Blog of Rob Galanakis (@robgalanakis)

Hiring your cake and eating it too

When evaluating candidates, I have always been a believer that cultural fit and potential to improve is more important than technical ability. Of course I like to review real code samples and give a programming test, but I rarely ask for whiteboard programming. I am not a master of algorithms or math and don’t have a CS background, so I don’t require that of most candidates*. As Five Thirty Eight explains and shows, people just want to date themselves.

This policy is amazingly ego-centric. But it’s also worked pretty well. Without exception, I’m proud of the hires I’ve had a primary stake in. But it is the best policy, at least for the type of work I’m doing?

I think I am a pretty darn good hire. Why would I want to exclude people like me? Well, the fact is that I’m not special. There are way more gifted people around than me. There are plenty of people who are a great fit, and are great leaders, managers, developers, and coaches, and are awesome at math and algorithms. Should I overlook myself to try and get someone better?

Clearly companies like Google can do this. There are anecdotes about people who they hired the second or third time around. People like Steve Yegge. On the other hand, there are plenty of managers that hire “to fill a seat.” Can every company interview like Google, and reject otherwise promising candidates that do not ace a challenging technical interview?

Who you choose to hire does not define what your company is, it defines what your company will become. If you give in and make unenthusiastic hires, your amazing company will be dragged into mediocrity. If you hold the line and hire only the best, you’ll continue to excel, if you can find people. In reality, most companies are somewhere in the middle.

The “best” policy is the one that fits your situation. In an isolated job market, you may choose to value fit and culture. A tight-knit culture may help retention, and make it easier for the inevitable low performers to improve. At a startup, you may have limited headcount, short timelines, and immediate technical needs. Cultural fit would be trumped by technical expertise and experience. On the other hand, cultural fit may be most important at an established company. The biggest risk is a dilution of the culture, and there are plenty of senior people around to do mentoring.

Recognizing what you should select for is much more important than simply always trying to be as selective as possible.

* Obviously there are exceptions. If you need expertise, you need expertise. My thoughts apply to the 80% case.

One thought on “Hiring your cake and eating it too

  1. robert kist says:

    I’m quite practical here. When I hire people I want them to be in my team for the long term, because hiring new people is an investment. Hiring is expensive, but also it takes time (and thus money) until someone fits into the team and gets to know the ropes.
    For this the chemistry must be right. Tech art work is teamwork. If you don’t fit into the team, then all the time I gain by your technical excellence will be wasted again by managing your ego (or lack thereof). I believe it is easier (and much less stressful for me) if we teach you technical things rather than trying to shape your personality. That’s much more time intensive, stressful and difficult, especially if you’re a technical artist and not a psychologist.

    My interview usually focus on the candidates work. Talk about your folio, talk about your job, talk about your professional interests. Ask us clever questions (I believe that a candidate’s clever questions tell me more about themselves than their clever answers do). What’s your hobby project, what coding or tech art related would you do if you had a lot of time on your hands? How’d you go about it and what tech would you choose? Personally I don’t really believe in nitpicky coding questions. Although there’s a standardized test for more senior candidates which will be taken into account as well.

    Sometimes you really need raw expertise and skill, and I think those are the dangerous hiring situations. You may feel tempted to make exceptions just so you can have a guy who helps you with something for a deliverable. That I think that can be a mistake – you really have to weight short term vs. long term benefits here, or you hire such a person on a contractual basis, if you’re not sure if they’ll fit.

    But in the end,hiring is like planning a project – it’s essentially you trying, with some clever methods, to predict the future. In my career I always fared well with people who I hired because they could talk about themselves, their work, who showed enthusiasm and curiosity. People who would go home and then work or research their own things because they love what they do. Those are the guys who stay in the team, who get promoted, and who’ll actively try to improve themselves. And in that case, does it really matter that much how good they are at the beginning?

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