Tuesday, August 16, 2016

“So much hostility, so little love"

2 ways to make sure you do not hire “terrible engineers”.

Why does it seems like the main task of the interviewer is to uncover the weakness of the candidate, rather than to find their strength? Why is there “so much hostility, so little love”, in the words of Danny Crichton?

Crichton is an early-stage VC investor at CRV, a dropout PhD student at Harvard, with a B.S. in Mathematical and Computational Science from Stanford. I recently came across his article on TechCrunch, “On Secretly Terrible Engineers” that offers this explanations:

“The difference between finance, management consulting, and engineering is that the first two fields have status hierarchy, and the third one doesn’t. Having the right pedigree of job experience and academic background is sufficient to get a job in the vast majority of fields in existence without too many questions. Simply being at Goldman Sachs for four years is already proof that you can do investment banking.
Yet, we don’t make the same assumptions in Silicon Valley.”

The case for a rigorous technical interview

The most common interview process today seems to filter out the most confident and experienced engineers. They have the luxury to take themselves out of consideration if they are not keen on whiteboard or “algorithmic” challenges because they know they are not going to have a problem finding a job. Yet, this self-selecting, or, more accurately, self-unselecting, may be exactly what’s needed. Some hiring managers are looking for someone who is so enthusiastic to join, that they are willing, and able, to jump through all kinds of hoops to get that job.

Hiring processes that work

How do you design a process to only hire good engineers?
There are two approaches:

1. Trying to avoid hiring bad players at all costs: “Despite the worst talent crunch that Silicon Valley has ever experienced, we still regularly throw away huge groups of talent for not perfectly answering the latest hip algorithm question.”

2. Make the interview process easy, and make firing people who “did not work out” just as easily.

A few years ago, I worked for a company that practiced the second approach — everybody was being hired as a contractor for the first three months (no benefits, no ESPP, no vacation accrual), and after 3 months you either became a permanent employee, or your contract terminated. Since we were just coming out of recession, there were a lot of candidates who were willing to go this route. With the current talent shortage, I’d expect - not so many.

What are the possible solutions to avoid both false negatives and false positives?

Develop great candidates

Thomas Ptacek, an engineer and a popular commentator, describes an alternative approach: After candidates got through a simple phone screen, they got a study guide, a couple of free books, and an open invitation to proceed with the process whenever they were ready. “Those $80 in books candidates received had one of the best ROIs of any investment we made anywhere in the business.”

There is no hostility in this approach, and if a candidate is willing to invest time to study, this, in itself, shows that they are ready to go an extra mile for this job.

So does it makes sense to invest in a good engineer even though they cannot — off the bat — be productive in the exact area you need them to? I think it does. Unless you are lucky to quickly find a candidate with the (often idiosyncratic) set of skills you need, you might be wasting your time. While you are searching for this illusive ‘purple squirrel’, you could have a really good engineer learning your product and business while getting up to speed on a missing skill - or two, or three.

Behavioral interviews

If we are willing to take a chance on a candidate, how then do we make sure that this candidate is a truly good engineer - and a great fit for your team?

Laszlo Bock, senior vice president for people operations at Google, suggests: “Behavioral interviewing also works — where you’re not giving someone a hypothetical, but you’re starting with a question like, “Give me an example of a time when you solved an analytically difficult problem.” The interesting thing about the behavioral interview is that when you ask somebody to speak to their own experience, and you drill into that, you get two kinds of information. One is you get to see how they actually interacted in a real-world situation, and the valuable ‘meta’ information you get about the candidate is a sense of what they consider to be difficult.”

And that approach - or just talking about projects on a candidate’s resume - should give you a pretty good indication of skills and intelligence of a candidate. This is a good start, but it might not be enough for screening out potential underperformers.

Assessing interpersonal skills is hard

Gayle Laakmann McDowell, author of Cracking the Coding Interview, says that the strongest factors in job performance — work ethic, teamwork and interpersonal skills — are also the hardest to evaluate in an interview. “Work ethic is basically impossible to measure in an interview. Unfortunately, interpersonal skills are very difficult as well. You can rule out the really obnoxious people, but most people can put on a good face during an interview. Plus, interpersonal skills are also about who else is on the team. It’s not just about that candidate, so an interview can’t do a great job here.”

There are no fool-proof interviewing techniques out there, but at least we can avoid using interviews to “gotcha” candidates. In the words of Crichton, “There are far less secretly terrible engineers than we might expect if we give them mentorship and support to do great work. There is a whole group of secretly great engineers ready to be developed, if only we realized our field’s animosity.”

So why not concentrate more on interpersonal skills by creating a friendly welcoming atmosphere during the interview? And, if it feels that working with this candidate will be a positive experience, allow them a flexible time period to prepare on particular topics of interest. When they come for the next visit, you will be better able to judge their capabilities.

It might take more time per individual, but will yield much better results, and create more love in the process.

Suggested Articles:

Chrichton, D. (2015) On Secretly Terrible Engineers New York Times.

Bryant, A. (2013) In Head-Hunting, Big Data May Not Be Such a Big Deal. New York Times.

McDowell, G. L. (2013) Is There A Link Between Job Interview Performance And Job Performances. Forbes Magazine.

Ptacek, T (2015) The Hiring Post

Suggested Books:

McDowell, G. L. (2011). Cracking the Coding Interview

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