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Arnie Rowland

Discussion of issues related to SQL Server, the MSDN SQL Support Forums, the complex interplay between Developers and SQL Server Administrators, and our sometimes futile attempts to have a 'normal' life.

Current Thoughts on Interviewing and Hiring Conundrums

For many organizations, data is the lifeblood that keeps them in business. If the data becomes imperiled, the very existence of the organization is threatened. The folks entrusted with managing the data are often the most critical to the long term success of the organization. Think about it. Great developers are creative, inventive, solve business problems, and generate new revenue. BUT if the data gets bollixed up, the organization suffers unnecessary expenses, loss of business, loss of confidence, and the risk of failure. Successfully managing the organization's data over time is one of the most critical, and often, underappreciated, operations that just MUST work as expected. There is little room for error -or learning by mistake.

During the past few weeks, I have been in several conversations with hiring managers about how to find 'highly' qualifed candidates for open SQL DBA or SQL Developer positions. These were managers that have, in their opinion, been wasting their time with interviews. In every case, they came with the same question: "How do I cut through the crap and ensure that I'm attracting and interviewing 'real' qualified candidates?"

As we explored the issue, variations of the following were woven in and out of the conversation.

  • "I can't find a candidate that really knows his/her 'stuff'."
  • "I'm wasting my time with 'pretenders'."
  • "I can't seem to attract the level of candidate that would give us a good selection."
  • "I spend time interviewing someone that appears to be just the right person, and he/she is obviously put off by our compensation package."

I usually offer that the current market is highly skewed against the employer -the demand for expert help with SQL Server is so high that highly qualified candidates can be very selective. Many positions are filled through networking and are never publically advertised. Additionally, the highly qualified candidate is most likely employed, very well compensated, and just not actively looking for a new opportunity. At least not at the compensation packages a lot of organizations can afford to offer.

So what's a hiring manager to do?

First, engage a SQL Server consultant to conduct a thorough job and task analysis, and research local salary ranges. You should know the bare minimum experience and knowledge that you can accept. It is a very rare organization that needs someone highly experienced with every SQL Server technology. And even in the organizations that do, there are often multiple folks, each with a specialty niche. And stop with the 'kitchen sink' requirements list -it only serves to deter candidates that just may be a good match for your needs.

Once that is complete, you can address the question of what are the primary qualifications to look for in a candidate?

Obviously, the candidate must sync with the base qualifications and experience that was identified (see above.)

But most importantly, you need to know if this candidate gives you have a solid platform to build upon. You want to explore the candidate's investment in self and career.

Questions to ask:

  • Is the candidate invested in self-directed learning activities?
  • Does the candidate participate in the local user group opportunities in order to learn from others?
  • Do the candidate participate in other technology community learning events, such as: Code Camps, SQLSaturdays, professional conferences?
  • What was the last class or conference the candidate paid out of pocket to attend?
  • Does the candidate freely share knowledge with others? How?
  • Is this candidate someone that can, and does, ask for help?
  • Can this candidate be transparent about his/her mistakes? Is there a track record?


  • Stop the use of overly broad acronyms and the use of 'alphabet soup' that really doesn't tell anything about the Job.
  • Tone down the 'kitchen sink' set of requirements, expectations, training, and experience.
  • Hone in on exactly what is required to be successful with the position today.
  • Find the candidate that happily invests his/her time and energy in learning and career advancement. Then invest in that person.
    • Send them to advanced training.
    • Contract with an expert that can serve as a Mentor.
    • Give them time and support to be involved with the technology community.
    • Allow for, and honor their commitment to their family.
  • If you provide comp time for spurts of long hours, honor the exchange. Don't make it difficult to use the comp time. Word does get around, and candidates will find out.
  • Make your organization the kind of place where folks want to be. Your employees spend almost one-half of their awake life at work -it should be a great place to 'hang out'.

Be cautious about where you advertise your positions. Some places tend to attract the 'least' qualified candidates and may sully your organization's aspirations by association.

Your local Technology User Groups are a great place to find folks that are committed to investing their time to enhance their skills and career. Consider sponsoring or Networking with appropriate User Groups.

If you choose to work with one or more recruiters, or staff augmentation firms, approach your selection with the same zeal and jaundiced eye as you apply toward a potential candidate. Be sure that they know that if they waste your time with unqualified candidates, you will stop accepting their submissions. You are the customer, and the submitted candidate is the product. Just like with anything else, if you don't see the products you want, tell the vendor, or shop elsewhere.

Be very clear on what you want, communicate that very clearly, and you will be more likely to find it. Take that first step, analyze your requirements, research the market, and get a better understanding about who you really need to hire, and what you may 'have' to afford. And consider how your organization's flexibility can be used to help a candidate grow into the position.

You may not be able to afford the person you want, but that doesn't mean you can't get there. Like a successful vintner, you need to have great 'root stock', provide a fertile environment, tend the vines, reap the fruits, and nurture until you can sip the sweet wine of success.

Published Saturday, September 21, 2013 6:14 PM by ArnieRowland



Jimmy Lin said:

Arnie, thanks for the very practical advice on hiring.  

September 22, 2013 10:58 AM

jchang said:

my opinions on this:

the fact is most organizations could benefit from the full suite of SQL Server features (with the exception of some special items) whether they currently use it or not. So listing requirements is a moot point unless this is one of several positions. The full suite of SQL Server features is too broad for any one person to be expert at all (or even good?) Many organizations may not have justification for more than one position.

On the matter of a highly qualified person/skill set?

Presumably such a person could handle difficult technical situations (of course the situation could be difficult for other reasons) and would want to be compensated for such skills.

Most organizations should not have difficult technical problems routinely, so why would they be willing to pay the high skill rate on a fulltime basis?

And finally, a highly skill person should be able to make a difficult situation more manageable, i.e., manageable by a moderately skilled person?

So there is a bit of a conundrum

September 22, 2013 1:11 PM
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