Hiring Beyond Keywords

I recently wrote about the problems that plague software recruiting. One of the issues raised is just how horrible a technique keyword matching is to finding good talent. What keywords do allow is for scale; they can be searched for by untrained people or dumb algorithms who are more interested in meeting quota for emails sent or calls made. But that approach is akin to throwing a net as wide as the ocean to catch one incredibly notable fish. Ultimately, it's also going to snare quite a bit of undesirable — or worse — merely ok talent.

"Beast of a Job Interview" by Mike Licht from Flickr, used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.

The solution that I ultimately hope we could get to is one where engineering departments take a pro-active approach to community building and talent development before they need to hire. In that way, managers are never left to rely on a third-parties word that they "have access to a vast pool of applicable talent".

Of course, that is easier said than done. As Scott Weiss mentions on the Andreessen Horowitz blog, "recruiting the very best talent is extremely competitive". If not hiring by keyword, what do you hire for? Do we bombard a candidate with brainteasers, hoping to see how they can problem-solve themselves out of a blender? Thankfully, Google has (hopefully) ended the era of riddles and trick questions. So do we rely on grades as proof of potential? In June of 2013 Laszlo Bock, Google's senior vice president of people operations, said that:

"G.P.A.'s are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless. ... We found that they don't predict anything."

In a follow up piece this year Laszlo specified that Google hires for three main things:

  1. General Cognitive Ability — This is not a person's I.Q., but their learning ability. Google values individuals who are able to ingest an ongoing stream of information and process it in an ongoing manner.
  2. Emergent Leadership — While leading various social clubs at one time or another is nice, Google is more interested in those able to recognize opportunities to step in and perform a role at a given time and, just as importantly, step back when that moment has past.
  3. Intellectual Humility — Others may post 'Help Wanted' signs for programming Ninjas and Rockstars. The problem with that is those that self-identify with those terms aren't the most likely to play well with others, and even less likely to be receptive to different ideas or criticism of their work.

That's great for Google. But what about those organizations that don't have the same kind of marquee name recognition? What do people hiring within startups do when they don't have the luxury of cherry-picking from all the resumes from enthusiastic candidates flooding their inbox?

If you follow college sports then you've heard of the Boise State Broncos Football Program. Originally known for the ridiculous blue artificial turf, they have, over the past decade, become a home for unprecedented success, regularly "punching-above-their-weight", despite not having the recruiting muscle of larger, more prestigious schools. (Many might recall their 2006 season, where they capped the season with an upset over the heavily favored Oklahome in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl.)

A piece on Forbes from last year hints at their strategy for success. It starts with recruiting in a way different from the Alabama and LSU programs of the world:

"… the Broncos have been so incredibly successful at it because they have made a conscious commitment to being the best in the world at one thing — developing football talent. By taking the traditional notion of recruiting the most gifted individual available for a specific position and forgoing it in favor of intangible characteristics, the Broncos have insured above all else, the student-athletes who come play for them embody the beliefs inherent to perpetuating the culture."

Put in terms of software development, they aren't trying to "hire" the rockstars, code ninjas, or caffeine-guzzling gurus of the world. They are looking for individuals who have demonstrated an ability to become successful in an area, and execute. The refinement (like learning a particular language) can come later. As long as an individual demonstrates a certain core set of skills: the ability to learn quickly, a demonstrated self-discipline, and examples of effective communication they're worth hiring. These are the skills that are rare and worth paying a premium to have.