On Hiring Talent (Not Just Programmers)

You could hire through open source like Git­Hub (“we hire ‘The Girl or Guy Who Wrote X,’ where X is an awe­some pro­ject we all use or admire”) or use a check-list to recog­nise com­pet­ency (pas­sion, self-teach­ing, a love of learn­ing, intel­li­gence, hid­den exper­i­ence and know­ledge of a vari­ety of tech­no­lo­gies) and no doubt find some fine pro­gram­mers.

You could also take a sim­il­ar approach to hir­ing mar­keters, writers, design­ers and those in many oth­er indus­tries, too. While this may guar­an­tee com­pet­ence, it does not guar­an­tee suc­cess (busi­ness and/or inter­per­son­al).

Com­bine the above with the approach Steve Jobs takes to inter­view­ing (via Ben Cas­nocha) and you may be on to some­thing (emphas­is mine):

When I hire some­body really seni­or, com­pet­ence is the ante. They have to be really smart. But the real issue for me is, Are they going to fall in love with Apple? Because if they fall in love with Apple, everything else will take care of itself. They’ll want to do what’s best for Apple, not what’s best for them, what’s best for Steve, or any­body else. […]

How do I feel about this per­son? What are they like when they’re chal­lenged? Why are they here? I ask every­body that: ‘Why are you here?’ The answers them­selves are not what you’re look­ing for. It’s the meta-data.

Take heed of how Aaron Swartz hires pro­gram­mers using three ques­tions (via kot­tke) and you’re likely to end up with the best can­did­ate. Those three ques­tions:

  • Can they get stuff done?
  • Are they smart?
  • Can you work with them?

And to answer those ques­tions:

  • To find out if they can get stuff done, I just ask what they’ve done. If someone can actu­ally get stuff done they should have done so by now.
  • To find out wheth­er someone’s smart, I just have a cas­u­al con­ver­sa­tion with them. […] Under no cir­cum­stances do I ask them any stand­ard “inter­view ques­tions”.
    • First, do they know stuff? Ask them what they’ve been think­ing about and probe them about it. Do they seem to under­stand it in detail? Can they explain it clearly? […] Do they know stuff about the sub­ject that you don’t?
    • Second, are they curi­ous? Do they recip­roc­ate by ask­ing ques­tions about you? Are they genu­inely inter­ested or just being polite? Do they ask fol­low-up ques­tions about what you’re say­ing? Do their ques­tions make you think?
    • Third, do they learn? At some point in the con­ver­sa­tion, you’ll prob­ably be explain­ing some­thing to them. Do they actu­ally under­stand it or do they just nod and smile?
  • I fig­ure out wheth­er I can work with someone just by hanging out with them for a bit. […] The point is just to see wheth­er they get on your nerves.

2 thoughts on “On Hiring Talent (Not Just Programmers)

  1. Paul

    There is an assump­tion in the meth­od used to screen can­did­ates that the inter­view­er is smarter than the inter­viewee of course (oth­er­wise you will only that they are at least as smart as you). Also, per­haps the fact (I choose that word care­fully here) that the major­ity of us are bad judges of char­ac­ter applies here.

    Unless, by ‘hanging out with them for a bit’, Swartz is try­ing to say ‘I only hire my friends’ in which case … well I’m not sure what to make of that.

    Per­son­ally I judge a per­son’s smart­ness by first ask­ing them to tell me about the stuff they do and telling them “I don’t under­stand” to see how well they can explain it. Many people are good at what they do but can­’t apply it in the con­text they need to. Its no good design­ing a time machine if you can­’t explain how to build it.

    Then, I find the point at which they say “I don’t know” or “I don’t under­stand”. If they nev­er say either of those phrases, there’s a small chance they’re wildly smarter than any­one I know or a good chance they’re just bluff­ing.

  2. Lloyd Morgan Post author

    Yes, the gen­er­al assump­tion seems to be that the inter­view­er is smarter and more know­ledge­able than you and is someone you should ‘get along with’.

    If I was hir­ing, I would only want to hire people smarter and more intel­li­gent than me (read: bet­ter qual­i­fied to do the job I’m hir­ing them to do than I am)—although I’m unsure if they would want to work for me in that situ­ation. Incid­ent­ally, these are the types of people I prefer to spend my time with.

    Would you not also be hugely sus­pi­cious of a per­son who does­n’t say “I don’t know” or “I don’t under­stand”? With ‘stand­ard’ inter­view ques­tions these phrases should­n’t be uttered by the intelligent/competent, but dur­ing an in-depth and search­ing dis­cus­sion on var­ied top­ics, I would likely call them man­dat­ory.

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