Saturday, June 09, 2007

Hiring the Smart and Effective: Joel

Joel Spolsky has just published a short, concise book on his hiring principles, summarized by the excellent "Hire Smart People Who Get Things Done." His book is Smart and Gets Things Done. I've blogged about his hiring guidelines and other interviewing issues: My 20 Observations on Coporate Design touches on this, as does the post about "Joel on Interviewing, Me on Performance" and the one about "Past and Current Employees and Your Reputation."

As a consultant now, and a survivor of (too) many companies, I do and have done a lot of interviewing. As a manager, I interviewed a lot of people while hiring (especially at TiVo and Autodesk). Joel is a good guy to follow on this subject, and I find his points can be extended to interviewing for designers and good employees in general. Failure to hire well (or take the right job!) is sometimes your fault!

Some things to consider when interviewing people to hire or interviewing for a possible job yourself:

  1. A bad interview usually means "you don't want them and they don't want you." It's okay if it's not a mutual fit. Use that time wisely on both sides.
  2. Some reasons for bad interviews (that suggest bad jobs in the background): They have junior people doing the interview, because they don't take it seriously; they have unqualified people doing the interview, who don't know what's good or bad; they have the wrong expectations, because they've never hired for this type of position before or are confused about the market and the job.
  3. If you're the interviewer, and you do a bad job, that person is now possibly pissed off; freaked out; depressed; going to tell other people about your and your company. Mostly about your company because they may not distinguish between you and the company since they probably don't know you personally and you act as a representative of the company when you bring in a candidate. They may want to tell their friends, who are possible great fits, or tell their friends' friends, that you are a scary place to interview. This can do you damage and make it hard to get good candidates, needless to say (right?). I've heard more frank stories from former "rejected" candidates of the places I've worked since I left them than you can imagine. Bad word-of-mouth is not something you need in a competitive climate.
  4. Sometimes you hire badly not because the person is bad, but because your job description or belief about what's needed are inaccurate. I've also heard plenty of stories along the lines of "this is not what I thought I was hired to do." (See post on "Invisible Work," for some examples.)
  5. Someone who does a really superficial interview for a high-level position is a warning sign: either they hire other people badly so your peers will be poor colleagues, they have had a really hard time retaining and are desperate, or... something worse. Be wary of people who don't do a rigorous interview. I had a great one recently, or mostly great: the hiring manager walked me through scenarios, questions about the resume (detailed), adjectives people would use to describe me (I tried for positive and negative), past performance review feedback, etc. Her one failure was that she didn't ask why and what I was looking for up front, and in truth, I wasn't really looking! I was hoping for an informational discussion, as a consultant, first! But at worst, this wasted some of our time, and I ended up thinking she was a good manager and a possible contact for future work.

Ways you can avoid bad interviewing, as an interviewer, apart from having design/code tests and the other things Joel talks about:

  • Treat each candidate very seriously -- it requires energy, but don't convey disinterest. Intuit once sent me home with a design test, rather than doing their usual and more effective whiteboard version, which pissed me off on several fronts; and I would not interview again with them despite them having many large product groups that need good designers, and see, I'm now blogging about this; see points 1 and 3 above.
  • Get back to them in a reasonable amount of time with frank but polite response -- yes you're busy, indecisive, disorganized and unable to get everyone's input or reach a decision as a committee, but still. This is important. They're forming conclusions about you too.
  • Don't assume you're their only job option and they're not being picky and making a decision too -- you're not in as much control as you think you are here.
  • Don't let disorganized, rude, or confused HR people get involved and ruin the mood for them.
  • Have senior people involved, to show you care, and to help make the right call outside of the comfort zone of junior folks on the interview schedule. Sometimes a hire can be strategic as well as tactical.
  • Hire for potential and growth, not because of someone's current age (yes, it has happened), what they look like (yes, again), because you had budget to spend (someone still has to manage them), or because of domain knowledge that they will lose in a year off that former job. Yes, it's harder to evaluate this, but if you can't do it, maybe you're not the right person to hire or manage them?


Anonymous said...

Sigh. The chorus of 'smart, gets things done, smart, gets things done, baa, baa' from the peanut gallery on t'internet when anyone mentions recruitment will only get louder.

Anyway, how would you suggest one goes about recruiting someone to do something that your fond hope is that they will know more about how to do it than you?

Lynn said...

Mr Weasel asks a great question: how do you recruit for people who know more about something than you do? Some ideas:

(1) Is there anyone in your org (another division, etc) who knows about the subject and can be on the interview panel? It will make you friends as well as help you out, I'd guess.
(2) Make them show you and explain to you in a way you can understand -- if they can't do that, you probably can't effectively manage and evaluate them, and they're a risk. Even if they're incomprehensible but secretly brilliant, it's a risk.
(3) Rely heavily on references to make sure you are getting what you think you need and they say they are. Most people don't do a good ref check (if at all), but you need to do it in this case. Talk not just to former managers but peers if you can.

Anonymous said...

What is the etiquette for references in the US? I get the impression that it is different from over here, where it tends to be more or less a formality i.e. you essentially offer a job subject to reference and then unless the reference says they were lying or a mass-murderer you employ them (it may be different in other fields, but in computing over here it is that at best, often references aren't even taken up).

Lynn said...

Yes, it's pretty much the same most of the time. Which isn't to say it has to be -- I've been at one or two firms where they're taken somewhat more seriously than that. Google reputedly does, although I think they use them more before they bring someone in!

I'm always surprised by how many places want to talk to former managers more than peers or employees. As Sutton's Assholes book points out, it's how people handle those with less power that's really telling...