

The technology innovation that saved my startup, Hadoop, is now the system we most often remove as a tired, old, legacy system from our current customers. The sheer pace of new tech innovation renders many job skills obsolete within a few years. That is why a candidate’s willingness, desire, and demonstrated ability to continue learning is the most important job skill, at least here in the technology world. Traditionally, an employee would learn a skill, get certified on that skill, and apply that skill for 5-7 years. Now, employees must continuously learn on the job — it is how they will deliver maximum value.

So, what do I look for when evaluating a potential hire? Yes, a college degree and formal education tell me that a person has tenacity. But there are other skills I look for that are more important: has a candidate made an impact in a particular social program? What books have they read? Any non-academic certifications? If I give them a hypothetical problem, how would they go about solving it? Can this person learn new technical skills and apply them in new contexts? Would they be able to teach the skills they have learned to others? These are all questions I ask when evaluating a potential hire.

Also, it is important to remember that the role a candidate is best suited for will change over time. This is especially true given how quickly things change within the technology industry. My own career trajectory reflects this truth. I am a CTO who was installing car stereos for a living 23 years ago. I shifted to running a small company’s IT department, then to product manager, then to solutions architect, and then to global director of solutions to CTO. And I worked for companies of all sizes along my route. If a person is always learning and willing to take on more difficult tasks over time, the right role will present itself. Again, tenacity, flexibility, and the ability to always learn are prerequisites to working in technology.

See More: Building Tech Skills for the Future with IoT

Today’s Career Path Is Not a Linear One

Historically, any non-traditional career path deviating from the norm (four-year degree, no employment gaps) was considered a red flag. The four-year degree has been a prerequisite for a job in the technology realm for many years. But today, humbly, I think it is an unnecessary requirement. Think about it: there is no college degree program in infrastructure operations management or site reliability engineering (SRE), no Master’s in Solutions Architecture. And college computer science classes teach skills that are quite different from the tasks today’s cloud engineers tackle. That is just one reason why my company dropped the college degree requirement for technical hires. A bachelor’s degree should not be a must in this market because there is no formal education on the evolving skills we need.

Speaking of the skills we, as employers, need job candidates to possess… There continues to be an incredible demand for skilled talent. According to Robert Half’s recent reportOpens a new window , 94% of those surveyed report finding skilled tech professionals in data science, business intelligence, and cloud architecture and operations is challenging. Some technology companies are prioritizing skills over degrees in IT roles. According to the Burning Glass InstituteOpens a new window , only 26% of Accenture’s and 29% of IBM’s Software QA Engineer postings include a degree requirement. Even the United States government has announced limits on the use of degree requirements “in favor of stated skills when acquiring IT servicesOpens a new window .” The candidate degree requirement is becoming unnecessary, and employers should prioritize technical skills, tenacity, and problem-solving ability.

When Building Technology Teams, the Whole Is Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts

In addition to the ability to continually be learning, a candidate must be able to contribute their talents to a larger team. Think of the Power Rangers for a moment. The individual rangers possess different superpowers (strength, psychic ability, invisibility); combined, the team is an incredible force. I have worked with colorful characters, engineers of few words, and even a brilliant solutions architect who refused to work in anything other than a Hawaiian shirt and five-toed shoes. Every organization needs the chaos makers, chaos destroyers, people who thrive under pressure, fearless communicators, super-organized taskmasters, and more. Each of these team members brings their own individuality and skillset to form a well-rounded tech team — and there is a place for everyone (and their weirdness).

The smart manager will consider their employees as teams rather than as individuals. Which energies and technical skills complement each other for the greater good? Some people work well in a crisis situation and then need time to decompress. Others thrive on a rigorous routine. If you can get these people to work together, you will meet deadlines, innovate, and align your team’s ‘weirdness’ with the equally ‘weird’ needs of your customers.

Smart companies seek out non-traditional candidates and find tools to help make them capable of incredible things. Smarter companies connect what would otherwise be an unlikely combination of people, backgrounds, and skills to form a powerful team. These managers should work to accommodate the complexity of such a team, which may involve different geographies, work schedules, or work styles. Only when forward-looking companies expand their hiring aperture to find, hire, and embrace the weird does true magic happen.

Have you hired people with a weird and non-traditional background? How have they impacted your business? Share with us on FacebookOpens a new window , TwitterOpens a new window , and LinkedInOpens a new window .