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 responses to “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. 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.