Hobbies and Interests

Several years ago I wrote an article summarising some of the key points I keep in mind while interviewing candidates for a test team. The article is called "Hiring Software Testers in an Information Age" and is available as a PDF on my main site. The article was originally targetted to recruiters who kept asking me for advice on hiring software testers and they would always be surprised at the level of detail that I went through in describing what it takes to hire a good person for a testing position.

Conversations with recruiters over coffee would always start the same. I would say something like: if you are just trying to find a warm body to fill a position, then you don't need to hear what I have to say.  If you want to hire someone who thinks and has a good chance of fitting in with the culture of the team and organisation to provide value, then it is a complex problem that requires insights into what the position actually involves.

There are about a dozen different checkpoints that I go through when considering and interviewing candidates, and the paper I wrote touched on some of the major points but not all of them.  Actually, I even removed some of them from the article as early drafts had too much information.  My intention was to get some of the important points across without writing a book.

Recently, a colleague and friend, Michael Mahlberg tweeted the following:
RT : At Atari we hired based on hobbies and not grades in school. We ended up with the best engineering group in the world.
I liked that comment and followed up with a supporting tweet:
On Hiring: if a résumé or cover letter doesn't describe Hobbies or other Interests, I usually skip it.
This sparked some conversation on twitter and I want to elaborate on my comment here.

First off, it is important to know that I place myself in the Context-Driven School of Testing. The principles of this 'school' puts the focus on the people working together to help deliver the right solution.  One of the things I have noticed over the last 22 years in the software industry is that the best testers are the ones who care about testing. They have fun with it. They believe they are working to improve things for the customer. They have a drive and motivation that lets them ignore or put up with a lot of crap that is dumped on them by unhealthy organisations and ignorant individuals.

Unfortunately, that kind of motivation, passion or drive doesn't come across on a standard résumé. I can spot it straight away when I am talking with someone, but how do you communicate it in a standard functional résumé?  In general, I don't see it in the "technical skills" or job description sections that focus on accomplishments and other task-oriented details. The majority of the time I notice evidence or hints of passion and motivation in the cover letter, if anywhere at all.

So, when I am hiring for a test team, a team that I want to integrate well with the rest of development and the organisation, a team that I want to focus on building human relationships as well as exercise systems and scientific thinking in their quality investigations, a team that I want to encourage fun and respect for their hard work in providing valuable information to help make timely decisions, where do I start when I am looking at a stack of résumés and job applications?

People who submit cover letters go to the top of the pile. People who include "Hobbies and Interests" in their résumés are next. People who don't submit a cover letter and don't tell me anything other than a bunch of dry technical information and job details are put at the bottom of the list and often fall right off the pile.

Having a cover letter or a "Hobbies and Interests" section doesn't guarantee an interview but your chances of having me give you a quick call are higher. So, what's the deal with this "Hobbies and Interests" section anyway?

Johanna Rothman wrote an awesome book called "Hiring the Best Knowledge Workers, Techies & Nerds." If you don't have a copy yet, and you are in the business of hiring technical people, I highly recommend you get a copy of this book.  Johanna is an awesome person and a terrific writer. She writes a few blogs and I learn a lot from them.

Johanna wrote a good blog post back in 2004 titled "Tips for Reviewing Resumes". One of the points she wrote in that post says: "Hobbies or other personal information. This stuff isn’t relevant to the job and should not be part of how you select candidates."

I partly agree with this sentence. I really don't care about personal information in an application. By "personal information" I mean things like marital status, age, sex, or anything else that the government might use to classify you in their census demographics charts.

What about hobbies and other interests? Things like: playing music (e.g. piano or guitar), likes to read, play video games, do magic, go cycling, martial arts, improv, and so on.

This stuff I find both interesting and relevant! Why? Creativity, passion and (skill) transference.

I am looking to hire people -- intelligent, thinking, caring, fun people and not drones. I honestly don't know whether the stuff I'm reading on your application is true, embellished or fabricated. I want to get an idea of the whole picture of who you are. I will test you for your technical ability during the interview, so I'm not worried about that part.  Finding someone who has the right mindset and will fit in with the rest of the team is harder to grasp from technical details and job accomplishments alone.

Based on how I currently understand, apply and teach Software Testing, I like to find candidates who exercise both their creative and analytical parts of their minds -- i.e. people who are right and left-brained (to use a dated, flawed model of the human mind). When I read through the candidate's hobbies and interests, I build a list of assumptions that I can check in a phone call or in-person interview.

Assumptions might be things like:

  • if I see someone who likes to do creative things like play music, sing, knit, et cetera, these are right-brained/creative activities. This is a good sign that the candidate might be good at Exploratory Testing as I do it.
  • if I see someone who participates in theatre, improv or role-playing games, then they may be good at user profiling and test design.
  • if someone likes to read, this may tell me that they are learners and continue to feed their imaginations. This is also a good sign for Exploratory Testing, and I am happy to ask them about the kinds of books they read.
  • sometimes their interests may align very well with the interests of the organisation and the product or solution in development. Things like playing video games or participating in sports are really good hobbies to have if the hiring company makes games or develops solutions for the Sports industry. 

There are too many examples for me to list here. The point is that sometimes the Hobbies and Interests section can provide me with insights that I won't get from the Work Experience, Technical Skills or Education sections of a résumé alone. I look for evidence of creativity, motivation, passion, balance, feeding imagination, professional activities, community involvement, and so on. Sometimes, the skills they develop in their hobbies are directly transferable to the testing tasks required -- e.g. learning, observation, relationship-building, organisation, analysis, design, problem-solving, and so on. Sometimes they aren't - it depends on the individual.

These are all assumptions, I know, so I treat them like assumptions. I make note of them and ask about them in phone calls and interviews.

If I like the candidate and hire them, I use their hobbies/interests as examples when coaching them on testing theory, models and practices. Since the hobby is familiar to them, I find this is a really powerful teaching technique. I also encourage them to come up with their own testing analogies using knowledge and experiences they are familiar with. It raises their self-confidence and helps them to remember abstract ideas in their own terms.

The likelihood of me finding a Testing Superstar by skimming through résumés is pretty slim. The likelihood of me finding a candidate who I can help become a Testing Superstar is much higher if I can learn more about them in their job application; learn more about what makes them a unique, creative, passionate individual who cares about others, doing excellent work, providing value and enjoying life.

But that's just me. All interviewers are different. Your mileage may vary.

When in doubt, I suggest candidates be themselves. If you are penalised in a hiring process for it, you don't want to work there anyway. You are allowed to have a life. Work is just a part of it.


  1. Hi

    I read this post two times.

    I like it so much, please try to keep posting.

    Let me introduce other material that may be good for our community.

    Source: QA tester cover letter

    Best regards

  2. This was the first time I've seen your article "Hiring Software Testers in an Information Age" and I'll be filing it away for the future! I also consider myself to be of the context-driven school of testing and rambled around for a few years in the other schools before "seeing the light". =)

    I like the idea of Hobbies and Interests as long as its short and sweet. It's probably a good conversation starter as you say its hard to infer what they get from the hobbies and activites by just reading it from a sheet of paper. Much like your example of not being able to infer what a applicant means by test cases or the pupose behind certification.

    What example applications do you have candidates test? Anything you can share?

  3. Thank you for your feedback, Chris.

    I have a collection of stand-alone and web-based apps to use in the interview. They include:

    1) Triangle Tester

    2) Black Box Test Machines from Workroom Productions

    3) some apps from the RST course

    4) some simple open-source multimedia apps

    I usually select the same app for a set of candidates that come in. I change it if a candidate has seen one before. I also change it depending on the kind of job/technology/team being interviewed.

    It is a time-boxed testing activity, so I need something simple. I mostly want to see how they think, structure & organise their thoughts, assess risks and assumptions, apply instincts & techniques, observe, record, communicate, and so on. There are no "canned" answers to the testing challenge.

    For example, I once ended an interview early when a Math graduate told me that he had "all the answers to the Triangle program." He may have known the minimum number of mathematical permutations for the algorithm but he failed to understand what it meant to test an application for a customer.

    I am interested to know what other apps hiring Testing managers use in their interviews - other than their own apps in development. I tend to stay away from using a real app that is in development - unless it is also available to the general public on the Web.

    Please leave a comment here to let me know. Thanks!