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How B players hire C players (2018) (john.freml.in)
55 points by deepaksurti 24 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 52 comments

"Steve Jobs is popularly quoted, `A players hire A players; B players hire C players; and C players hire D players. It doesn't take long to get to Z players. This trickle-down effect causes bozo explosions in companies.'"

So who hires the B players?

Rounding errors.

I imagine this quote working like this: a player of skill level $p$ hires players around skill level of $p^2$. You assign classes as follows: A = 1.0, B = 0.9, C = 0.81, D = 0.64, E = 0.4, ... Now A players hire other A players only as long as their skill is exactly equal to 1.0; if it dips even the tiniest amount, the degradation process starts.

Of course the whole thing is utter nonsense, but if I had to picture it, that's how I would do it.

An A player who thought a B player was an A player

So maybe the hiring A player is also a B player after all?

I think the quote is meant to convey that 'A players only want to hire A players', 'B players only want to hire C players' and so on

Naw, then he'd have hired a C player :^)

The quote could mean there’s a significant gap between the best and the rest.

Maybe people transition from A->B->C or other way over the course of a career.

I don't think Steve Jobs was saying that Apple has 100% A players. I think he was advocating having the better employees have an increased role in the hiring process. I think he understood that A players are the top twenty percent or so (because that's what "A player" means), and for a company with hundreds of engineers to have them all be in the top twenty percent is extremely unlikely.

They founded the company.

Citation for that quote?

Nobody. The B players are the founders.

This is the prime example how one makes false assumptions and then build a whole train of thoughts and arguments so to justify that inherent false cause which is not proven in any way.

Namely: people who are CEOs and (hiring) managers are not even close to be the best. More often than not they are instead: privileged, socially well positioned and well educated people who have the right connections to rely on.

It seems the author have never heard of nepotism either. Or the so ubiquitous way of hiring former institution leaders as industry lobbyists, etc.

And one more false assumption: interviewers can better judge the skills of the candidate than the candidate itself. Where is this myth stemming from? No clue.

Other than the ton of false assumptions it is based on it's a good read still.

People who think they're A players are almost always F players with better marketing. B and C players are usually the most competent but aren't full of themselves. My most successful clients were all run and staffed by B and C execs and employees. And without fail, all the failures were run by so-called A players.

That makes zero sense. If they were all failured they where not A players by definition.

This article isn’t worth reading because no real conclusions are drawn and the points made are pretty scattered.

The idea of differently tiered workplaces is obviously a popular one, with FANG and the academic/consulting/finance/law equivalents.

This can be formatted as an interview question.

Imagine a world in which:

1. A players only hire A players;

2. B players hire C players; and C players hire D players etc. all the way down to Z players.

Assume that:

1. The trickle-down effect from B to Z causes bozo explosions in companies.

2. Bozo explosions are bad.

3. No one knows what letter player they are.

Q: Find a hiring method.

Let S be your set of employees and let f be your hiring function, such that f(A) = A, f(B) = C, etc. Hiring someone assessed by an employee with letter grade x is the union operation S U {f(x)}.

There exists no map f(x) = B. The space is incomplete. Therefore, identify at least one A player and have them found a company. Then after n hires by any employee of S, S consists of n + 1 A grade employees and no other employees, because f(A) is idempotent.

Wait, this is easy — have candidates interview each other, and extend offers to every pair that would hire each other.

Smart (and good rationalization for the acquihires).

A: self.lookALike() is a global method.


If you are not an A player you will hire down the chain and the Bozo explosion is unavoidable.

If you are an A player you must hire people like yourself.

Since you don’t know what type of player you are, the only safe strategy is self replication.


Bro, we are all A players here.

I’m literally bursting with laughter. I can tell you’ve done many of these.

Hiring A people does not make your company an A company.

Focusing only on hiring is cherry-picking the easy part. The harder part is to pair them with the right opportunities, listening to them and retaining them.

Steve Jobs also said: "It doesn't make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do."

> If our aim is to hire the best, why do we often fail?

Umm, because there aren't enough of 'the best' to go around? Only 10% of people are going to be in the top 10%, by definition, and everyone wants to hire them. It is a zero sum game.

Not everyone can win.

It gets more interesting. An A player in one company may not even be B material in a new outfit.

Or perhaps an A player had a life change (e.g. parents experiencing medical issues) and isn't capable of doing what (s)he used to do.

The flipside (B players becoming A players) is also possible. Have seen it happen before.

“One of the other interviewers was a famous figure in an academic branch of engineering. The interviewee argued with the famous figure. It seemed to me that the candidate was probably right but the interviewer was so offended we couldn't extend an offer.”

This, to me, looks like the famous figure had too much ego. I wonder if that makes them a B player instead of an A?

I've hired C players because I thought they could grow into A players. I've passed on other C players because they didn't seem like they could grow.

Whenever someone say this line, I ask them how would they go on to define "B player". Most would think they intuitively know this but I've rarely seen people actually able to crystallize this effectively. In fact, when people actually put an effort to define this it would quickly become apparent how badly they have misunderstood this fundamental. I've some thoughts on this but I rather not bias HN crowd here :). But here's the hint:

1. B player is not someone who doesn't know X.

2. B player is also not someone who said in their resume that they know X but they actually didn't knew X all that well.

Now your turn!

All this ABC crap is a distraction from considering the breadth of a candidate's strengths and weaknesses from a multifaceted perspective, as well as how they might compliment the team. I'm disappointed in you guys for humoring this kind of subjective garbage!

This is not garbage. It's just a fact of life that some people are better than others in a professional environment, often in multiple ways, taking everything you say into account.

As everything else in life its priority and effort mixed in with a bit of affinity. Not everyone want to put in the effort and time to become top tier in their profession: those who do obviously become better than those who don't.

It is garbage. It's an arrogant mental shortcut that has little predictive value and encourages a dismissive attitude towards people in general. The fact that people are better and worse at certain things is beside the point. If you're going to categorize people, there are better ways to do it.

I agree with you and would like to add that this sort of thinking is typical elitism. Such simplified models utterly fail to account for all the inconvenient complications of real life and thus do far more harm than good when acted upon.

Consider what happens if the project being hired for is unexpectedly canceled soon after hiring. Or internal politics and personality conflicts end up being an issue. It doesn't take much turnover at all to completely change the dynamics of a team, regardless of whether or not all the replacements are equally skilled.

Teams are complex systems. Such mental shortcuts provide a false sense of knowledge (and usually superiority) for those who otherwise fail to understand the logistic and social complexities involved. Real life isn't an RPG with a level system; the fact that this even needs to be pointed out to otherwise intelligent and well educated people is outrageous.

It's pretty much garbage, with a self proclaimed truism not supported by data, like interviewing in generall.

I can't tell the elite 5% programmers from the 70%+ percentile programmers, or what ever numbers I make up, during the interview process anyway. It's maybe possible to spot rock buttom programmers from the best, but telling a mediocre programmer (50th percentile) from a really bad is probably really hard.

Interviewing resembles dating. Spam untill you suceed if you cant be picky.

I always saw this as meaning capable people are not threatened by working with other capable people so try to hire the best, whereas mediocre people see people more capable than themselves as a threat, so hire below their ability.

Obviously it's a huge generalisation, and I don't know how much truth there is in it.

Random tangent, but the craziness around job interviews and hiring is one of the many reasons I think we need Universal Basic Income and Universal Healthcare. In a world where firing an employee doesn't completely upend their life, I fell like companies would be more willing to take a chance on an interviewee that shows promise but might not hit all their marks. Also, a UBI would make it easier for folks to train up and prep on their own time, which seems to be expected these days.

I think our corporate overlords are perfectly fine with the status quo, as the lack of a safety net generally means they get the upper hand in negotiations. But I think from a societal point of view, UBI would result in a more dynamic and competitive business environment by rebalancing the power dynamics between labor and capital. I also think the European socialist countries got it wrong. A strong social safety net should be coupled with looser labor laws (to some degree, I think health and safety regulations should always be strong, among others). But it seems like their strict labor laws have resulted in a stagnation of sorts, causing issues in their economy. We should let companies hire and fire easy, and set their wages as low as they want, but we should also provide enough of of a safety net where people are not forced to take those jobs if they do not want to. That would restore some balance in the economy, and I think it would be a big win from a quality of life perspective as well.

How do you measure someone’s player level?

Easy - if you consider yourself an A player, then someone who's as good as or better than you on multiple dimensions.

The problem comes with 1) classifying yourself 2) being able to classify others who are significantly unlike you in a short window (interviewing timeframe).

My experience has been that B players want to hire C players because of pity and empathy. A players don't have any, which is why they're A players. A players see someone who is less capable and don't think, "Wow, I can totally relate," They think, "How is it possible someone could be so incompetent?" Or even if they do have a modicum of sympathy, it's not enough to want to help the other person out by hiring them. By definition, B players don't have that last little bit of knowledge, skill, talent or experience which lets them get to the next level, so they can't see it in others either. This means they relate to C players or D players as just others on the same path - maybe with a little less capability, but just as good in general. A players understand how far away other people are from being at their level almost instinctively, and act accordingly.

The Harvard experience is that only recruiting geniuses is counter productive because people fail in-role and with nobody dumber than you around, its a big no-no.

Actually, to be less ass-hole like and not completely a-social isn't it worth recognising that talent and input is multi-faceted, and that what you rate as A-star may be somebody else's D-star?

I think this tier of hiring is bullshit: I've hired people far smarter than me, and less smarter than the other guy, and its normal.

Jobs was not god, and was not right all the time, and was horrendously wrong about many things: one button mice and liver cancer to name but two.

What does Woz say about this model?

I think a thing that gets lost in all this is more important than anything is the person have a good working awareness of their limitations and enough tenacious to finish things.

A self aware but tenacious D-star is better than a A-star with a squirrel mentality.

> A self aware but tenacious D-star is better than a A-star with a squirrel mentality.

No way. I'd rather have a D player who stays in their lane and doesn't fuck things up than one who thinks they are improving their performance by outputting a greater quantity of garbage work.


This is so succinctly put. Jobs is worshipped as a god, yet his own blind spots & ignorance on some matters were quite public and his literal cause of death.

Jobs was excellent in many ways, certainly has some (some) achievements I'm envious of. But that's where it stops.

But would I ever want to be anything like him? Would I want to aspire to his standards? Would I have wanted to work with him? Would I want to adopt his recruitment style. Hell no.

Interesting you mention Woz. I'm going to contradict myself here and say, I've yet to find anything about him that I don't admire. But I'm prepared to be wrong. I got it wrong with Rolf Harris. :-/

uh, there is so much questionable things in this piece I don't even know where to start.

First the scale, "A players (top 20%), B players (70%) and C players (bottom 10%)". It assumes there is an objective metric with which people can be ranked, and it assumes that there is a defined pool of people that you can classify people.

I have an experience from a company restructuring. Two managers wanted to get me into their team and were having conversations with me. Both kind of outlined the teams they want to build and which colleagues to include (and which colleagues they would try to keep in the other team). Funnily enough, they were sometimes thrilled about wanting to add people to the team I knew that were C players (my subjective ranking scale), and at times made condascending remarks about true A players (my subjective ranking scale). It's just that their ranking scale was different from mine. One of the rock-stars they all wanted was a net negative person in terms of problems they created for the company, and problems they solved for the company. Both managers held that person in highest regards. It just wasn't as visible for managers, how problematic the work of that person was

Conclusion: Ranking is subjective / depends on the person who ranks. Management does not take all aspects into account.

Next simplification is, that "B players" hire "C players", while "A players" hire "A players". Obviously this is BS, because as I just outlined, ranking people depends on the person making the ranking. But it shows the fallacy of the meritocracy-thinking. So consider this. The person making this statement considers themself closely aligned to the "A player" group (if not to be part of the A player group). They "must be", otherwise they wouldn't be in leadership positions. So implicitly this line is about not trusting the team to make hiring decisions. It is a rationalization of one's position.

Later on the articles goes on about interview situations and I think the descriptions of the situations are actually quite fair. But again, I don't believe the author draws the proper conclusions.

"Unfortunately, he wasn't enthusiastic about joining our company — understandably. He would have been working with people much less capable" It's not quite clear from the article whether this is a statement the applicant made, or whether its a conclusion from the author. I believe it is the latter. I have been in similar situations when I knew more than those who screened me (it's so common, you don't need to be smarter or more educated, you just have done different kind of projects over your career). Knowing more than those who interviewed me was never a red flag, in fact, it's the common situation with a manager who has not engineered in a while.

Oh, and isn't "One of the other interviewers was a famous figure in an academic branch of engineering" a case of an "A player" not hiring an "A player"?

Please spare us with these simplified meritocracy-wisdoms. Let's talk about the interesting aspects of hiring: Hiring the right people and building good and effective teams. How to get a diverse skill set into the team, how to foster good communication, how to balance innovation and operations skills.

I hate this style of inductive reasoning when it comes to hiring. You start with an old-wives tale that is intuitive but not empirically verified and probably wrong, like "B players hire C players" etc, and then extrapolate until your behaviour is asinine. The whole time it's justified with some bullshit about "the cost of a bad hire" (often by people who never see the financial numbers).

So let's induce why this is ridiculous: Lets say I "only hire the best" and send my candidate through 8 interviewers. Each interviewer has veto power.

Now I have a really good candidate. You can ask him ANYTHING about the whole of computer science theory (because that's how we cargo cult our interview process here at A-Player Corp) and he has a 95% chance of acing the interview without offending the interviewer by wearing the wrong coloured shirt or whatever. Only A players know salmon shirts are last year.

Well I've now constructed a binomial trail with a 33.7% chance of one or more people failing the candidate.

And that's for a candidate that can pass 19/20 of these quiz interviews. Zod help you if you're one of those dunces who can only impress 80% of these A-player interviewers. You have an 83.2% chance of failing the day of interviews in that case.

Each of these days interviewing is a day you have to take of work in vacation time. 90% of the time I've gone through these interviews, when I ask what I'll actually be doing, it's usually really dumb shit dressed up as "We solve hard problems" OR the interviewer looks at you slyly and says "I'm not allowed to talk about what I work on" as if he's Nerd James Bond.

At least in finance, the lower status the guy is, the more likely he is to pull a Nerd James Bond. Market data parser writers will always pull this shit while the chief strategist will gladly talk about all sorts of generalized alpha signals.

The whole process is fucking broken. No other industry that I know of works this way. So I just get jobs via people I know.

> ‘"I'm not allowed to talk about what I work on" as if he's Nerd James Bond.’

omg, that made me tear up with laughter! but yes, so much of these selection processes have devolved into justifying the puffery of the chosen. in many cases, once a minimum threshold of competence is shown, it’s a crapshoot on how well the person will do, since there are so many hidden variables to success (i.e., luck is a large part of it).

In my practical experience in both sides of the table, it’s very unlikely that all interviewers across the process would be asking the same type of questions. Usually it’s one-three rounds of in depth technical material, but from there on you move onto HR and management people who mainly want to see your other traits and that you aren’t a psychopath.

In non toxic environments, interviewers far along the process - which are usually more senior - also understand that by getting this far, it’s implied the organization wants the candidate and they would need a very good reason to overrule and eject; they adjust their thresholds accordingly.

> The whole process is fucking broken. No other industry that I know of works this way. So I just get jobs via people I know.

This is why articles like his get to the front page. You may be more correct because you aren't making any claims, but I'd rather listen to an idea that's actionable. Especially one that is more likely to cause me to err on the side of not hiring a good candidate than it is to cause me to err on the side of hiring a bad candidate.

If this article's correct, and I suspect it is, it's important for CTOs to read it, because this is the sort of thing that's better to not become official policy. If there's a team that has 75% A players, they should let the non-A players be involved in the interview process to keep the ship running smooth, but sneakily disregard their input.

Lisa: By your logic I could claim that this rock keeps tigers away.

Homer: Oh, how does it work?

Lisa: It doesn't work.

Homer: Uh-huh.

Lisa: It's just a stupid rock.

Homer: Uh-huh.

Lisa: But I don't see any tigers around, do you?

Homer: Lisa, I want to buy your rock.

I work at one of those big companies. Luckily, because we have all been “cargo culted” with silly subjects such as probability theory the process is built to accommodate a number of interview failures. I know of other big companies which practice similar processes for such reasons.

I do assume smaller companies may fare worse on that, just because they didn’t have the time and resources to develop their interviewing process.

Interviewing is like dating. If you aren't desperate but picky you will just turn down candidates untill you are desperate and just pick one and than dellude yourself into thinking you made a well informed choice.

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