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Cultural fit | Group of coworkers laughing together in a room that has a back wall full of books.
May 10, 2023 · 5 min read

The technical skills myth: Why cultural fit is just as important

While technical skills are important, cultural fit is one of the most critical factors in hiring and retaining top engineering talent. Prioritizing and assessing cultural fit helps to build high-performing, stable teams. 

When it comes to hiring a developer based on their skillset, the options are a dime a dozen. In fact, if you needed a JavaScript developer with ten or more years of experience, we have 386 of them currently open to work. But you don’t need 386 developers, you need one. And preferably one who gels with the rest of your team. So let’s dive into why that’s so important, and how you find that one that ticks all the boxes and then some.

Technical skills change rapidly and are hard to assess

The rate of change when it comes to technologies increases with each passing year. And while many times it’s simply a matter of learning what’s in the newest version of a language’s release, there is also the potential for a candidate who appears skilled on paper to be lacking in the knowledge that would help your product grow.

The “short” interview process can also take a little blame here. Sure, most traditional interviews span a matter of weeks, including a technical interview. But how much can you assess within the scope of a one- to two-hour technical interview? Who do you know that performs like a superstar when three people are watching and judging every keystroke? Even reference checks can be dubious indicators of on-the-job performance, unless you already know and trust that reference to have rigorously vetted the employee’s performance. 

Cultural fit is key to retention and productivity

There’s truth to the old adage “People don’t leave bad jobs, they leave bad managers.” But for engineers, it extends even further. Quite often, we see them leaving jobs because of a poor cultural fit, rather than strictly bad management. Put poor management, a lack of challenge, and bad company culture together in a room, and what you get is a group of unhappy, disengaged employees who are less productive. And when one person feels it, more are sure to go right behind. 

Contrast that with a company that values its employees, challenges and rewards them, and helps to expand their knowledge base. Management that’s invested in their employees as not just the means of production, but as human beings capable of solving complex problems, having valid and useful opinions that help the company grow. And while this will look different for every company, what remains the same is that you are creating a culture that fosters creativity and respect, and rewards the hard work of their team.

When it comes to hiring for culture, it’s far tricker than hiring for skills. Integrating personalities is a difficult task, but having a solid cultural foundation can help reduce the friction. 

How to hire for culture

Define what it means to you

“We like to have fun here!” 

“We’re like a family!”

“Work hard, play hard!”

Loose, general phrases like this have a tendency to be more of a red flag than a welcoming invitation. What kind of fun do you like having? How does it pertain to the workplace? Do you even like your family? Explicitly define what company or team culture means to you, and avoid the ambiguity. Talk about your team’s values, how you communicate, what work-life balance looks like in real, practical terms, and what priorities hold the most importance.

Include cultural factors in your interview process

There are a number of personality assessment tests available online (including our very own WorkStyle assessment) that can give you a better understanding of how a person will work within the structure of a team. Use these in conjunction with an interview that is solely designed to see how well team members get along with a potential hire and get a good idea of what those interactions look like. Talk to the people you’re interviewing about what they value most in a workplace, or what their goals and ambitions are, and see if they align with your idea of success.

Utilize probationary periods and contract-to-hire

No matter how many personality tests you send over, or how many minutes over the allotted interview time you still find yourself kvetching about all things hobby related, nothing substitutes for seeing how a person functions when the rubber hits the road. Consider instituting probationary periods where you can assess their cultural fit. Another great option, and probably our favorite around here, is working on a contract-to-hire basis. This gives both parties the time and space to feel things out and make an amicable decision at the end of the contract period. 

Provide growth opportunities and flexibility

Technical skills will strengthen over time, especially when you build a culture that invests in learning and mentorship. Providing people with the opportunity to grow creates a stimulating and engaging environment, and challenges people to come to the table with ideas. Offering stipends for learning or building a mentorship program are both great ways to continually foster that.

The other big contributor to building a great culture is to be flexible. You have hired someone because you value the work they do and their ability to apply their expertise to build a product. Give them autonomy, trust, and respect, and they will thrive. Allow the space and time for them to go to the park for a few hours with their kids on a sunny day, or make midday doctor’s appointments without it feeling like a burden to the team. Autonomy and flexibility will do more good for your team than any other single thing.

Companies should evaluate cultural fit right off the bat, since it’s one of the most important factors for success. Focus on motivation and potential as well as existing skills; the right skills for the job today may be outdated quickly. And remember that losing a candidate with great technical skills but poor culture fit won’t hurt as much as losing a great culture match who develops excellent skills over time. Technical skills can be taught, cultural fit is built.