Thoughts on Hiring - 2020

How to hire smart developers by treating them like humans

Thoughts on Hiring - 2020

Hiring is very hard, and something that takes years to even start to master. I'm still working on it; here are my notes from 2016.

One of the things that makes hiring so difficult is that it is a wicked learning environment and you rarely get feedback if you don't hire someone and they would have worked out.

What follows are some random notes on my process and what has worked or not worked for me.

  • Keep track of your biases. Be aware of them and fight against them. I'm not just talking about biases against those that could be considered discrimination, but also your positive biases, such as automatically loving military service or people who went to the same college or share a hobby with you. Or the general comfort of someone that seems like you'd like to eat lunch with. These things long-term don't matter as much as you think once the team gets 5+.
  • Keep track of who you don't hire. This gets tricky and a bit creepy if you don't do it well, but when you say "No" to someone, keep up with them for 90 days. See where they land. Wish them well. Admit to yourself that they aren't dumb or unskilled, and in some cases, that you were right, and in others that you were wrong about them being the best person for the job. Most people don't think you can pay attention to "what ifs" with something as complex as hiring and I agree, but a nice humbling reminder that you aren't perfect and that hiring isn't a science is to turn down someone who goes on to do really great work and to see and acknowledge it. Keeping in touch with people that you almost hired might mean that you work with them later.
  • Mind the power dynamic. All power is borrowed. Just because you have more power in a hiring relationship since you are offering a job doesn't mean that you should behave differently. Construct your hiring process without the knowledge of who you will be in it. Think of yourself as the candidate: how should it work for you? This will lead you to a very human process that works for both parties and hopefully filters out some of the ego from it (on your side at least).
  • More to the last point: don't allow the interview to serve as a means for you or anybody on your team to show how smart they are. Show a little, but the stage is to let the candidate show how smart they are.
  • If you lead the team, don't delegate the entire hiring process, only parts of it. For example, maybe you have veto power and persuasive power to convince or discourage practices that aren't working. This is because there are times when you need to shake things up and hire someone that rocks the boat a bit, and it also serves as a sandbag against building a team that is all people who knew each other from an older company and have brought that culture here unintentionally.
  • This is pretty common advice, but if you aren't sure if you want to hire somebody then write down what you are worried about and talk to the team (and if appropriate tell the candidate). You'd be surprised how this honesty can work sometimes. Maybe it doesn't lead to a hire, but don't not hire for some secret reason that you haven't fully formed or told someone else.
  • Treat the first 90 days very, very seriously. Have a weekly 1-on-1 with the person, use task relevant maturity delegation, pay close attention, give them time, ask the other members of the team what they think and how they and you can help. Treat a hire as a very serious investment and they will do better than if you don't.
  • Calm down. Its hard, and some luck is involved with timing on both sides. If somebody key turns down your job, don't have hard feelings. Keep in touch with that person. If they made it this far there is something there and it might work later or elsewhere.

A Manager's Role in Team Dynamics

If you lead the team, you are looking at team dynamic concerns perhaps more than skill concerns. Be very clear on what you expect from the team if this isn't true. If you want them to look for culture fit (more on that in a moment) then tell them. If you want them to evaluate skill or experience, tell them that. If you just want an "opinion of fit", then be careful.

The best thing you can do to create an effective team is to create a team dynamic in which the team can disagree safely, argue it out, and then all move forward on the plan that comes out of that process. This is not easy to recreate during a team interview, but you can do it.

There is always a huddle after the interviews in which the team looking to hire talks as a group about the candidate. The behavior in these chats can get really weird fast because a lot of the adrenaline is gone, the candidate isn't there, and everybody feels very powerful. Don't make jokes or say things that you are only saying because you can with the candidate out of the room. If you end up hiring someone you don't want anyone to carry anything negative out of that room.

A Note on Culture Fit, Gaps

If you ask someone to sit in the interview to check for "culture fit", then you should define this, because if you don't they are operating on something completely invented. If you don't define it you will find that its a way for people to find people that they would be comfortable with. You aren't seeking comfort are you? You are seeking people that, by definition, won't be like the people on your team if you are looking to strengthen it.

Culture fit at some place could be something like this:

a) they are passionate about what we do here.
b) they can communicate well.
c) they don't insult anybody in the interview.

That could be it.

Here are some specific examples of direction:

  • We need to increase our creativity here, I want a brain-stormer / free-form thinker / disruptor.
  • We need to move fast, so we need someone with raw speed.
  • Our culture here is getting a little blame-gamey, I want somebody who just wants stuff to work and doesn't care about blame or credit; we need to increase the power of the team.

Note that I didn't mention anything stupid like "we work hard and play hard here" or "I want to hire somebody I want to have a drink with". Oh god I hope not because no you don't. The hiring process is not meant to find you friends, and again it is not meant to exploit the power dynamic and end up with a system that resembles a fraternity or sorority initiation process.

Post Mortem

Build an internal, personal post-mortem process to help formalize your learning. When you offer someone a job, write down why. If they accept, write down how their first 90 days are going. Write it all down. Experience comes not from just living stuff and getting a lot of reps at hiring, but from reflecting on the reps. From active practice.

Final Note

If you do all these things then over time "trust your gut" can be decent advice, because your gut will actually be improving over time. Keep working, keep paying attention, treat people with kindness, and get better.