Laurie Voss, CTO of NPM recently wrote one of the best written articles on hiring ever. It applies to my experience in the financial services field as well as the technical fields.
I was a hiring manager for about 13 years of my 15 years on Wall St. I interviewed everything from college dropouts to Ivy League finance majors. Since most of the teams I was tasked with staffing, I was exceptionally focused on hiring for attitude and fit in more than academics and technical skills. The smaller the team, the more they are going to have to work together. So, even if a person was incredibly technically skilled, the team as a whole would suffer.
When you are putting in 60 hours a week week in and out with someone, you’d better be able to get along. This doesn’t mean that you had to like everyone. Quite the contrary. It does mean that you need to respect the other people in your team. I’ve seen brilliant people flare out quickly since they ended up hating coming to work. No matter how good they were, they would move on in one way or the other. This is different than the Peter Principle though it is a bit of a corollary.
At Waterhouse, after one of the many mergers, I heard our culture describe as “FIFO.” It stood for fit in or fuck off. I had not given it much thought but it was true. People that fit in and were able to do their jobs tended to do well. Even if they weren’t the most skilled, they were able to establish and maintain great teams that were highly productive.
At one point, I managed one of the largest and most productive teams in our company. We grew from 1 full time broker to a team of 7 very high performing people. Not a single person had a degree in finance. One was an art history major that was a flight attendant. One had worked as a fundraiser for the Bob Marley Foundation, one was a bartender than had an English degree, and one had not yet finished college but had been an entrepreneur. You get the idea. What did work was everyone worked well together and we all saw the big picture. In fact, we only half jokingly called ourselves “The Island of Misfit Brokers.”
Some of the things I got from the article, and I’m liberally stealing here, are as follows:
1. Focusing Totally On The Wrong Things
As managers, we frequently obsess about our needs RIGHT NOW but we forget that our business and livelihood also exists tomorrow and the day/week or even decade after. One of the best things I learned from a manager that the smaller the team, the more critical it is for personality and ability to learn are. Sometimes, when you are in a large team, you can get away with being an unsocial expert since your one task is to produce a specific widget.
Long term, you will be stuck with a buggy whip maker, and we know where they end up. Yes, there is a market for expert buggy whip makers and they make money to be sure, however, their lot is a bit set in life.
When I interviewed, I’d see people with otherwise ideal resumes that I wouldn’t hire on a bet. People had spectacular grasps on finance but didn’t understand people. What people don’t get about Wall St is it’s 3/4 about your relationship with people, maybe 1/4 your ability to do actual finance. In web development, I’ve seen a LOT of incredibly talented designers or PHP ninjas that, while they were legitimately experts in their niche, they weren’t comfortable in a production environment or a close knit team setting. I’d rather hire someone that has a solid knowledge of the field that is very willing to learn new things.
2. Performance Testing Rarely Works
In both industries, I’ve seen people that were able to churn out incredible work product on a technical level. They would come up with some incredible solutions that nobody had though of before but we never ever bothered to test for them being able to reuse code or building on what someone else did.
Frankly, that is hard to test for. It has always been hard to test for creativity (Meyer Briggs accolates aside) and personality. So, that testing like the infamous Fizz Buzz test. Also, if you hire suboptimal people based on “objective” testing, you are much less likely to be sued. I’d rather have someone that hacked the hell out of a popular theme to make it unique than creating something from scratch that doesn’t reflect some creativity.
3. Obsessing With Credentials – The Education Trap
Both Wall St and the technical fields are very guilty of this. We obsess over degrees from famous institutions and certifications from various bodies. This is where we fall in the same trap that the modern post No Child Left Behind educational system has. We think that testing actually reflects ability. Having been an educator as well as being married to an educator, I can absolutely attest that testing rarely equates to ability. Yes, some testing is spot on, however it rarely reflects just how good someone is.
What testing does do is provide us with a baseline of knowledge. This is an easy out to say that it provides us with a given. I get it, I really do, we hate the unkown and certifications/degrees/testing gives us at least something known. However, it still vastly misses the mark.
4. Obsessing With Someone’s Resume
Just because someone worked for one of the top firms in the industry doesn’t mean they will work for you. I knew at one time having Enron or IBM on your resume was considered a shoo in for a job or at the very least a call back. However, we’re falling into the same trap as with the obsession over someone’s credentials.
5. Friends and Family
Here is where I disagree, somewhat, with Laurie Voss. She thinks that our existing relationships with people can poison our opinions of someone. Usually, they poison them well to the positive. I’ll give her that. Most people aren’t able to differentiate between relationships and business. Luckily, I’ve never had this problem. I’ve hired some very good friends but I’ve also had to fire or lay off really good friends. It ate me up since I knew their circumstances. As a manager or team leader, your main job is to produce a product in one form or the other. If you can’t stand back with dispassion and cut off that performance cancer, it will spread throughout the organization and that is not good.
This is another corollary with the Peter Principle. You’re allowing people that are not the best candidates to fill your organization. That is if you can’t stand back and put your relationship behind the needs of the team. The reason I’ve encouraged my staff’s recommendations for new employees is that existing relationship. You do tend to know those people much better than you will if they’re just some guy you met at a conference.
Also, I think most people in a smaller team will tend to recommend people that will fill the holes that need to be filled. With small and even mid sized teams, they know instinctively that if they recommend someone that is bad, it will not only hurt themselves thanks to the poor recommendation but that recommendation directly reflects on them. In a way, I admire the way the mafia does it as far as it comes to someone standing up for someone else.
What Works…At Least For Me
1. Hire For Personality, Train For Skill
Hire someone that will fit in with the team. Even if they only have a portion of the skillset, unless their is an absolutely dire need, be willing to figure out how to train them in the position. In my experience, this also helps build up camaraderie in the teams. Done right, people each know they have a role to fill and will step up to the role.
2. Will They Improve Or Grow?
Or, are they everything you need them to ever be and you don’t expect or really need them to grow? If they are the latter, then they’ll stagnate in their position. That or they will leave you and since they are the expert, they’ll be the only one that really knows their job role. That is bad. Look for someone that has a chance of growing and flourishing.
3. Do They Have Their Stuff Together?
Not just in personal matters. Are they the kind of person that you can assign a task to and have them actually accomplish it? I’ve seen numerous truly talented people get lost in their jobs. They just couldn’t hack it. This is especially true in agile teams. They focus on being able to do 1 thing incredibly well and when they go out of their comfort zone, they collapse.
Do they know what they know and what they don’t know? I always cringe in interviews when someone comes off as an expert or a person who doesn’t have any room to grow. I’ve always avoided them like a plague. I’ve hired brokers that didn’t have a strong college education but they admitted it but were willing to grow. I’ve also seen developers that didn’t have experience in web development get hired that flat out admitted they didn’t do programming but “got it” and were willing to bust ass to get it. Those people are worth their weight in gold.
Are their exceptions? Absolutely. Sometimes you have a project and you desperately need a dodecahedron shaped peg to fit in the dodecahedron shaped hole. It’s unavoidable. In really giant teams, sometimes they can find other dodecahedrons to work with. However, as I said, I’m more concerned with small/medium workgroups.
6. Big Picture
This quite frankly is the most important section. I’ve talked a LOT about focusing on people that fit in. However, don’t fall into the trap of hiring the exact same person every time. I was well known for having teams that were diverse on every possible front. It would have been easier to keep hiring clones of the team but frankly, that makes it very boring. Also, you’re going to have to work with these people for a long time. Even if you are hiring for a different team, everyone on that team will remember who hired them for a very very long time.
Homogeneous teams are the intellectual easy out. However, they get boring quickly. The more diversity a team has the more opinions and views that are brought in. They also bring in new ways of viewing things that you may not have thought of. Seriously, don’t fall for the homogenous trap.
Homogenous is lazy, but it’s easy. If you have a known quantity then it’s quick to staff a team of clones. Not only is this not going to work long term, it could open you up to a really big and well deserved lawsuit. Take the time to find the best candidates to meet your criteria. Even if you aren’t currently hiring, it doesn’t hurt to have feelers out. I’ve had some experience finding an insanely great candidate but no real role for them to really fill. I’ve hired them and let them find their fit. In those cases, I made sure to let them know what was up and that for the time being, they were spleens: nice to have but not totally needed. People appreciate the honesty quite frankly and are willing to sometimes go the extra mile knowing that.
View The Big Picture
View The Long Term
Would You Want To Work With This Person Long Term
Take Your Time