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How to hire an idiot (nukemanbill.blogspot.com)
407 points by tyn on Oct 23, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 179 comments

Wow a similar thing happened to a friend of mine in what he calls the "flying dragon" story.

About 5 years ago my friend Bob (not his real name - real name is Andrew) started an entertainment business to do shows like Cirque du Soleil.

He advertised on websites looking for acts. A man came in saying he was an agent that represented a flying dragon. Bob was incredulous. He asked to see the dragon. The agent told him the dragon would only come out for performances.

Bob paid the agent $1000 up front and spent another $3000 on marketing for the dragon's first performance. On the night of the performance, the agent called Bob and told him the dragon was sick but that he could definitely do a better, bigger show the following week.

Bob paid another $1000 but the dragon didn't show up again. Three weeks later the agent told Bob that the dragon died but had already spent the $2000 on his lair.

Bob now says, "Make them show you the dragon," as advice for almost any situation.

> Bob (not his real name - real name is Andrew)

Uh. What?

I've identified this as a form of humor. Homines sapientes react to it like this: Ho! Ho!

for £1000 up front, I'll explain the joke to you...

I suppose the first $1000 could be justified as a wild investment into curiosity and possibility, depending on whether or not his business could easily afford it. A little bit of that risk-taking every now and again can pay off, if you have luck or insight.

Tell Andrew I have a metamorphic monkey. The monkey does shows for $1000 apiece. I can make him look like any member of the audience.

Hence the luck or insight part.

A certain adage regarding a fool and his money comes to mind...

The hiring process and possibly placing too much trust in a new employee can be dangerous without the proper due diligence. However I think there is something else that has to do with technical people running their businesses that is worth mentioning.

Being a technical person in sales can be bloody scary, I run a software company and at the beginning I was scared to death about both sales and marketing. So much so that I would avoid it, and only do it when absolutely necessary. Which lead to basically working on whatever came along. Not ideal, and I was basically working for myself, with no real growth.

While working at a co-working space I met a fellow entrepreneur who had a sales and marketing company mainly focused on lead generation and online marketing. I hired his company to help with new messaging for our company. However this engagement quickly turned into sales coaching 101: how to build a sales funnel, effective proposal writing, understanding buying signals, targeting ideal customers, the whole works.

The whole time we worked through this process I was learning and understanding, and becoming less and less scared. One of the books that he recommended to me was 'Customer Centric Selling', it's a good read and I think is ideally suited to technical folks finding themselves in sales roles. It talks about sales as a process, and not a "who you know" connections mystical black box. you know.. Like the VP of the 100 million dollar company wanted to do. Connections always help, but the process is there to make sure that the optimism that the sales people will undoubtedly assign to each deal can be measured and verified. I find you don't get into these situations where a sales person feeds you a loaded forecast with nothing to back it up.

As the founder you need to know what works for your business, and don't hire a sales person hoping they will have magical powers and be instantly able to sell your product/service. Learn and create the process yourself, then hire a sales person and have them execute and refine your process. You know your business best. Others can help, but at the end of the day it's on you!

There is an art to checking references. Even if a company has a policy of giving bare minimum information, find out a TELEPHONE NUMBER of someone in that company who knows your candidate and start a conversation. I was given a specific script of questions to ask back in the 1990s when I was a community volunteer for my local public school district, doing reference checks on superintendent candidates. A consultant advised the school district (and through the district, me) on how to do this. If you talk to someone directly by voice, and have a good list of specific questions to ask about the candidate, you will be AMAZED at what people say, policy or no policy. Company policies don't keep people from sharing stories with curious listeners. The key is to learn what questions are legal to ask and reveal the most interesting stories about the person you are thinking of hiring. There are consultants who can advise you about checking references, and, as several comments here say, they are a lot less expensive than making a wrong hiring decision, and once you've learned the questions, you know what to ask.

I've just asked my consultant Google, and he suggests several sets of useful questions to ask when checking references:









You might be surprised how often bad hires end up not having any real references at all, and just bluster their way through that part of the interview. For too many of us, reference checking is an afterthought. Fortunately, when you're small, the feedback loop is tight and you only need to get burned a couple times before you take it seriously.

By which I mean to say, even an anodyne reference ("yes I worked with person, yes I would hire them for this role") is a major improvement over no reference at all.

The reference-checking process described there is skewed towards certain types of personalities (liars, job-hoppers, social butterflies, etc.).

Also, our own Peroni (IIRC) mentioned that "is $candidate eligible for rehire by your organization" will be answered by nearly all employers. And it's quite useful.

[I have no personal experience, just passing this along.]

I would be careful with that question. I worked at one company where they were very much against re-hiring anyone that left based on where they went/were going.

Another factor is personal differences can lead to that same false positives (negatives?) about that person.

I guess I'm simply trying to say: that question is not always answered based on work ethic or product.

Comments from a previous time this was posted (three years ago): http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=263599

"How do you find a good salesperson?": http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=264282

Thank you. After the 4th paragraph I was hit by deja vu. Had to scroll to the top to check if it was stolen.

The more important lesson to learn is that if you're confident, likable, and remember people's names you can be VP of a $100 million dollar company. Now if you're competent as well, imagine how far you could go...

Reminds me of this guy:


At a company in SF we interviewed him and I can only imagine what would have happened if he was hired. Luckily everyone who talked to him thought he was nuts. Cramer talks about him in his book.

I think you can still do this: "-- Hire people smarter than myself, who get things done! -- Trust them to do their job, let them do their job and give them enough resources to do it! -- Pay them WELL and offer great benefits! Work at home! Sure, why not? -- Give people second chances! Don't throw out resumes because of lack of buzzwords! Or disjointed writing! Or lack of education! It's all about Smart People who Get Things Done, not interviews or resumes or formalities! Have an open mind!"

You just need a way to check if they can get things done, like looking at past apps they've coded. Nothing like that was done here. Really, if he just did an interview, one thing from that list of things he didn't want to do, this probably wouldn't have happened.

The problem is that he took "VP of a $100M company" to be stuff having been done and other people thinking the ex-VP was smart. He never verified it though. He took a secondary indicator of ability to make a sale (VP status) and used it to infer a bunch of primary indicators (stuff done, intelligence, actual ability to close a sale) without actually checking any of that.

So he was a highschool dropout. How do you not notice something like that on a resume?

College degrees are always listed on resumes, and while they aren't that important in most cases, it should at least be brought up as an interview conversation point if it's missing entirely (and from there, launch into a discussion of how a person gained their skills, which would have completely unveiled this guy).

The point was he didn't have a resume nor did he do any background checks because he was obsessed with the fact that this guy must be good because he was a former vp of a $100m company.

VP of sales is the worst proxy for start-up skills you can think of. Firstly, a salesman in a big company might be good at reading off a script, or writing a highly polished script for worker bees to read off; but they aren't necessarily a good all-rounder. Second, it's common practice to give a VP position to anyone who asks for it, because it helps them convince customers that they are a mover and shaker in the company:

"Look, I'll ask the engineers to put it in the next patch." ... "Well, I'm a VP - they should listen."

How would you notice that on a resume? High school drop-outs don't write "high school drop-out" on their resume. In fact, many people, including many of the best people, don't put "education" on their resume at all.

I think an "education" section is a boilerplate resume item. If it wasn't there, I'd at least ask for details.

I don't have an education section on my resume, as I'm a high school dropout myself. Last year I was looking for a new job and shot my resume to probably a dozen different companies. Of those, the only company who asked about the lack of an education section was Bloomberg (of the ~8 people I had in-person interviews with, at least half of them asked me about it, in fact, which told me a lot about what the company was looking for). I'm not sure if it's indicative of the tech market at large, but no one else batted an eye at my lack of an education section and focused purely on my skills and experience.

I always ask this, but not for the reason you think: it's so that I, as an interviewer, can adapt the interview to you. Recent example, one candidate had no idea what I meant by "principle of locality", but I probed a bit, and he understood it perfectly well: but lacking a formal CS education, he didn't have the vocabulary. Same with big-O notation, some guys have never heard of it, but show them a code snippet and they'll tell you straight away how efficient it is.

I always ask, not because it's required, but because the answer is often enlightening. Judging companies for asking isn't reasonable.

For me, interviewing with a company is as much about me judging whether or not the company is a good fit for me as it is them judging whether or not I'm a good fit for them. If it's clear from the interviewers that they're looking for someone with a college degree and a CS background, then not only am I not a good fit for them, they're not a good fit for me. With the ability to choose to work for the vast majority of tech companies, I'd rather err on the side of being very picky about who I spend my time with. In the case of Bloomberg, those who asked me about my education were clearly biased (not in the question itself, but in the context, tone, etc) against those who are self-educated, and that's not at all the environment I want to work in.

Ok, that makes plenty of sense.

In the mid-90s I got reasonably far down the road with an interview at DE Shaw / Juno and stopped it cold when they demanded school transcripts.

I guess I'm unreasonable, but, if you're looking for data points: hi, I'm a candidate who will turn you down cold if you require school information from me.

For a long time, I thought this was a New York thing, but, no; I got an offer from a very excellent NY tech/finance company a few years before we started Matasano, and nobody there was dumb enough to want to see my report cards.

There's a bit of space between "there's no education listed on your resume, what's up with that?" and "give us every ounce of data there is to be had about you being in school."

The first one is reasonable. The second one isn't, and in my opinion is also a waste of time.

I'm really trying to imagine where the "what's up with that" would even come up in any of the good interviews I've had. Who has time to waste with that? The best interviewers I've ever dealt with had me on my ass with algorithms, distributed systems, and concurrency questions moments after starting.

I agree, asking "where'd you go to school" isn't particularly offensive.

It seems like your education only matters up to a certain amount of experience. If someone has been out of school for ten years, I don't give a damn what happened back then.

When all I have to go on is education and a one-year failed startup, I'm going to ask at least a few questions about school. Even then, the startup is more useful.

Maybe you are a better founder than employee, and everything worked out for the best for both sides, so the transcript policy is optimal.

Transcripts are a bit much. You should after all have some level of trust in the people you are hiring. Sounds like you dodged a bullet.

I read that Google asks for it, but they are a bit, er, happy when it comes to statistical analysis. IIRC they were not impressed by the statistical power of transcripts.

And yet they require transcripts (or did a few years ago).

Maybe they've learned from past mistakes? Or their model can't handle NA values on some features?

Google still asks at least new grads for transcripts as of this month.

The source I read said he never got around to chasing down a transcript and nobody complained.

I think it reasonable to require a transcript for new graduates.

I have a bachelor's degree, and I haven't included an education section on my resume for at least a decade. (I'm 40 years old) I've been at VP or C-level for a long time. That's largely because my degree is largely irrelevant to my career path, or at least I believe that putting it there wouldn't really advance the story I'm trying to put forward succinctly on a CV. I have an English degree, which has actually been incalculably key to my career as a software company founder and executive, since I studied writing and basically write for a living. But I founded my first company when I was still in college, and it's pretty much what happened from there that's part of my story. As it happens, I went ahead and finished my degree, but it wouldn't have mattered one whit if I hadn't.

Interests and Hobbies seem to be boilerplate resume sections too, but no one with any significant experience should include them.

The "art" to resumes (as I'm now in the process of learning, after not looking at mine for ten years), is to figure out how to best portray yourself to the exact person(s) you're submitting it to.

That should inform what sections are appropriate. Sometimes having interests and hobbies is beneficial. I've seen numerous folks at startups talk about how they like seeing things like interests and hobbies, as they feel it paints a more complete picture of the person. At larger companies, they might at a minimum not care about that, or even actively not want to learn that information (for fear of being accused of having discriminatory hiring practices).

I have a few friends who include that they are an Eagle Scout on their resume (I don't put it on mine). In the overwhelming majority of cases, that's probably not going to be helpful to a prospective employer, but maybe it catches someone's eye and serves as a launching off point in an interview.

I hire a lot of people, so I see a lot of resumes. My opinion on interests and hobbies is that you're making a statement by including it, so you need to be smart about it. If they're mundane and not salient to the job, then you're padding a thin resume, or just being dense by including them.

On the other hand, they have the ability to make you stand out or advance your "story" then they can make a big difference. For example, if I'm hiring an engineer, and they mention that they've been working on an interesting open source project, or they co-founded a local hackerspace, then that's a mark in their favor. I hired an intern, who I later hired on full-time, largely because he described a scrappy and interesting local entertainment directory website he had been working on launching. He'd been basically living as a ski bum for three years and working as a waiter, but his ambitious hobby made up for that.

This wasn't on his resume, but a another guy I hired recently let me know in the interview that he plays hockey seriously, and that was good to know, because honestly some engineers need to get out of the house more.

I like Eagle Scout on the resume. I'd put it there. (I'm not one).

See, that's good to know (and I suppose ironic in the O'henry sense of the word).

The thing I've started to figure out is that there is almost no consensus on what people want to see on a resume (short of what they don't want to see).

Watch out though. Lots of people lie about being eagle scouts, and you can't verify it without having their troop # and contacting BSA headquarters.

Really? People lie about being Eagle Scouts? That says about as much about your character as lying about Mensa membership says about intelligence.

Presumably, that never happens on resumes with real career track records; if you have an established career, the upside to lying about being an Eagle Scout is relatively microscopic. I probably wouldn't "yea" an inexperienced candidate simply on account of their Boy Scout record. I have to wonder what these people are thinking.

Interests, hobbies, and education are what you put on a thin resume to fill it out.

Education is absolutely a boilerplate resume item. I can't even count the number of time irregularities in just that one section ended up providing deep insight into a good or bad candidate.

Everybody who has an education puts it on their resume even if it's 30 or 40 years old and they jam it at the bottom in a small font.

For example:

A weird school name - "International University of America", "University of New York City" often points to a diploma mill or a lack of degree

Missing GPA - The rule of thumb is, put it on if it's a 3.5 or higher. Don't put it on if it's lower and let the employer guess or ask during the interview. Or...if it's missing assume it's below a 3.5. It's up to you how much weight that has in the interview. You may be targeting a school or degree major that make it very hard to get a high GPA. If the school does some artsy fartsy "non-traditional" grading system and doesn't use GPAs, or they are from a foreign country with a different system, figure out what they do use and ask that during an interview. If the school is an "every one is a winner just for trying" school, they probably aren't the candidate you are looking for anyway.

"Attended xyz" or "Coursework in major abc" - means they didn't finish school. Somebody currently going will likely have a "estimated completion Spring of 20xx" or some such instead.

"Environment" - I see this often from candidates from India, and I don't know why this happens, but they'll list a perfectly good school and education credentials, then list environment and virtually every piece of hardware and software that they happened to have had in the room with them during their studies regardless of their use of it or not. Ignore this since it's obviously coming from some weird resume writing coaching and probably a result of trying to cram a CV into a resume format.

No colleges listed only a high school - no problem, if the candidate looks good, they might still be a fantastic hire. Especially if they are young and haven't decided what to do yet. You can always go back to school. You usually see this on resumes of young candidates or experienced candidates with no upper education.

There is no excuse to not have an education section on a resume. Experienced people will tend to put it at the bottom and let their work history speak for them, and inexperienced candidates will do the opposite. Resumes without that section should go straight in the shredder, same as resumes with typos, grammar errors, punctuation problems, a constantly changing font (or Comic Sans). It's like not putting your callback #, email address, home address or work history.

Also, if you are about to hire somebody based heavily on their education pedigree, you should absolutely use this service http://www.nslc.org/. The number of fake degrees on resumes is astonishing sometimes.

I spend a huge amount of time every week reading resumes and talking to candidates and it simply is not my experience that everyone who "has" an education puts it on their resume.

The only people who ever put their GPA on their resume are people with one or fewer jobs after college. Unless the best conversation you're prepared to have with a prospective employer is about your years in school, leave your GPA off your resume.

Any employer who "shreds" resumes without "Education" sections is a fool, full stop.

As somebody who also spends a lot of time in the resume weeds, I have to absolutely, but respectfully, disagree while keeping my feet warm this cold night on the burning embers of shredded resume fodder.

To be clear, lack of an education section does not equal lack of an education and lack of a formal education does not equal lack of an education.

Almost to the person, people who made it to an interview despite having problems (or a missing) education section fell apart under minor probing questions like "describe your part in a project you worked on at a previous employer you were particularly proud of" or "I see you attended courses at XYZ school, can you talk about the courses you took and why you didn't finish up?"

When these folks are hired, they almost always turn out to be disasters in one way or another...often becoming the worst possible employee, not quite bad enough to be fired.

More often than not their resumes turned out to be mostly made up resume puffery or gross omissions to cover up various consistent problems in their employment and education histories such as termination for cause or having partied their way out of school.

People with a solid education section, even if it's just High School and perhaps a supplementary "job related interests" section tend to do much better under probing because they aren't making anything up.

Every so often you might find somebody with an honest to goodness good reason for something, but it's almost not worth your while to wade through the future career grocery store baggers in the 1200 tall resume pile.

Best things to look for in experienced people, a steady career progression. Nobody starts out as a superstar, but good employees tend to be ones that move up over their career. 15 years as a "Programmer I" is not a good sign.

If somebody has an incomplete schooling on their resume, but a solidly progressing career over a number of years, it's probably worth talking to them, at least to find out why they didn't finish. It's often due to major life changes (kids, illness, divorce, etc.), but if you push a little you'll uncover lots of people who either

a) thought they were too smart for it all (they aren't, trust me)

b) partied their way to a mid-sophomore year expulsion

Best things to watch out for outside of the mandatory education section: a laundry list of every technology/language to come out in the last 30 years. better yet, if they make a matrix of all of these languages vs. their personal aptitude in the languages and they rank an 8 out of 10 or better in all of them. Run away, run far far away from this person. I've seen dozens of these guys hired over the years and they all turn out to be turds.

I have no idea how to respond to this, which I promise I did read, other than to say that across my whole career, some of the very best and most qualified people I've hired didn't have their "Education" on their resume. Some of them had degrees from very solid engineering schools, others didn't, but I didn't find that out until after we had hired. You're suggesting you'd shred their resumes. If you're serious, you're a fool. I don't believe you're serious, though.

Your hiring process sounds broken. For instance: you seem to put a lot of thought into what is on people's resumes. We don't. Resumes exist to secure job interviews. Your interview process is what selects good candidates, not your resume analysis.

Finally, a reminder: it is 2011, and for at least the least 18 months, it has been a white hot competitive market for talent. In my recruiting role, my job is to sell candidates on the notion that we're a great place to do application security. It is not my job to look for reasons not to talk to people based on their resumes. In fact, that is the opposite of my job. The notion of finding new and clever ways to screen people out of the process based on their resumes ("look, Bob! this candidate listed 'coursework in computational linguistics'! if he couldn't hack it to a degree, he'd never hack it here!") is crazy.

Maybe the problem is, you've plugged the top of your funnel into horrorshow sources like Monster.com and Craigslist (actually, Craigslist is better than Monster.com). Stop doing that.

I might have a negative impression of a candidate whose resume was riddled with misspellings. But I'd still talk to them.

We are very, very, very, very good at screening, by the way. Not a little bit good. Very good.

Ok, Monster is bad, agreed. But what sources would you use then?

HN, GitHub, Stack Overflow --- if all you're prepared to do is run a job ad. We do other things; for instance, we run free classes in Chicago and Mountain View.

Yes. I agree with the classes. But this works only for programmers, for people working in, say, finance, monster seems unavoidable...

What sucks the most about the whole process job board/application is that if you don't fit the boxes (I would like to program AND work in corporate/finance), you are screwed.

Only way to go seem startups that value people with skills at 360 degrees.

I am only interested in recruiting programmers. I tend to believe that every role has a specific optimal recruiting process. For instance, if you read upthread, you'll find that none of this advice is germane to hiring direct sales account managers; I can similarly lay out a short list of pitfalls to hiring marketing people.

Also, while I am somewhat motivated by the idea of a fledgeling developer wondering whether to include her GPA on her resume, I'm speaking mostly from the perspective of a hiring manager. So, your problem of "fitting the boxes" isn't my problem. As a hiring manager, I'm always going to tend to be hiring for specific roles.

Having said that, the best advice for overcoming this obstacle is the old, cliched stuff in _What Color Is Your Parachute_: expend effort on networking your way to a face to face discussion with the person in your dream company who can make a hiring decision. Bypass the hiring process as much as possible.

>you seem to put a lot of thought into what is on people's resumes.

I actually really don't. I screen resumes pretty quick and just check for a few things. Can they format their resume like a grownup? Does the information appear to be accurate? Does it show relevant skills for the position we're looking for? Does it show an upwards career progression? Are their any oddball things that I'd like to talk with them about (work gaps, unusual education path vs. career, a stint overseas, an unusually short time at a previous employer) etc.

>Resumes exist to secure job interviews.

Then I'd ask, what's the point? Just build a quick site to collect people's names, phone numbers and email addresses, call it "apply for a job with Matasano" and be done with it? If it's not important at all in your process, why are you wasting your and the candidates time?

>but I didn't find that out until after we had hired.

Hell, why do you even interview them? Just check that they have a pulse and valid residency paperwork.

I'm sitting here reading this really rather incredulous that you couldn't be bothered to even ask this during the interview process, or as part of the basic job application paperwork.

Perhaps I'm colored because I do tend to do lots of hiring for contract work and my clients do need that information or we've just hired a wallet to toss money into that won't be doing much productive for us except burning overhead.

>it is 2011, and for at least the least 18 months, it has been a white hot competitive market for talent

Disagree, it's very strongly an employers market right now, the market is saturated with relatively qualified people looking for work. For every position we open, we get a couple hundred resumes. It makes it very easy to be picky at every stage of the interview process. Resume screening is just step 1. The interview process is absolutely critical to step 2 I agree.

I've seen many many horribly broken interview processes, all kinds of clever tests, and Microsoft style quiz questions. Really just having a long conversation with a candidate, treating them as a person and letting them talk about their career, with some guiding questions is about it. If it's a technical position, get some code samples, and talk them through some relevant scenarios or algorithm questions or whatever makes sense.

All of the best hires I've ever gotten flew past those 2 steps.

And I swear to all that's holy I agree that Monster.com is not the place to go as an employer or as a job hunter. Ugh, pile of failure that whole site is these days.

> "look, Bob! this candidate listed 'coursework in computational linguistics'! if he couldn't hack it to a degree, he'd never hack it here!"

I have to go 80/20 against/with you on this. Degrees are easy compared to real life work - shockingly so. If somebody can't finish a degree program with nothing in particular stopping them on what basis should I trust that they can finish a multi-million dollar project under tremendous pressure? You aren't going to figure that out no matter how clever the interview is if they don't have the prior history.

All that being said, I do have experience with self-taught guys who really are very good. But they need to have something else that makes up for it, a really amazing interview, some kind of really spectacular past performance or even amazing personal hobby portfolio that shows off their skillset. But theses guys are very rare. And all of them put "High School" under their education section on their resume. But then they have amazing portfolios of work to compensate.

Sometimes the education section can be an important marker to show upward progression over a career. For example, somebody who went to school later in life, or went back for a Masters or PhD or some such.

Sometimes they demonstrate odd ways you might be able to use a person. For example, you might be hiring for a sales position, and get a resume for somebody with a degree in Literature. Awesome, I bet you can talk to them about improving your company's advertising copy which would help them hawk your stuff better. Or maybe they are a self taught programmer with an Art degree. Super! Maybe they can provide good insight into improving a product's look.

So yeah, if they can't be bothered to put something down on the resume about where they got their learnin' from, I ain't interested in the least.

I'm not going to say that 100% of my hires are the best and the brightest. But I've done far better at it than most of my peers at weeding out poor candidates.

It sounds like you're a tech recruiter or another guy from big corporate heritage. I say this because your answers are a shining paragon of why most of the participants at HN avoid and loathe big corporate jobs.

Do you have any particular programming qualifications yourself? I'm curious. While it is of course a great sign that you are reading HN, it doesn't sound like you know how to rate candidates in an objective and independent fashion.

Let me tell you that many of the legends in this field didn't finish or didn't attend college (and some didn't even finish high school) merely because college is really silly.

Your "legends" have (had) no need to apply for jobs, so your point seems off-topic.

More importantly, I found your comment unnecessarily offensive. The post you're replying to was fairly amicable and argued to the point, imo.

I don't believe my response was offensive and I agree that the OP is arguing his point within bounds. I just strongly disagree with that point, and as stated, believe it is typical of a non-technical hiring manager instead of an "in the trenches" programmer.

How would you have preferred I phrased my response? I don't think any part is "unnecessarily offensive". It is a forgone conclusion that people on HN don't want to work for big companies, so if he is a hiring manager, he shouldn't be surprised.

I wasn't offended, and I'm not a hiring manager. But I've definitely done most of my hiring in large boring mega corps. For the small startups I've worked for, willingness to work at a small startup often has major weight in the decision process and can overcome other problems that might exclude them from big corp's process.

I'm personally familiar with the hiring processes at most of the big "mega corps" in the software industry (ie, places where software is the company's key profit center and not a cost center). So, because lots of people are reading this thread, let me clear this up right now:

You do not need an "Education" section on your resume to get a job interview at any software company in the valley you'd ever want to work at.

If you're interested in the kind of company 'bane appears to hire for, I'd recommend reading this first:


Again, disagree and wasn't aware we were restricting ourselves to only the Valley.

Yes, you need an education section on your resume. Only apply to companies that you wish to work for. Some will care about it, others won't. Those that don't care won't look at it, those that do will be glad you put it on. It's a Pascal's wager of sorts.

If you are applying to work at Matasano, by all means, delete it from your resume.

I've hired (or participated in the hiring team for) several hundred people for large companies (~35,000 employees, ~45,000 employees, ~125,000 employees respectively) and small (2 employees, 11 employees, 5 employees, 15 employees), for contract work (110 FTEs, 510 FTEs, 30 FTEs) and medium to large projects (30 FTEs, 80 FTEs). I've also cross-hired from different departments, projects, and programs.

I've personally seen probably on the order of 10,000 resumes.

I've never seen a resume of a person that was eventually hired that lacked at least a minimal education section -- and it didn't have to be a college degree.

I've sought out specific hires and have been sought out.

I've hired for positions that are salary only, salary + comission, salary + options, salary + direct stock, or some mix.

I've hired people with highly specialized skillsets and generalists.

I've hired sales people, programmers, analysts, executives, executive assistants, operations managers, operations staff, designers, musicians (yes!) and receptionists.

I've never like using recruiters or big job sites. I prefer to hire people with passion for what they do, and interview for personality as well as technical aptitude. You don't always get that luxury depending on the market and immediate business needs, but it's highly desired.

Education is a big plus, but I've never turned down somebody because of a lack of if they make up for it in experience, portfolio or other compensating factors.

I've never regretted a candidate I turned down. I can count on one hand people that slipped through my radar and ended up as real duds. I can count on two hands people that I turned down that were picked up by other companies and turned out to be real duds for them.

I've had to personally work with most of my hires either as a direct colleague, a report, or as a manager.

Who else uses a process not entirely dissimilar? Any company that asks for a resume, then gives you an interview (of any sort) based on that initial look at you. This includes, Google, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, Intel, Cisco, Oracle and major software focused divisions of other companies like SAIC, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, Northrup Grumman, etc.

Unless the company has a site called "apply to work here" where you just give them your name and a callback #, they care about your resume on some level. Even if it's just to have it on file to cover their asses in case of a bad hire.

If you don't want to work for these companies, that's cool. I don't either, and I have the luxury of not doing that at present since I work for a 10 person startup in my day job (and a two person for my night job). But I still consult with #52, #217 and #219 on the 2011 Fortune 500 almost weekly on hiring people.

But I'm just here to tell you the "way it is" (TM). If you want to be considered at these places, and unless you have some kind of other way of demonstrating your personal awesomeness, put an education section down.

You are probably dead on in terms of what it takes to get a programming job at a giant defense contractor (those F500's being Lockheed, ITT, and shudder SAIC).

Let me just say, because this is a neutral comment: look, you have nothing to lose by putting "Education" on your resume. It's not like I'm not going to take you seriously because you stuck your CMU GPA on your resume. So if you're worried about getting past every possible hiring manager, you should include it.

Even more legends did finish an education -- or even remained in academia.

Yes, I have some technical chops - started coding on a TRS-80 Color Computer II in the 80s and never stopped. It's not something I do much of anymore (sadly) as a growing crop of grey hair has convinced my day job c-levels to shovel me into managing groups of technical people.

I also do lots of work outside of pure development in my day job, and it has wildly different sets of requirements, but the process is more of less the same. I've hired and managed a few more of these types than straight developers. But I've managed to have about the same success with both, or if we did hire duds for some reason (CFOs cousin or whatever), I noted the potential problems in their file and came out reasonably accurate.

The problem with trying to hire the next legend in the field is that more often than not, you are not hiring the next legend in the field no matter how they feel about themselves.

That's why legends are notable, they're unique and rare. If they are really that awesome, they'll become legends in their own time and you'll know about them before their resume hits your inbox. Building a hiring process for legends is fraught with peril. Legends are almost by definition not hire-able around repeatable hiring processes. So companies fake a process. Some companies select for specific schools -- like the too often true stereotype of top finance firms only hiring Harvard/Yale grads or top tech firms only hiring Stanford/MIT types. I've even heard of some hiring with a heavy weight on SAT scores or average KLOC per month!

As much as we all like to think of the lone swashbuckler programmer, coding his way to greatness in the fewest undocumented KLOCs possible, I'm hiring people to build actual things that other programmers of various talent levels from other organizations might have to work on months or years later long after my rockstar has moved on to greener pastures because we didn't offer him the office chair he wanted or whatever. In other words, I'm hiring for the best of typical. I need engineers, not crusading nights. I'm building the Golden Gate Bridge or the Empire State Building, not the Pioneer Space probe or filming and episode of MacGuyver. I've hired the rockstars before, there's a reason organizations tend to eventually move on to other processes.

I've worked with some absolutely unknown solid developers who I'd put up against the best in the field any day of the week, because they produced miracles on time and within budget. Absolutely stunning, elegant, rock solid software. But I'd rather focus on their steady solid performance over time. Rather than have a rockstar come in and dump down a few thousand lines of impenetrable code then flame out. I've found that solid, steady developers will ultimately outperform those guys every time. They'll do it right, and the bridge won't fall down or the building won't fall over.

If you are looking at tremendous number of resumes per week, you have to build a hiring process that selects for the best of typical. If you spot a super star in the pile, by all means talk to them, but you'll eventually find that most of the time they have overinflated egos. Hiring people is almost exactly like American Idol. 90% of all the candidates you see are bad, often spectacularly, often embarrassingly. The worst suffer from some of the most intense Dunning-Kruger effects I've ever seen. But you might find an honest to gosh amazing developer every once in a while and it's worth it to hire them. But don't build a process trying to find them, they'll find you.

If you don't build this kind of selective process, you'll spend literally all of your waking hours interviewing people. If you like this kind of thing, and your company is willing to let you do this, awesome. I have other things to do.

An all day technical interview sounds great, but now do this with 30+ candidates. Bye bye month of November. You need to weed people out and get it down to a manageable pool that you can then focus your time on.

I'm know what I'm saying may sound harsh or overly selective based on some arbitrary metric but it's all there for very good, repeatable reasons. But in practice these are only guidelines. If you went to school, awesome for you, I don't care where, be prepared to talk intelligently about the experience, be proud that you demonstrated the ability to complete a grueling, often mindless multi-year project on your own. If you didn't, but managed to autodidact your way to a great skill set, fantastic, be prepared to show and talk about why that worked better for you than going to school.

Two things.

First, I wish you'd stop caricaturing everyone hired through a process other than yours as "lone swashbuckling MacGuyvers" or whatnot. I am not laying out a method for hiring "the next legend".

Second, it is incumbent on you to get better and more efficient at hiring people, and if you're stuck with "resume, phone screen, all-day interview", you've got your hands tied behind your back. There are so many ways to control and accelerate a recruiting funnel that it's tragic to be running one for a high-tech company the same way that Northern Trust runs them for junior bankers.

Well, not that I was talking to you (I was talking to cookiecaper) But I appreciate the interest even if your reply is a little bit of a response to something I didn't say.

Near as I can tell your process appears to be first come first serve.

By your own statements, you don't look at resumes, and you apparently don't ask any particular questions about work history or education during your interview process. I'm guessing you have some sort of technical screen since you've alluded to having some sort of highly specialized selection process of some sort.

But I've illuminated you enough with what I've learned to be a solid and reliable process, and I know I must be unfairly characterizing your process above or you wouldn't be in business, so what's yours?

> By your own statements, you don't look at resumes, and you apparently don't ask any particular questions about work history or education during your interview process.

This thread is already a bit too long, and I haven't read through tptacek's link about his hiring process, but:

1. you don't look at resumes,

If I am hiring for a ruby on rails position specifically, the only thing I need to check is if you know ruby on rails. I know RoR, I know my requirements, I can evaluate if you are suited to this current role.

If I am hiring for RoR, but I am looking for a generalist - someone who might not know RoR but can pick it up on the run, then looking up at the resume for RoR isn't required. I will just talk general algorithms, design problems, code snippets.

2. and you apparently don't ask any particular questions about work history or education during your interview

Me: Let's say we need to have a threaded discussion forum. You know, like HN. Where replies can have replies.

Joe: Yes, I got that.

Me: Let's see how you go about deciding upon the models for that. I need upvote/downvote/recall vote on all posts. Here, take this piece of blank paper, and run me through how are you storing posts, and comments. And when loading a particular post, how are you going to load the posts and comments associated with them.

Joe: works through it

Me: That looks great, but I am concerned about the number of db hits.

Joe: suggests some kv store suitable for it, talks about storing graphs

Me: I think that's good enough. How about implementing upvote/downvote/recall vote.

Joe: Need to change the db models. I skipped them in the first iteration.

Me: Let's skip it. You know about closures? Care to quote me a particular example of closures?

Joe: function translator(el) { return function(text) { $(el).text(text); } }

    // Translate all i18n elements
    $('.i18n').each(function() { 
        // Text and callback
        AJAX_API.translate($(this).text(), translator(this));
And so on and on.

I don't see why I need to specifically ask about your education. I might ask about your work experience, but not necessarily.

Matasano's publicly stated process is basically to call them up on the phone, then begin a multi-week technical interview process consisting of several technical screens and some project work.

It's a first come first serve, but only if you are this tall, process.

It's intriguing, and the technical interview process isn't entirely unlike others I've seen, and does a good job weeding out persons that have no business working for Matasano.

Like anything there is an upside and a downside:

Downside first (because I'd like to end on a positive note)

As an applicant, you really want to have that job, because you just dropped applying for anything else for a few weeks while you run this gauntlet.

Good side:

Matasano ends up with qualified, eager employees who really want to be there.

The biggest problem for me in both of your examples is that, taken literally, you know only the functional capabilities of the candidate, but virtually nothing else.

People who can answer moderately deep technical questions are a dime-a-dozen in certain parts of the country. So while passing an intensive technical screen will generally yield solid employees, it can sometimes fail in interesting ways.

I remember a guy my friend hired just this year who passed all of the technical screens (all done remotely via phone interviews, webex and email) with flying colors, but had two problems: once employed, he just froze unless given explicit direction every 5 minutes, he had atrocious personal hygiene that was so bad it sent half a dozen people home ill. On his resume? Didn't finish his schooling, <1 year work histories at a half dozen companies plus some other warning signs I can't go into. An in-person non-technical interview would have revealed his other issues.

Unanswered questions for the Matasano process:

1) Can they actually finish an extended task or are they just good test takers?

2) Are they self motivated?

3) Do they tend to move about employers very quickly? (ladder jumpers, flaky personalities)

4) Have they performed well on teams?

5) Do they have a violent criminal history or dangerous psychological issues you should be aware of?

6) Do they have other skills you might be able to take advantage of in the future?


Hiring people is hard. Hiring good people doubly so. But a good hiring process should be well rounded so that you understand where you can use a person in your organization if you choose to hire them, and set expectations of performance up front. An anti-social super tech type might only be usable in development, while somebody with good presentation skills and strong technical skills might be more valuable in a variety of roles.

I'm not saying mine is the best and greatest in the world, but it's pretty good, and more or less what you'll find just about any place. Some places have oddball or one-off hiring systems that work well for them and provide them with their own desired metrics on an employee. I think that's great also.

Going back to the original point that drug us down into this conversational morass, resumes are fairly standard, and have certain things most companies expect to see. Building a resume based on the hiring practices of just one company is not something I'd particularly recommend unless you only care about getting hired at that one place and nowhere else.

Important! The resume won't get you hired, but it will get you an interview. Otherwise you need some selection mechanism to determine whom to interview or you'll spend every waking moment in interview hell.

We do not have candidates perform "project work".

The amount of time people spend on our tech challenges is (a) calibrated to be less than the amount of time one spends on an all-day tech interview and (b) designed to be broken up into three short chunks (by short we mean "an hour or so") so people can do them at their convenience, rather than having to take a personal day from work to "run a gauntlet".

We go way out of our way to respect people's time; in fact, after interviewing candidates from our earlier process, we designed this process with that as a primary goal. Which is why we say that over and over again on the Careers page.

"Drop everything for a few weeks" is disingenuous hyperbole. As is the idea that --- working in information security for Fortune 500 companies --- are hiring violent felons. I understand that you're irritated with how I've responded to your comments and I don't blame you for being uncivil, but please constrain your irritation at me, not my company.

I apologize if I mischaracterized your company's hiring process -- there was no disparagement intended. On the contrary I believe it is intriguing, and given your company's excellent reputation it appears to work well.

It also appears that we're definitely at a communications impasse. By "project work" I was referring to steps 3, 4 and 5 from the career page you referenced:

3. Web app challenge

4. Custom protocol challenge

5. Write a fuzzer (including automated testing)

I'm open to any other descriptor for those steps that you care to use. I most sincerely apologize if "project" implies too heavy a meaning.

And by length of time I was referring to the answer to question #1 directly below those steps

"This looks complicated. How long does it take?

Not that long! We work hard to minimize the amount of time we demand from candidates. We'll be 80% of the way through before you're ever asked to come on-site. We can usually wrap things up inside a few weeks. "

I personally think it sounds like your process is designed to optimize around keeping the technical screening as short as possible while still maximizing the information you retrieve -- which I think is great. It's certainly a much better use of everybody's time than say, Google's multiple all-day committee interview/quiz show extravaganzas are. If I misunderstood the FAQ and the process does not, in fact, take a few weeks, I apologize.

I'm not sure if it's you or I that's going out of our way to be obtuse regarding best hiring practices, but I apologize if I brought any offense or disparagement to you or your company. It wasn't intended.

No big thing. It's my fault this got so heated. I could go on and on about what we've learned about recruiting process over the last 5 years, but we're pretty deeply nested here; some other time.

I mostly lurk, and I watched this exchange with interest. If anonymous internet votes count for anything, please count this as one for the writeup you just mentioned.

Our process is obviously not "first come first serve" (we would not be "very good" at screening candidates if it was), but we're pretty deeply nested in this thread to get into details.

A good starting point is http://www.matasano.com/careers.

But: that isn't the entirety of our recruiting process; it's just the portion most visible to applicants.

I'm not saying that you should hire people without education in hopes that you're randomly selecting a future legend, I merely intend to point out that the policy of shredding every resume that doesn't have an Education section is a very wide buckshot that doesn't actually help much of anything. You should evaluate candidates on real, relevant criteria, not arbitrary "lines in the sand".

This conversation is great - and great fodder for my gripe that resume advice on the internet is useless unless it comes from the exact person or /maybe/ organization you want to be hired by. Everyone has their own idea of what the ideal application is, and they all think it's the most reasonable one.

It is not a buyer's market for talent right now. It's a seller's market. You may be getting 100 candidates for every position, but they're terrible candidates.

It's obvious that we're both pretty successful at finding people I think, through wildly different processes. I think it's fair to say I prefer to weed out front side via resumes, and you prefer to weed out backside in the technical interview process. And I think that's fair.

I do find it interesting on this site in general how I almost disagree with every single thing you post, yet you still seem to make it work, so that's always fascinating to me and helps remind me that there's often more than one way to do it.

So I don't know you or who you work for, but in the interest of candor (and in a more interesting discussion) let me just say this: I do not agree. Your way is bad. The process you're advocating for recruits poorer candidates. It is also out of step with hiring practices in much of the software industry.

Rephrasing slightly and more specifically: if your recruiting process is "resume screen then interview" with no intermediate qualifying steps, and your resume screen includes "round file anyone who doesn't have an Education section": I hire better candidates than you, I'm more effective than you, and more and more people are going to hire like me and less and less like you, because your way is archaic and ineffective.

I am able to be this tactless and blunt primarily because you're an anonymous abstraction and I don't know anything about you other than this particular facet of your approach to our shared profession.

I think you need to do two things

1) calm down

2) get over yourself

You aren't that amazing, even if you have more internet points than I do.

Is it just in your nature to try and insert as much friction as possible in all interactions where you disagree with somebody and hope to win by exhausting what you perceive to be your opponent? Or is it just possible that some of what you say it right and some of it is wrong (likewise for myself)?

So far you've called me a fool twice and insinuated that I'm grossly incompetent, then recognized that you are being tactless. With all due respect, go troll someplace else. You know that HN is not the kind of place for this.

I said you'd be a fool to discard resumes that don't have "Education" on them, but the actual subtext of what I'm saying is "I don't believe you", just like I don't believe that after hiring hundreds of people, you've never seen someone hired that didn't have an "Education" section on their resume, as you intimated upthread.

Now, saying I don't believe you is also pretty rude, so: I'm sorry if that upset you. Getting upset is a reasonable response to rudeness.

As I don't believe we're actually having a conversation in good faith, the simplest solution to this problem is to stop replying to your comments, which is what I'm going to do.

> 15 years as a "Programmer I" is not a good sign.

What is "Programmer I"? Is it some kind of specific grade scale, how standard it is? Then how does a startup of 5 people assign "Programmer" grades. How high does it go? Can't they just assign to each other the highest "Programmer" grade so it looks good on paper?

We spend the whole day with a candidate testing and interacting with them but we never bother looking at "Programmer" grade.

I've seen that kind of nomenclature only on sites like Monster or Salary.com and I've always felt similar as your comment: where do these come from? How come I was never told about it? How come my positions were never classified like this?

Overall, for me, it falls under these semi-established things that you're supposed to learn somehow. Some people know what it is and will make sure that their jobs are classified a certain way. Of course, since I don't know, I'm biased, but I feel that employers and employees that use them are probably not good cultural matches for me.

Most people get out of school and head for a mega corp for their first job. Boring mega corps like to put people into easy to categorize slots for the payroll people. It's an easy marker to look at in a candidate if their job = megacorp and their time in that position was more than a 2-4 years, their was probably an issue with them.

With really small companies, you have to on other things. I've worked for both kinds of companies, there's almost always some kind of title/responsibility change you can point to. It's not often that a person slaves over the same pile of code, in literally the same job for a decade.

Demonstrate that progression in the bullet points or beneath the title.

"Exposure to..." is also a red flag. I had one candidate who listed "Exposure to C++" at the top of the skills section of his CV. Turns out he meant that he ran programs written in C++ - he'd never written a line of it himself.

"Familiar with..." is often a warning sign too.

I'm curious how you'd regard someone with the following on their resume:

1. a decade of military service, 2. a link to a healthy portfolio on github, 3. A couple of years of professional experience as a developer, 3. but only a 2-year degree or coursework for a CS degree.

I'm not in the market, just curious as I weigh my options for continuing school.

If the military service is at all related, pump it up. Lots of MOSs are technical in nature.

The github portfolio can be really important. Especially if it contains a lot of really good looking stuff and represents lots of self improvement. I'll almost always pause to check out somebody's "portfolio" if they stick it on their resume. It provides me with far more info than just the resume format can.

Nothing wrong with 2 year degrees. It demonstrates being able to finish something, even if it's boring core coursework. Either way I'll usually ask if they want to go back to school, or finish it up. The answers are often helpful.

("I'm too smart for what they're teaching me" is never a good answer to that question btw)

But by all means, put it down there or I don't know about it.

Agree re: military service. I don't even care if your MOS is relevant to what I do; simply having served says something good about character and is always relevant.

Disagree, unsurprisingly, with the rest of this comment.

Why is that unsurprising?

It's like not putting your callback #, email address, home address or work history.

I find it interesting that you're mentioning the home address because, somewhat recently, I completely revamped my resume and that was one of the item I got rid of. Sure at some point, if they hire you they'll need it, but until then, I don't think it helps in any way.

You could say that an employer wants to make sure the person is local, but if I apply, that means that I'm either local or that I'm willing to relocate.

As for GPA, I didn't know it was common practice to put that. I won't, mostly because I didn't graduate in the US and the grading system is very different.

You don't need to put your home address on your resume, but having some mailing address can be helpful; I've sent books to 4 or 5 candidates in the past month or so, and each time I had to ask for an address, which felt kind of awkward (like, maybe they didn't want to disclose their address?).

I think it's fair to worry that some brain-dead screening process will weed you out somewhere based on your address (ie, by sticking you in the "need to relocate" bucket), so for whatever this is worth: you definitely don't need to include your address on your resume. No reasonable company will discard a resume because it lacks a home address.

Though don't hold not having a college degree against a candidate. A good candidate can come from all walks of life - but in the end it is the interviewers job to make sure that the candidate is suited for the job - regardless of his background.

The moral of this story, which virtually every startup founder in the history of the universe has heard or told a variant of, is:


Further, "check references" needs to be deeper than just asking if the guy actually worked there. Ask about his role and responsibilities. Ask how he helped the company's bottom line. Ask real questions.

The problem is a lot of places will not make any further comment beyond confirming the employee worked there and perhaps the circumstances of their departure (resignation/laid off/fired). This is often for legal reasons.

I've posted about this before, but I wanted to again bring it up as a note of caution for people who might be looking for work.

My present employer (who I've finally decided to try and make my former) has a policy forbidding any employee from serving as a reference to any former employee. They are literally not allowed to comment in any way, but are told to forward all inquiries to a phone number which will verify employment (a number that no one actually seems to know).

Ostensibly, this is to protect the corporation from potential lawsuits; but it has a chilling effect on employees who are looking to leave.

So I'd warn anyone to be careful about working at a place like this, as it can make leaving much more difficult. A policy like this isn't something you'd generally think to ask about while interviewing, so I don't know how you'd find out about it ahead of time, but it's probably worth asking about.

I've had companies ask me if I could violate the policy and provide them references anyway, which I'm not a big fan of. As anti-employee as I consider the policy, I think it's important to follow the stuff you've agreed to (and I'm not sure what it says about a company who is that willing to have you violate the policies at your existing company).

I understand how the company arrived at it, but that's a horrible, damaging rule.

As I've now been discovering lately. I don't think it's very common (I haven't heard of any other companies that do it, for instance), but I'd really hate for other people to wind up in the same situation.

Ericsson has this policy as well

Garmin has this policy also.

I worked for a company with a similar policy - no employee could provide a reference, and all requests had to be passed on to HR. However, some of my co-workers were contractors and they were happy to provide personal references.

The answer then would be "Company policy prohibits me from giving a corporate reference. Here is my personal cell phone number if you would like a personal reference."

That's a bad reference. Sorry. I know that's not fun to hear, but it's true. Go out of your way to find people who will give you detailed, positive references.

Savvy employers will go out of their way, for instance by hitting up their network, to get "out of band" references for an employee. Those references are the ones that count the most. But when you give me a reference, and I call them, and all they'll say is "He worked here at XXX salary" --- that's a bad reference. Try to make sure that doesn't happen.

I don't know if a generic HR/manager reference would tell even the salary.

But now I'm genuinely curious: 1. how do you make sure references presented aren't extremely cherry-picked - does it just come out as obvious in the conversation? 2. what about more junior employees, who may not have much of a network for an employer to hit up?

Do not use HR people as references!

You're better off cherry-picking your references than you are trying to be "honest" about them and not knowing for sure what your reference is going to say about you. As long as you actually worked with the person who's giving your reference, you're fine.

Follow-up: 3. Is this situation like resume/cover letter advice, where everyone has their own favourite system and each person's advice for the perfect application is different?

So many people coach their references --- that's the whole reason we go through the trouble of doing backdoor references! --- that you can safely assume any prospective employer has already factored coaching in to any reference you give them. Which means, game-theoretically, you might as well coach them.

No - being confident that your referees are going to say good things about you is always good advice.

At the risk of this sounding like a bullshit platitude, if you find yourself having to really cautiously cherry-pick your references, you might want to evaluate if that says something about your work (it may or may not).

I may have just been really lucky in my career, but there isn't anyone I've worked with (either as a coworker, manager, or as an underling) who I wouldn't feel comfortable being a reference. That's not to say there aren't people who I wouldn't chose to be a reference (maybe we didn't work together very closely), but seriously, nobody who if I were on trial and the prosecutor called as a "surprise witness" I'd cringe and worry that they might say something negative about my work.

As someone who was once (not too long ago) blindsided by an unexpectedly- somewhat- negative reference, and who has seen a couple other people similarly blindsided, and where in all these cases the backdoor reference, while not a coached reference, was someone you could have seen it coming for (a manager, a close coworker, etc):

It's probably a good idea to secure agreement that, should a reference call come in, you're going to get 100% positive feedback. You can accomplish that without demanding 100% positive references; just say something like, "hey, Joe, I'm getting pretty far down the road with a potential gig and they're smart and might track you down for a reference... anything I'd need to be concerned about?".

Once a person tells you to your face that they're not going to say anything bad about you, they're a lot less likely to.

Whereas, if you don't have the conversation at all, your coworkers can tank you without even meaning to. People who aren't experienced giving references might even think it's a good idea to balance out positive things with some (they think) minor negatives. You probably want to nip that idea in the bud, if you can.

Incidentally: if you get called on to give a reference and you're wondering if maybe it'd be a good idea to sprinkle some talk about quirks and idiosyncrasies into a reference: don't. Just give boring good references.

That's actually a good point. You should definitely make sure that you've talked to anyone you're going to list ahead of time.

I've done a couple dozen security clearance interviews for co-workers or past co-workers (which is basically a hiring interview on steroids), and the rule of thumb there is absolutely that you want to give as boring an answer as possible.

When I read this series of comments, for some reason I thought of the series finale of Seinfeld (the courtroom), which brought to mind that it might be useful to evaluate if in your career you've left a bunch of people who you wouldn't want a prospective employer to contact.

My experience of this is that the reference taker phoned up, and kept on going until the blandness wore off. The person got the job so I assume they were satisfied. I got the distinct impression that notes were being taken, and cross referenced with interview notes and the CV. I had a copy of the applicant's CV in front of me.

eh, I wouldn't worry so much. Bad references are /rare/ - I mean, I remember once giving one client a long list of references (I'm not exactly sure why I was so concerned with this one client? this was a long time ago) anyhow, I told the client that I'd also include another reference, one that I didn't think would be great.

I mean, that last reference was someone I worked for, and I didn't rip them off or anything, but I didn't do particularly good work. I did some sysadmin work for them, and I was also hosting their shit and, kinda sorta went out of business (well, that part is... complicated. the upshot is that I couldn't host their servers anymore.) The process was moderately messy and there were some unpleasant outages before I finally pushed them off on to a competitor of mine that I had worked with before.

but yeah, apparently that guy, in spite of my reservations, gave me a glowing recommendation.

Oddly enough, I ended up doing a less than stellar job for this person, too. I mean, I didn't rip him off, and my early work was okay, but I took several jobs from him later on when I simply didn't have the bandwidth to actually do the work. I mean, I didn't take money for the work I didn't do, but still, accepting a project and then just flaking on it is pretty rude.

not just legal reasons.

I mean, I hire people without experience, or people with experience who have been forced into extended periods of unemployment/underemployment. Part of the deal is that they get experience working for me and go on to bigger and better things eventually. I give references. (I mean, I pay a legal wage as well, but I understand that anything I can pay them is nothing compared to what they are worth if I made a good choice hiring them)

People call and practically interview me. Me, the ex (and sometimes current(!)) employer. I mean, it was part of the deal, so I always try to give a good reference, but man, sometimes it just seems like they are overdoing it. One guy sent me this giant excel worksheet written in a horrible parody of English. I think I wrote him back with a textual (and good) recommendation, but I didn't fill out the xls. My guy got the job, too, so I guess it was okay, but I think that's expecting a little bit much out of an ex-employer, really.

Now, another thing you need to remember as an employer answering a reference check call? Legal bullshit aside, there is zero reason for me to say anything bad about an ex-employee of mine. I'm doing the ex-employee a favor, so either I'm going to make that a good favor and give the kid a glowing review, or I'm going to save myself some time and say something to the effect of "sure, that kid worked here, sure, I'd hire them again. Company policy prevents me from saying more." - I mean, I'm conscious of my deal with my employee, so it's usually the former; if someone works for you for more than a month or two, there are good things to say about them. (I mean, unless you are unable to fire people, and, well, I'm not unable to fire people.)

So yeah, from that point of view? I don't put a whole lot of stock in references, personally. I mean, if you actually verify the phone number, which most people don't, they do mean something, just, well, not as much as people seem to say.

Yeah, you could count all "yes he worked here, yes he's eligible for rehire, company policy prevents me from saying more" as black marks, but what if that really is company policy? what if the person giving the reference is just really busy and wants you off the phone?

Personally, I'm not sure you could even take a "yeah, that guy was a lazy shit" reference seriously; I mean, it probably says as much about the employer as the employee, more, maybe, if they are willing to take the risk of saying something bad about an ex-employee when there is zero upside to that risk.

If you are hiring someone for a sales position, talk with their customers not their former employer.

I guess, but the first real question in any sales interview is "what was your number at your last job", and a 15 second reference check with the former employer would quickly surface the fact that the person didn't have a number at all.

Have you ever actually called a salesperson's customers? They provided you customer references? How'd it go?

Ask how he/she left...

Would they hire him/her again.

The lesson here is to never rely on someone else's hiring process to do your screening. Big Corps VP can easily become your douchebag if you aren't on the ball.

This is a great startup story - I think the original poster got off easy. For the price of some pens, a dinner and a whole bunch of wasted time (and perhaps a small hit on credibility) the truth was found. I've seen situations much, much worse.

This is exactly why hiring is described as the most important thing a manager/executive/founder can do.

Everyone pay attention, this seems to be one of those lessons everyone learns the hard way.

I'd made a similar mistakes with my first hire. Basically I hired the first guy who said he was awesome at php. Great I said. Do this, this and this. You can do some work from home, set your own hours at the office etc. He stopped coming into the office to work from home instead. I was so over capacity that i didn't check on his work for about 2 months (fool is me). When I finally did I discovered a horrible horrible mess. The app was completely useless and the 'awesome php dude' was completely incompetent. Lessons learned:

1. Do your own investigation into a potential hire to see if they are actually capable.

2. Watch new hires carefully

3. It costs more to fix hiring mistakes than to prevent them from happening.

Actually my second hire was pretty shit too. This time I made sure the dude was technically competent but he didn't fit the company culture I wanted. I don't like egos or office politics.

After those few bad mistakes my subsequent hires were great.

I'll second the "watch new hires carefully".

You can save yourself a lot of problems if you just keep an eye on your new people for the first month. Obviously you don't need to be overbearing, but at the end of that first month you should do a detailed work evaluation (code review if a programmer). If the employee shows signs of producing crap in their first month, get rid of her/him then. Do not wait unless there is a really, really good reason to.

Yep, I have been very surprised in recent weeks at how bold people will be in their lies about their professional capabilities and/or history.

I'd also add: Never assume an individual is competent based on their title and/or the company they work for.

The author, Bill, answered questions about this on Joel on Software:


Key comment:

"[..] when you're in your spare bedroom alone slaving away for 5-6 years, then someone comes along with deep connections to the industry (proven from asking around), who everybody in the niche knows, and who was 'part of a team' responsible for booking $100 million in sales in a single year... it is easy to not go through all that due dilligence and just accept someone like that at face value."

Titles are bullshit. At some companies almost every salesperson is a VP of Sales, Western Antarctica (or whatever) -- it's a free way to make customers feel important.

Likewise, I've been cold-called or cold-emailed by many a "senior recruiter", but never a "junior recruiter" or even simply a "recruiter".

Job-title inflation is real. A decade or two ago, titles were more modest.

Everyone at staff level in financial sector has been a VP since as long as I have known the financial sector existed.

At my last job, every developer was a Senior Engineer. I chose Software Mechanic as my title.

Not just in sales and recruiting: "Rock Star Ninja Engineer"

The reason you get head nods when you relate this experience, in my opinion, is that versions of this sort of thing are all too common when hiring sales people. Sorry to be biased, but I'll go as far as saying that there's a certain separate species in the sales world. By now I recognize a lot of the signs, but it cost me hundreds of thousands of dollars and a lot of lost business to get there. Just ask fellow entrepreneurs "What's the secret to hiring a sales person?" and watch as the first reaction is eyes rolling.

If business where easy everyone would be doing it. Don't give up, you'll figure it out.



It's hard to hire good direct sales people into a new sales organization for the same reason that it's hard to find an effective SEO consultant on the open market: the people that have this skill can make it rain money and are not looking for jobs. So you can safely assume that almost everyone you're talking to for your first sales hire is a product of adverse selection.

Unfortunately I have encountered those "sales" people quite a few time during my long career (in financial industry.) They sell themselves very well, they're very good at with people, they make a lot of jokes, laugh a lot, they use their own families (dinner parties etc.) for getting closer to people and, dresses very very well for all occasions. They play politics in the office very well as well. When it comes to deliver something, you always see delays, they quickly offload responsibility to those who can actually do it (and they are very good with them as well). They suck up, but when it comes down to it, they kick down hard especially those who helped them in the past. They all disliked me, since I was very blunt to them. It is easy to detect them, since if he is really someone to deliver he will do it very soon, otherwise they play endless delay tactics.

A founder should not be delegating sales to a hire, and if you have multiple cofounders, it is moronic to have only one of them aware of sales (with 3 people, you could maybe get away with 2 people knowing about most of the clients, or a different subset of 2 for each client, but even then).

As a hiring manager, I always try to either (a) hire 90 day contract to full-time; or (b) hire under a 90-day trial or probationary period. At the end of the period I ask myself if I would still hire that person. If my instinct is "no", I trust my instinct. It's good for morale when everyone knows that the 90 days is a meaningful evaluation period.

As a job-seeker, I always make sure that I contact my references and give them a heads-up that the call is coming in, along with a copy of the resume I submitted for the job and the job posting. It's out of courtesy to the person I'm asking to provide me with a reference.

Excellent post. Mirrors my own experience a lot. How many life-savings and great business ideas have been burnt beyond repair by doofus business losers only god can imagine.

What I'm taking away from this is that it really is important to check up on the background and specific accomplishments of new hires, regardless of prior accolade or title.

This is exactly what happened to me with Etude and why I ended up selling when I did.

Maybe the rule is "don't be embarrassed about asking questions when your business/reputation is on the line." Kind of easy to get starstruck, I guess.

I don't think anyone gets it right the first time. My first two "hires" were horrific. I ended up learning from the experience and better shaping what I wanted, what I needed to do differently, etc.

Most recent hire has been a much better fit into that mould, but still not perfect. HR isn't at all my specialty, and I know it will be years before I perfect it.

Glad to hear that the company recovered - one of mine didn't.

It's a shame OP had to learn the hard way given that he stated he was not going to buy into resume hype and ended up doing so anyways albeit in a less formal fashion.

While stories like this would any employer cringe, the very opposite scenario occurs as well. I've personally been part of the receiving and giving end of that type of scenario.

It's funny how the boss actually was the idiot for buying that guy. Even his goals in the beginning were stupid. I can only learn from this article that my goals are probably shit, too. At least as long as I don't have some experience as people manager.

Number one rule of hiring: take up references

Absolutely. My current employer never asked for references, and in fact, they didn't even get my full legal name until after they'd hired me (no background check, in other words). Luckily it's not an issue in my case, but even so, this is an InfoSec company. They really ought to be more careful, even with charming fellas like me!

I'm curious how people feel about (criminal, credit) background checks. Our lawyers suggested that both those and drug tests are sometimes done, but might not be appropriate in silicon valley. We're pretty anti drug-tests, but especially for an infosec company or someone with access to sensitive customer data, running at least a criminal check and possibly credit check makes sense. I wouldn't say having previous convictions necessarily excludes someone, but refusing to disclose and being unable to explain something is probably a big problem.

California and several other states have imposed legal restrictions on using credit checks in hiring decisions. See an article by two lawyers at a prominent labor-law firm: http://www.littler.com/publication-press/publication/califor...

I've turned down job offers over required background checks, for a variety of reasons. I could see how they would be appropriate if someone were involved in handling money or deals or some such, but for a plain dev, it's silly.

I'd consider just a plain criminal background check, but for the rest of it, my credit is none of anybody's damn business. The demand to call all my previous employers and verify salaries is similarly horseshit -- my previous salaries don't matter a damn, all that matters is our agreement on what an employer is going to pay me. The weird thing is companies get indignant if you turn them down for this reason, and pissy when you characterize the demand for such a check as a lack of trust. Particularly since my previous 3 bosses are references. While I suppose someone could fake references, it's hard to do with linkedin, especially since someone doing a reference call to an arbitrary phone number could just ask for a verification email from corporate email.

I think the purpose with credit checks is to catch "irresponsible behavior", like a huge mountain of credit card debt, because it could make someone willing to steal.

It never really made a whole lot of sense to me, since most people in the tech industry in debt got that way through a failed startup, or maybe a divorce, or medical expenses, or something like that; none of which makes you a less good candidate. Maybe a lot of charge-offs would be an issue for a CFO.

My general philosophy on references is they only really count if they're strong mutually known parties; a random manager at IBM vouching for someone is pretty meaningless to me. The first circle is founders' personal contacts, then people introduced by their contacts, and people who are introduced by people known to early employees. That scales pretty far if you're hiring in a specific domain.

Does reference checking really work? People pick references that can put them in the best light.

How would one phrase questions to get the true answers from references?

If the candidate says he was a latex salesman for Vandelay Industries, that could be a red flag.

Seriously... I've found that people in sales are so used to bullshitting their way to a deal that you have to double and triple check everything in their backgrounds.

It's still difficult to get good references if you're not competent. Sure, some people might get friends to flat out lie and say they're a previous employer and give a glowing review. But how often will that really happen? More likely, people will pick real references that will give a good review, but you can still get good information from that reference (e.g. their responsibilities at the previous job, why they left, etc.).

They do work but are not foolproof. I always ask to speak with the person's current manager. Its usually possible to discerne whether the manager is sorry to lose the employee or not.

When you say "current", you mean you talk to the manager that probably doesn't know his employee is interviewing for a new job? I bet that ends well.

How many times have you taken a call from someone who is doing a reference check on one of your current employees?

Even though I never give references until an offer has been agreed to, I generally will not give my current manager for various reasons -- first it is just way too awkward.

I'd think that would be an issue to. In this case the guy wasn't trying to deceive him really, but if he had been what good is a "reference" from some guys buddy at the "awesome sause corp"

People like this who know a lot of folks and who get along and are likeable can be a huge asset. You may not want them selling for you, but you certainly want them to mingle, talk to potential clients and take them to dinner, etc.

They aren't idiots, they are very valuable employees when used appropriately. He would make an excellent client relations manager.

Alternative title: How to hire like an idiot

No time for any of them - called out the sales director for being a bullshitter and amazingly kept my job for several years. Sold nothing, was like watching a galaxy imploding into a black hole. Stayed for the entertainment. Was well worth it.

Dude was a psychopath. I've been tricked by them before, cost me at least $20k. They lie. Straight to your face. They are often terrible at spelling, grammar, and just general "this document should look right" skills.

The word "psychopath" is getting waaaay overused. Not every bullshit artist is a psychopath. Just like not everyone who frowns a lot is clinically depressed, and not everyone who washes their hands before lunch is OCD.

He was probably incompetent, and didn't realize he was incompetent. People don't realize their limitations unless they are actually hit over the head with them. In a big company, people would just politely remove him from any situation where he in danger of screwing up - that's a large percent of what office politics is about (never letting managers feel stupid, even if it would be good for them).

He thought he knew sales, when he was really just good at a certain stage of sales (lead generation, in an industry where he had tonnes of experience). He fell flat, then tried to cover his screw-ups with bullshit.

Actually, a psychopath would have been better salesman. If you are talking to a salesman, and you think "this guy is a snake", he's probably a psychopath (or ASPD), and would make an effective salesman as long as you keep him at arms length. The first clue the author had was the guy's informal manner - he seemed way too balls-out confident. He lied, but they were the desperate lies of a guy trying to get (or keep) a job, not the lies of somebody who's really out to deceive.

Everyone lies, when they feel they have to. But they hate doing it, and usually try to fudge first. ("I'm qualified ... yep ... yeah, a degree ... um, actually it's a diploma ... well, look, I've done training, but most of it was industry based".) I think a psychopath is more likely to come up with a shamelessly complete story "Yes, I graduated from Harvard in 1987, and was in the top 5% of my class."

Either you haven't dealt with one or the one you have dealt with is much more crafty than the one I dealt with.

They have no morals. That's a psychopath, by definition. What you describe is a more intelligent psychopath, but they are still a psychopath. The lie to your face. You trust them because they are often charismatic, but it makes no difference. When push comes to shove they screw you.

I'm not over using the term. The person that I've dealt with (whom sounds strikingly similar to the $100m "vp" except for the reveal portion) was a class A psychopath. He lied to me before he even noted that I was useful to him. That is a psychopath at work.

Does that mean he was also faking his regret when he finally got "caught" so he could get off scot-free?

Of course he was.

The whole story about how he was into drugs and crime and turned his life around and worked his way up from the bottom, maybe that happened and maybe it didn't- but the story about how he's just a simple mook from Circumstances was calculated to gain sympathy and shift the blame away from himself.

>Well, at least he was honest. He wasn't trying to deceive me, and he really thought he could do it, he explained. No hard feelings.

And it worked!

Possibly, I only know my situation. The guy I knew coiled up into contract speak. "You signed something that said that I received 10 percent of gross sales" etc. But it would depend on the situation. I can only say that the parallels between the guy that fucked me over and this guy are huge. So many 10% truths (as opposed to half truths) so many ass covering statements. If you have never dealt with a psychopath you have no idea what you are in for.

This is one if the things that could happen when you try to compensate for a cofounder with an employee/contractor.

"business executives are sometimes just full of shit!"

not just business executives.

"Every time I relate this experience, I get a lot of head nods."

o.O is what you get from me. Is everyone you relate this story to you a half-wit? Quite simply, who hires without adequate research? (apparently many more people than I realized)

Anyone who will work for free may not be worth the price.

I think I've worked with that guy before...

Anyone know who this is, or his company?

He should of at least Googled the guy!

As an idiot I take offence

The author fails to mention how much his own greed played into this.

I cringed every time this came up in every paragraph.

But... he was the VP of a $100 million company, after all!

The Bozo Explosion, and how to prevent it: http://blog.guykawasaki.com/2006/02/how_to_prevent_.html#axz...

"Sadly, I could have found out all of that by simply asking him before offering him the deal."

Wow. Really?

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