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TWH#59: 3 Ways Hiring Is Broken
And 3 corresponding ways we can do better.
When I served as a VP of Engineering, hiring became a passion of mine. It was clear to me that it was not a problem to be solved, but an opportunity to build a phenomenal team.
A fine-tuned recruiting process that runs like clockwork, creates a great candidate experience, and ultimately leads to hiring great people is a beauty to witness and be a part of.
But, writ large, hiring in the tech startup world is very broken. Just like the quality of a product must be baked as early as possible in its design and development process, the quality of a company starts with the people who get on the proverbial “bus.”
Why hiring is broken is a longer conversation for another time. Here I dig into the how, from 3 different angles.
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Lack of Authenticity
One of the biggest issues with hiring is that everyone is trying to put their best foot forward. Candidates are usually keen on getting the job. Companies, especially in prosperous times, are desperately trying to hire talent. So everyone tries hard to look good.
The issue is that interviewing well and performing well are different things.
When either candidates or companies in any way distort who or what they are really like, an opportunity for self-selection is destroyed. In other words, it becomes likely that a bad fit gets hired—a marriage that should never have taken place, bound to end in acrimonious divorce.
This would not be so bad if most managers were competent in swiftly and kindly moving out people who are not a good fit. But because that’s not true, a mis-hire becomes extremely costly, sometimes slow burning everyone else around them over a long period of time.
When I was a hiring manager I thought “why would I be looking to hire people if everything was fine and dandy?” I knew that the right people run toward challenges, not away from them. Conversely, if I hire someone because everything is amazing… what will happen when shit inevitably hits fan?
So I was always very candid about our true challenges.
And you know what? It worked wonders. I often had new hires share with me that my candor about the challenges was a big factor in their decision to come onboard.
Lack of Values
For all the talk about company values, team values, and “values interviews,” most places do a poor job of hiring people in a true values-based way.
Companies might have “company values” but those are usually both retrofitted and aspirational at best. Many people feel at odds with their workplace because what they read and what they feel on the day to day simply doesn’t add up.
So, it’s not a hiring problem—it’s an organizational problem and, ultimately, a leadership one.
The reality is that the values and culture of a company are largely dictated by their most senior leaders—in particular the CEO, especially if they’re a founder, too.
In a recent interview with Golden State Warriors President and GM Bob Myers, head coach Steve Kerr tells a story of how, in the early days of his coaching career, a mentor of his, Pete Carroll, pulled him aside and asked:
“So, how are you going to coach your team?”
“You mean, like, what offense am I going to run?”
“Nah, that stuff doesn’t even matter. How are you going to coach your team?”
“What does that even mean?”
“Well, what are the players going to feel when they walk into the building? What will be the vibe?”
Carroll then proceeded to share with Kerr how he had learned about values and culture from Bill Walsh, the legendary 49ers coach who wrote The Score Takes Care of Itself.
Walsh told him, “you've got to figure out who you are, what are the values that make you who you are, and those values have to become the culture. But you got to figure out how to make those values come alive. They can't just be words on a wall.”
One of Kerr’s values is “joy”. He says he learned from Carroll that “if joy is one of the values, then there better be joy at practice, there better be joy in the building every day, so hiring people who have a sense of humour and who can laugh at themselves on your staff is important. And hiring people who can make practice fun and lively and playing music and celebrating players’ families and their accomplishments, like the birth of a child… we want the players to walk into this building every day feeling the joy that comes from being in a place you want to be in.”
Seems to have worked, because he has now won 4 NBA championships as a head coach, and is still in play for the 5th one this season.
My point is that the organization’s culture is inevitably a mirror of the leader’s values and if the leader hasn’t figured him or herself out, the organization will still be a mirror of the leader but it won’t necessarily be what’s on the company’s website. And it certainly won’t be part of the fabric of how it hires.
Instead, most recruiting continues to obssess about technical skills, “hiring seniors” and similar nonsense. Which brings me neatly to my third and last point.
Hiring for YY Intercept Instead of Slope
Allow John Ousterhout, professor of computer science at Stanford University to explain (watch from 57:26):
This short post by Matt Rickard describes the same idea, graphically:
And in Amp It Up, Snowflake’s CEO Frank Slootman, puts it this way:
Hire people ahead of their own curve. Hire more for aptitude than experience and give people the career opportunity of a lifetime.
Put another way, it’s not about how much you know, it’s how fast you learn. In fact, Ousterhout calls out a very important detail: things in startups are changing all the time, so quickly, that you want people who can adapt well, thrive in that chaos, and be learning machines.
Instead, faced with things breaking all the time, the most intuitive thing is to look for people who have done it before because surely they know how to make this stuff work!
Unfortunately, just like keeping people busy all the time instead of focusing on flow, hiring for YY intercept rather than slope is both intuitive and the wrong thing to do. Not only you end up with people more likely to be set in their ways—an unfortunate side-effect of experience—you also end up with crazy stuff like only 4% of all roles in tech being for entry-level talent, as Richard Ng pointed out in his talk at LeadDev Berlin last year.
Hiring is broken. But we can do better:
Be authentic when interviewing candidates. Anything less makes a bad “marriage” more likely.
The values of the leaders will inevitably become the values of the organization. Make them explicit, or you will just be fooling everybody.
Hire learning machines, instead of obsessing about those who have “done it before.”
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Until next week, have a good one! 🙏