Passion (n.) A strong or extravagant fondness, enthusiasm, or desire for something
When interviewing candidates for engineering roles, we often want to understand their “passion for technology.” We evaluate passion for technology because we want to hire engineers who are motivated and driven to create technology, not because they’re paid to do so but because they have a deep interest and internal drive to do so.
Changing times for technology
When I started at Microsoft in 1992 the world of personal computers and software was very different than today. When we interviewed a college graduate and found them to have a solid understanding of technology, it was usually for one of two reasons:
- They had pursued a degree in what was still essentially a new field. Most universities were just beginning to offer Computer Science specialization (we saw more candidates with Mathematics or Electrical Engineering degrees) or their programs were oriented more around mainframe systems than personal computing technology. For a candidate to go into an emerging field that wasn’t mainstream yet demonstrated a kind of passion for the space.
- They were an enthusiastic hobbyist, learning for themselves by writing code as part of pursuit of another degree (e.g. the Chemical Engineer who falls in love with coding as part of an undergraduate project) or as part of their personal interests; such as building their own PCs and add-ons in the first “maker” movement of technology adoption. These enthusiasts also showed their passion in the pursuit of their hobby.
No one who applied for a job at Microsoft in 1992 grew up surrounded by smart devices, connected to the internet, with a world of information and entertainment always on demand. They grew up in an analog era and had to be deeply passionate about technology in order to be knowledgeable at all. We could almost assume they had that passion by even applying.
But today’s college graduates are different. A typical graduate earning a degree in Computer Science, Computer Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Robotics, or any of a myriad of other technology degrees would typically have been born after 1992. They likely would have spent their teens before heading off to college in a household that had 1 or more computers, cellular phones, game consoles, iPods, tablets, high speed internet, Wikipedia, Netflix, YouTube, and Facebook. They would have been immersed in technology all around them as an intrinsic part of their lives. Even if they had no interest at all in having a career in tech they would have a tremendous amount of basic knowledge and be able to converse fairly fluently with someone who had a deep and abiding passion for technology.
So as those technology-steeped teens go off to college, many of them vector towards a tech degree. The field is now well known to be lucrative. It’s exciting and vibrant and a core part of our modern life. And it is less intimidating for many because unlike, say, archeology or criminology they will start with a pretty solid proficiency to build upon just from their life experiences. They are often extremely sophisticated users of technology, and the first ones to try a new device, app, or service. They may self identify as a geek or technophile. So it makes sense that it would be a career that many would pursue.
But there is a pretty big difference between:
“I really want SOMEONE to build ‘The Next Big Thing in Technology’ because I think it would be amazing and cool and I really want to USE it.”
“I really want to play a direct and hands-on role in MAKING ‘The Next Big Thing’ in technology because I think it would be fun and exciting to CREATE.”
Over the past several years I’ve seen an increase in the number of candidates who would be in the former category, whom I would qualify as “extremely sophisticated users” – i.e. consumers of technology who are very engaged in its use and application. Often these candidates are missing what I consider a fundamental passion for tech; the desire to understand at a detailed level how technology actually works and the interest and determination to create something for themselves.
For example, I interviewed a CS grad recently who had passed his technical interview by the time he reached me, and was very excited about the promise of technology and why he thought he wanted a career in it. He spoke passionately about how it connects us and provides democratic access to information. When we drilled into how he applied himself to this goal however, I quickly found that he wasn’t fundamentally very interested in actually making software. Despite a CS degree with honors from a great school, he’d done no programming outside of class, wasn’t really up on the latest technology concepts, and his answers were all very shallow when I gave him a problem asking him to design a software solution to a problem.
Even with great training and knowledge, unless one has the passion to contribute in a direct and hands-on way to creating new technology, success in an engineering role is unlikely. (And by “success” I don’t mean getting promotions and recognition. I mean; deriving joy and personal satisfaction from one’s work while making a significant impact on the lives of customers and to the industry via contribution to the products and services we create.)
Evaluating passion for technology in interviews
As I conduct interviews, I try to be more watchful for this rather than just assuming that if someone applies to work in a tech job, they must love technology and want to be part of making it. I ask questions to identify any indications that the desire to work in a hands-on way may not be there. Some sample questions I use are:
- “What projects are you working on just for yourself, not for school?” – most hands-on enthusiasts will have something on the side, even if it’s a project they never started but have been dreaming about. I watch for them to smile or get excited as they talk about their pet projects – often they’ll light up when talking about it way more than their favorite school project or internship.
- “What app development have you tried that you weren’t learning in school?” – the tools to build Windows, iOS, Android, or Linux apps are almost all free (at least to students) so the barrier to entry is basically zero. People who want to make software will usually have tinkered if nothing else.
- “Have you done any Maker projects with Arduino, Raspberry Pi, or other inexpensive boards?” – once again, the tools to get started are very inexpensive so the barrier to entry is low. An Arduino starter kit with board and sensors is typically less than dinner with friends. Tinkering with IoT or robotics tech shows a level of interest in creation.
- “What is the coolest technology you’ve heard about recently?” – weak candidates will answer with “the cloud” or something pat that they’ve heard from every news source. Good candidates will either talk about some niche of tech (this gives you a good idea of which team to place them in btw) or will have many interesting insights or opinions about a general topic like “the cloud.”
- “What was the program that you had the most fun writing?” – usually will be a school project, but look for the way they ‘light up’ when they talk about the project. Did they get excited about the act of making it? The late nights, hard problems, and eventual triumph? Did they get excited about the unique and clever way they solved a problem in code? Think about the times where you and your team have tackled and solved a hard engineering problem and the way that made you feel – look for the same joy in them that you felt then.
- “Technology is advancing at a furious pace, what do you do to stay up to speed on it?” – look for techie news sources which cater to industry insiders or the kind of readers who expect deep technical detail as well as the opinions and buzz. Great candidates will have some favorites and be able to tell you why they’re a favorite. Weak candidates will either just mutter something about “the internets” or not really have a source outside of school and friends, or only a highly consumer-oriented source like Wired.
These questions are examples of how one can try to assess a person’s passion for technology and how much they are motivated to be a creator of the future of tech vs. an enthusiastic user. I don’t expect a “hire” candidate to provide great answers to every one of these, nor that we should reject candidates who don’t write a ton of code in their spare time. But fundamentally if you are building software you’ll want to hire candidates who demonstrate that they want to do that in a really direct and hands-on way. Having excitement about technology as a sophisticated user should have been where they started their journey to work in tech. After completing their degree, they should be a sophisticated user and a passionate creator of technology if they are to have a great career in engineering.