Andy Budd on Hiring Dysfunction

@andybudd:

I see a growing disconnect in our industry between companies wanting to hire the most talented people, and the experience the most talented people I know have during the interview process. A short thread…

I see a lot of company leaders complaining that they can’t find people with the right skills and experience to fill their open roles. Roles will often go unfilled for months, and when they do finally fill those roles, the person will be a poor fit and leave within months.

At the same time I hear from so many objectively talented people about being on the job market for 9 months, having countless interviews and being continually ghosted by companies.

I think I’ve finally figured out why this in happening, and it’s largely to do with companies mistaking experience for skillset. Let me explain…

A lot of companies want to hire people who have done exactly the same job as they’re hiring for, for an almost identical company as they know that person can fit right in, with minimum risk.

You’re looking for a PM to join your ride sharing team? Then you look for somebody who either worked at a competing ride sharing company first, or a company with a similar model, like a Deliveroo or Task Rabbit.

That’s great, but what you end up creating are echo chambers. You also end up hiring folks who have got comfortable solving one class of problem, and then repeating it ad infinitum.

The most talented people I know generally crave novelty. They enjoy thinking about and solving new problems, rather than relying on what what worked for them previously. They’re essentially growth oriented people focussed on learning.

This is what the Lean Start-up tells us we should be optimising for, so it’s ironic that companies generally optimise for people who have worked in the same type of business solving similar problems before…

On the other side of the coin I meet super talented people who clearly have the skills necessary to excel at the role, but they came from an agency background, a corporate background, or the wrong size of flavour of start-up and the hiring manager struggles to see the fit.

What’s happening here is that the hiring manager is mistaking experience for skill-set. Rather than thinking, “his person has solved this class of problems before”, they’re thinking, “this person hasn’t been employed by this type of company before.”

As a result, I see super talented people who come from a slightly different background get repeatedly passed over in favour of more mediocre candidates with a super safe identikit background.

People who went to the right school, dress the right look, know a few other mediocre people from the same school that work at said company, and have done 9 month stints at Google, Facebook and Twitter running mediocre teams shipping mediocre (but safe and predictable) product.

This disappoints me as somebody who enjoyed hiring in the early years of the web, when there wasn’t a specific background to hire from, and instead everybody was some sort of misfit.

Because you know the people with the misfit background had super interesting stories to tell, were highly motivated problem solvers, and would enrich your company culture.

You could hire these people if you were primarily indexing on skill-set. However if you’re using work experience and brand recognition at a proxy for skill-set because the person hiring doesn’t know what good looks like, you end up with safe mediocrity.

This all rings true, and I have some additional thoughts.

First, “safe mediocrity” is probably the status quo, especially when it comes to hiring. Hiring is one of the highest-risk activities of an engineering leader. The cost of failing is immense both financially and emotionally. Most people would probably prefer to tolerate mediocrity forever than risk the challenges of parting ways with an employee and finding a replacement. This is especially true if you already need to hire a large number of people.

Aside: safe mediocrity is usually the norm across the board since in many organizations any successes derived from risk-taking are quickly forgotten, but the cost for failing is often one’s job.

Because of my diverse background, my rubric for hiring was different from most. I did not immediately look for extensive experience with our stack (almost all applicants will have self-selected based on having some experience with one of our languages or frameworks), as long as the candidate showed experience (or displayed aptitude) in learning new things. That requires curiosity, the indicators of which are subtle. What things are they interested in outside of work, and how do they talk about them? How do they talk about their work experience outside of coding? What kind of questions do they ask about our company, our processes? Are they primarily worried about our benefits and PTO, which probably aren’t that much different from others, or are they worried about what their day-to-day existence is going to look like? Finally, are they looking for how much impact they could make on the business, or simply how much this role will benefit their career trajectory?

Sure, we did technical screening, but it focused on the basics and on how they thought about the technical problems we presented to them. Esoteric details about a JavaScript framework can be googled. Grit, curiosity, growth mindset, ability to collaborate, knowing what questions to ask, and broader problem-solving skills cannot be.