Avoiding Paper Tigers, Leeches and Space Cadets

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One of my favorite aspects about my job is recruiting. I absolutely love it! It’s true. Recruiting allows me to meet a lot of engineers and talk shop. You get to learn all about their backgrounds, interests, companies they have worked for and amazing projects they have worked on. If you are lucky you also have an amazing technical conversation at some point that leaves everyone impressed. What is not to love?

Well, I don’t love disappointing my team with a candidate. We have all been there either as a hiring manager or a member of the team. The team is totally pumped and excited to meet whiz bang candidate and interview them. However, after the candidate gets past the introductory phase everyone on the interview panel realizes they have been duped. The candidate turns out to be a complete dud. We are left to wonder how they made it through the screening process and got this far? It sucks and neither the team or the candidate is happy about it.

In this post I am going to introduce you to candidates that I have dubbed paper tigers, leeches and space cadets. These are the candidate types who in my experience you want to avoid like the plague. The problem is how do we identify them and discover them early on in the process? What characteristics do they have in common with great candidates that make them hard to distinguish? What questions can we ask them during a phone screen to ferret them out?

I don’t have prescriptive answers for all of these questions to be honest. I think by sharing my experience and raising some valid points, you might be able to avoid candidates like this in the future providing a better search experience for your team and the prospective candidates.

Screening 101

How many times have you read a candidate’s resume and thought to yourself how amazing this person is and what a great candidate they would make for your open position? Reviewing resumes and screening prospective candidates is not an easy thing to do. Resumes come in all forms and flavors making it difficult sometimes to read whether a candidate has the relevant experience necessary for the job. A few things that I have noticed that help in the process include the following:

  • Reject any candidate that doesn’t write a personalized cover letter - It doesn’t take that much effort to explain why you are interested and why your experience is right for the job then don’t bother.
  • Favor resumes that tell a story and really emphasize what the candidate is interested in and passionate about - If people are doing it just for the money they won’t make great members of your team.
  • Resumes that illustrate how they used their skills are better than ones that just list everything they have ever used - I dislike people who just mind numblingly list programming languages they have used. You can’t tell if they have only played with the language or whether they used it professionally
  • Forget resumes that have more than one grammatical error or spelling mistakes right away - I know this is tough for folks where English isn’t their first language. There are so many tools now that to me it reflects effort more than language difficulty.
  • Weed out resumes that don’t contain the relevant experience or work history in them because stretch candidates rarely work in practice - This is just a no brainer to me.
  • A pet peeve of mine is resumes that are sent as Word docs instead of PDFs especially for technology positions - Send a PDF so I don’t have to worry about which version of Word I have installed or how crappy the doc gets displayed when converted in Google Docs.

Of course there are more tips for screening but this isn’t meant to be a comprehensive breakdown of how to filter through resumes. Years ago, Joel Spolsky wrote a nice piece on the subject so you can read that for reference.

Paper Tigers

Like the name I have given them implies, the best way to describe people who fall into this category is that they look fantastic on paper but completely underwhelm when interviewed in person. They either totally lack on the technical side or something else comes up where they don’t impress. Not being to totally put my finger on this person here are a few characteristics that I have noticed about them. Here are what you will immediately see when you read their resume:

  • Their resume is easy to read and really well organized making it clear who they worked for and what they worked on.
  • The companies they have worked for are well known for their products or development teams and it seems they made great contributions to either or both.
  • The person has a solid educational background with degrees from well known schools and programs.
  • The projects they list are relevant and have a high correlation to the position they are applying for.
  • They perfectly meet all of the requirements for the level of experience for the position.

This all sounds great so where does it go awry? Well this is what I have found to be true from paper tigers when I phone screen or interview them in person:

  • They tailored their resume to perfectly fit the job description however they neither have the skills or the experience required.
  • If they are from an agency you find the recruiter just “resume stuffed” and the person who you are speaking with isn’t really the person they presented on paper.
  • They listed they are qualified in too many technologies, languages and frameworks when you drill you confirm your notion that no one person can be an expert in everything they listed.
  • When you dig into their experience, you find they are part of a larger team and didn’t have the hands on experience and had actual little involvement in the project or technology
  • Another quality is listing items they haven’t worked with in production but it shows up on their resume as if they have.
  • They lie about the amount of experience and later it comes out that they have much less than they claimed because they claim the length of the entire project as their own vs their actual involvement in it.
  • They did the project on their own time and have never done it professionally but count it as real experience on their resume.


The next category I have dubbed Leeches because like a leach, they survive off of the work of others. In their resumes they take credit for others but instead of being caught in the phone screen, they pull it off and might not be exposed until you hire them. When they join your team they drain it just like a parasite which is bad for the team’s productivity, chemistry and moral. Some of the characteristics of this type of candidate include most everything from the paper tiger and additionally:

  • They led or worked with an offshore team or remote team in another location.
  • They will claim to have setup or built a team but in reality they had no part in the growth at all.
  • They indicate they selected a technology or vendor but then never worked with them or were part of the implementation.
  • There was strong technical leadership on the team that they are trying to take credit for as their work and actions and involvement.
  • You find out through references that this person isn’t in the top half of people that person has worked with.
  • They know just enough to be dangerous but don’t have the full experience and rely on their teammates to actually do the work.
  • Beware the phantom and exaggerated titles from smaller companies that imply leadership and experience but when you drill in they don’t have it.

Space Cadet

This is a more recent category of candidate for me. Several times in my career I have come across a bright individual and think the person could fill in more than one role on the team. The problem with this person is they really don’t know what they want to do with their careers. Sometimes some simple coaching can really benefit this type of candidate, but other times you are just dealing with a person who really doesn’t know what they want to do. This person I call a space cadet because they have no clue and if you bring them on to your team, they will ultimately blow it up like a failed rocket launch through their ambivalent actions.

How do you tell if you are talking to a space cadet? Here are a few things that might help you discern them from good candidates:

  • They work at a very large company where they can kind of drift and hide from real responsibility or success.
  • The person has worked at their present company for a rather long time.
  • They have found a unique position at their current company that doesn’t really apply to your company.
  • The person is unsure whether they want to be a manager or a technical lead. The main reason they are unsure is because they don’t really understand the difference between the roles.
  • The candidate is usually a really smart and well educated person but you just have a hunch they haven’t fully applied themselves like other candidates with similar backgrounds have.
  • They just totally have no freaking idea what they really want to do or how to effectively use their talents.

Discovery Techniques

I don’t have any powerful insights here except to take the time to really get to know the candidate. One technique I use is to ask open ended questions and see where the candidate goes with their response. You’ll know if they are bluffing or really qualified as you ask more questions that involve them sharing the depth of their knowledge.

One example when it comes to roles is:

How do you define good software architecture?

Totally open ended and doesn’t give anything away. The answer can go anywhere from discussing Design Patterns to Sandi Metz Rules

As an example one of my favorite ruby questions was simply:

What is the difference between an array and a hash in ruby?

If you wind up talking about indexes and the conversation stops there the candidate is pretty junior. If they take it all the way to the C code in the MRI discussing the b-tree search for the hash then you know they’ve been there and done that!

Another trick I have used to suss people like this out is to ask the same or a related question again either during the interview, or for the next round of the interview process. If candidates can’t keep their stories and answers straight there is pretty high likelihood of them being a paper tiger or a leach.

Let me know what your experience has been! Have you interviewed these types of candidates and what techniques did you use to separate them out from the good candidates you wanted to move ahead with?