Friday, August 24, 2007

The Rock Star Treasure Hunt

I've been interviewing a lot of people lately. Trying to find truly great employees is such an interesting process. I find it difficult to really put my finger on what predicts a future epic employee. I've interviewed a large number of people over many years. I've also hired a good number, and then gone on to see how they performed.

Over the years I have constructed a mathematical model to try to help me gauge different attributes of engineers and ultimately score them. Its not a terribly fancy model, but I do have a number of attributes I rank a candidate on after an interview; these scores are then combined to give me a final candidate score. In many ways, this is a ridiculous thing to do -- try and distill a human being down to a simple number between 0 and 1. What I find, is that I am constantly playing with the model to see which attributes really matter and in what relative weight to one another. I often go back and forth with numbers until I can align them w/ my intuition; I realize this is a silly game, but I find the process helps me think through the many issues and realize ultimately what is important. So I put the scores of the absolute best people I have worked with, and the worst, along with the scores I think I would have given them after interviewing them; this helps give me a little perspective. Some really key lessons stand out for me.

1. Programming problems and puzzles only take you so far. I like to ask a lot of tough questions, but the one lesson that sticks out in my head, is of the hundreds of people I have interviewed over the years, the one person who stood out as the uncontested best at answering my technical questions, turned out to be the absolute worst employee. As a candidate, I recall being utterly impressed by this persons answers. I kept drilling him from all angles, and then said, ok, these answers are simply great and I have to hire the candidate. I did, and then I realized what a mistake it was. It turns out, this person was a complete Bartelby the Scrivener, cleverly refusing to do any work. He simply would not do anything, other than reinstall various operating systems on his machine, and answer other people's questions. It turns out, he was really quite good at answering peoples questions, but a "mere" oracle was not what we needed.

2. Sort of the opposite of my first lesson, is that someone who my instincts tell me is worth hiring, but I may still be hesitant on, may still be great. I barely hired at least one of my greatest all time hires.

3. Motivation is a hard thing to gauge, but an essential part of any great contributor. People that have something to prove, can be incredibly motivated. For example, I once hired someone who had never programmed anything more than some toy applications based on a reading of "Java in 21 days." I knew I was gambling, but I was just so impressed with how much this person knew about something he knew nothing about only 3 weeks prior. Obviously he had many other great technical attributes, a strong math and physics background, etc. In any event, he was able to rewrite 6 months of work from a 15 year veteran in 5 long days and have the system really shining within a few short weeks. A few months later he was the star programmer amongst a strong team of 10.

Okay, I'll end this post, as I'm not sure what my conclusions are, other than, its not a straightforward thing to hire the best of the best.

1 comment:

Jeremy Barnaby said...

Hi Deep,

Not sure you remember me but we have chatted a couple of times about helping you find people while you were at Insightful and Roy Notowitz is my business partner and a close friend of Daisy. Congrats on the new job by the way.

Rock Star Treasure Hunt is near and dear to my heart as I have spent a career caring about this very subject. The goal of your process or tool you are trying to create is ultimately to help with selection, a task that often feels very, very subjective. Your efforts are in an attempt to increase the predictability of whether someone you hire will be a strong fit for the job. I think what you have experienced over your years of hiring is not uncommon. That feeling that you may have not hired some of the best and clearly, per your example, have hired some that were not. The simple reality is you are already way ahead of many of your counterparts because you are actually applying constructive pragmatic thought to a more challenging problem than people give credit.

There are tools & methodologies that can be very helpful at increasing the predictive validity of selection. It is these concepts that are more rooted in math and statistics and born primarily out of the world of Industrial Psychology that really have helped me see and bring more science to hiring and our services at Generator Group.

Not to overly simplify a complex process but if organizations would spend more time (like you are) defining or thinking about a selection process they could see their predictability sky rocket. For instance, a standard interview (non-structured) is one of the worst predictors of someone’s ability to do a job. Using this method you will have roughly a 25% shot at getting it right. Uggh.. Hence someone who you almost did not hire turned out to be one of your best hires and someone who was a great interviewer was one of your worst.

Selection is just as much about screening the right people in as it is about screening the non-fits out. If an organization goes so far as to create a multi-hurdle and multi-method selection process it is possible to see predictability of 75%+. What is multi-hurdle? Just that, create multiple assessments if you will of a persons skills, knowledge, and competencies. Examples of hurdles would include…. A truly structured interview, an online programming test, job fit assessment, cognitive test, personality, and even physical test if it applies to the job. At the end you can weight and integrate the scores, add your intuition, and make more educated and statistically accurate hiring decisions. Multi-method would be the style of the assessment like a face to face interview, requiring them to give a presentation, an online test, etc.

Sorry for being long winded but I really appreciate it when I see executives grasp the need for better ways to select their new hires.

Cheers! Jeremy Barnaby

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