Purple Squirrels


It is fashionable to talk about talent shortage in the silicon valley. People whine about how hard it is to find and hire the “right” candidates. What no one wants to talk about is how the hiring process is completely broken.

I need to fill headcount: This is a line that you hear a lot at large companies. Managers want to hire just because they are entitled to hire with a “hire or lose headcount” clause. Managers spend more time worrying about losing headcount and less time finding the right people the right way.

Chasing a mythical candidate: Managers like to chase purple squirrels. They have outrageous expectations and are far removed from reality of talent market. Managers are also unclear on exactly what kind of people they are looking to hire.

Bizarre interview practices: “How many golf balls can fit in a school bus?” or “can you write code with right hand while drawing a tree with left hand?” We all have our favorite bizarre interview stories. But, even if not bizarre, by and large, interview practices have been quite unscientific, inconsistent, and highly subjective. Most companies don’t have a good way to objectively conduct interviews and identify the right candidates to hire. This sounds silly but unfortunately it’s true.

If we are really serious about talent we should focus on our ability to attract, acquire, and retain talent as opposed to whining about it.

Always be sourcing

Cultivate hiring culture; always keep looking for people in your network even if you have no immediate plans to hire. In many cases, the best hires are the ones that are not actively looking for a job. The references from your best current employees are the right ones to get started with. Go to conferences and talk about your company and projects. Use this as a learning opportunity to calibrate your understanding of the market and seek out an outsider’s perspective on what might be the right hiring strategy for your organization. You are constantly making an effort to attract talent. Treat this as an ongoing task as opposed to one time hiring activity.

Pulse has redesigned their technical hiring process by introducing a “try before buy” model where the prospects can get to actually work with Pulse’s team on a real project as part of an interview process. Hiring someone is a critical decision and this approach is a win-win situation. This is also the reason why interns make good hires as both sides get enough time to check each other out.

Treat interviewing as an important skill

Most employees are trained to do their work but they have a little or no training in interviewing other people. I find it astounding that we hire social scientists, ethnographers, and user researchers to meticulously and scientifically interview users to better understand their behavior and eventually design a product that meets or exceeds their expectations. But, we don’t spend anytime training our own employees to better understand the prospects and hire the ones that would actually design these products.

“Years ago, we did a study to determine whether anyone at Google is particularly good at hiring. We looked at tens of thousands of interviews, and everyone who had done the interviews and what they scored the candidate, and how that person ultimately performed in their job. We found zero relationship.”

I have seen interviewers either rejecting interviewees in the first few minutes of an interview solely relying on their hunch and intuition or mistaking interviewee’s confidence as his or her competence without any kind of objectivity. I find it strange that the technical as well as the business folks who believe in science, have been trained to trust empirical evidence, and possess great analytical skills fall for subjective interpretations based on their pre-conceived biases. Interviewing objectively is hard because it is boring to follow an objective approach leaving your subjective smartness aside. Very boring and very hard.

Look for behaviors and not just skills

Have your interviews designed to measure past behaviors and not skills alone. Skills are easy to learn, but behaviors are hard if not impossible to change. Start with your most successful employees and identify what behaviors they exhibit and how these behaviors have made them successful and valuable to your company. I cringe when I hear words “chemistry” and “cultural fit.” These are actually behaviors that people find it hard to describe and evaluate. There’s a way to break down this chemistry and cultural fit into measurable behaviors that you could look for during an interview. Don’t judge people based on what they can do during an interview because it does not represent a real working life scenario. Asking people to solve a puzzle or draw something on a whiteboard during an interview doesn’t prove much. Infamous for ridiculous interview practices Google has confessed them to be complete waste of time.

“On the hiring side, we found that brainteasers are a complete waste of time. How many golf balls can you fit into an airplane? How many gas stations in Manhattan? A complete waste of time. They don’t predict anything. They serve primarily to make the interviewer feel smart.” — Laszlo Block, senior vice president of people operations at Google.

Unless you have designed a consistent interviewing process that focuses on asking questions to objectively assess candidates based on the behaviors they have exhibited in their previous jobs you will become a victim of your own biases and subjective interpretations.

Retaining talent is as important as attracting and acquiring talent. A separate blog post on that topic some other time.

Photo courtesy: Harvard Business Review

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