The initial candidate prescreen is essential to determining fit for the positions you are filling. Whether in person or over the phone, this assessment is a crucial step in gathering as much information about the candidate as possible. When screening technical and other scientifically-oriented candidates this is especially critical. While some technical recruiters originally come from a technical background, some of the best technical recruiters learned along the way. Many of the best technical recruiters have never taken a single class on technology. Instead they have an open mind, listen closely to what the candidates tell them, learn from their candidates, utilize all available resources and employ good interview techniques.
The first, and one of the most general techniques is to "let down your guard" with the candidate. Let them know that you are not a technical expert but thoroughly understand what it takes to be successful in this company. State that you have a strong conceptual understanding of technology but no specific experience. While you still retain control of the interview process, you allow the candidate to educate you on their technical skills and the technology in general. Make it understood that you need to clearly transcribe their skills and experience with technology. The benefits to this technique are that you become better educated on the subject as you perform each pre-screen and you encourage the candidate to be clear, complete and concise in their explanations to you.
Access sources of information on the technology for which you are planning to screen. Talk to your client and have them explain exactly what the position's role in the organization is going to be and the key skill sets and experiences for which you should be looking. Take this information and access some resources to educate yourself on the technology. You need to know enough to ask intelligent, open ended questions relevant to the position you are filling. Start by prompting the candidate with questions like, "tell me about your experience in programming Informix databases". If you are asking "yes or no" questions, you will have to be very knowledgeable yourself to get all of the information you need. As you get better acquainted with a technology, you will find that you can hone in more quickly on a given point and use specific, direct questions such as "have you programmed 4GLs for Informix databases?" Take the terminology you hear from your best candidates back to your reference materials to use as a starting point for further investigation. We recommend that you use a simple 4 step interview methodology --- Identify, Quantify, Qualify and Verify. Identify the candidate's key skill sets, quantify the number of years they have with the technology, qualify whether they feel their skill with the technology is heavy, medium or light, and finally verify their experience with specific examples.
Acquainting yourself with certifications appropriate to the skills you are screening for is a great way to determine a candidate's proficiency. Start by reviewing the resume for certifications, confirm this information during the pre-screen and inquire about any other certifications the candidate has that may be relevant. In many rapidly changing technologies, you'll also need to determine how recently the candidate was certified. If the certification was not recent, it is critical that the candidate has been working in this skill area in recent positions to insure that they are up to speed in a given technology. Increasingly, candidates and recruiters are using the resume as a "string" of searchable words, easily retrievable on the Internet. The tactical placement of technology buzzwords and certification acronyms will assure that resumes are matched and retrieved by automated agents or an ordinary search engine. This is a great starting point in finding the right resume, but only with intelligent questions can the recruiter ascertain if these terms are relevant, up to date, and truly representative of the right candidate. An added benefit to being familiar with appropriate certifications is that you'll have an extra "clue" in finding candidates on job boards and the Web because you can search for the certification name or acronym.
If you are continually recruiting in the same technology area, "hang out" in a user or discussion group or subscribe to a mailing list relevant to the technology. This will provide you with information on some of the important buzzwords associated with that technology and may even clue you in to recent developments. Single out those regular contributors to the discussion, and if they seem to be helpful and open in their comments, you can contact them directly outside of the discussion to ask about a technical issue. If you do not interrupt the discussion list, and are frank yet courteous in your inquiry, many technical people will be more than happy to help you. Defer to their expertise and let them know that you are a recruiter seeking some information about a specific technological subject. Stay focused on information gathering and don't be tempted to directly solicit them for a job opening. However, you may find that a good relationship with one of these resident "experts" on a discussion list will yield an added benefit in the long term: referrals and requests for information from you about your current job openings.
Make Your Point
As in any pre-screen, the written document you send to your client or hiring manager is the critical step to moving the candidate forward in the interview process. Summarize the information you've gathered on the candidate in a form that conveys very clearly the exact level of competency in critical areas. If you've used the four-step interview method: identify, quantify, qualify and verify, your write up should be very simple and straightforward to complete. This presentation has three aspects: technical skills, actual experience, and certifications. It is not enough to say that the candidate "has experience with" a given technology; details about the number of years, and a simple, consistent scale (i.e., "light", "medium" or "heavy" experience) provides a great deal of information in a few words. Also include a few sentences on past projects the candidate has completed in relevant skill sets, including the scope of the project, the candidate's role, the length and technical parameters of the project, and details of the quality and success of the effort.