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We Rejected Dan Shipper (And What I Learned About Hiring) (quintenfarmer.com)
113 points by quintendf on May 2, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 64 comments

OP uses the word "rejected" 9 times.

A-level hiring is not about rejection. A-players aren't looking for a "job" and A-managers aren't trying to build an assembly line. It's about finding a mutual relationship where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and that requires a lot of things to come together.

> As a startup, if you have the opportunity to bring on an A player in a low risk role (like an internship), you do it

All circumstances are different, so maybe he should have found room for Dan, or maybe not. Engineering quality (and talent in general) is on a power law distribution. When you consider engineering quality to be a competitive advantage (not all startups, even YC startups, need this), your early hires are your future managers, and will tend to influence the future hires. Its tough to attract and close people smarter/better than you.

I imagine myself now at age 26 (pretty decent engineer, doing functional programming and stuff), and compare to age 21 (cocky, overconfident) and while I was smart and driven and all that, it doesn't mean I can contribute to a rockstar team. I would drown and get left behind. World class teams at the top of the power law distribution, say the Clojure team[1], at age 21 I'd be a few orders of magnitude behind them and just not worth paying. at age 26, who knows, probably still at least 1 order of magnitude behind, not worth hiring. Square peg, round hole. At least I can see my trajectory of exponential growth over the last 5 years, and if that keeps up another decade, I can build or join a team like that.

[1] http://thinkrelevance.com/team

(OP here)

I should probably note that the use of the word "rejected" was done to emphasize the humor of the situation (we rejected someone who is now being publicly recruited), and to draw attention to what a mistake it was.

I would completely agree that A level hiring isn't about rejection, job descriptions, or assembly lines. That's why I am such a fan of what Jason Freedman is doing at 42floors.

To your second point, I remain a firm believer that early stage companies (less than 10 people) in this hiring environment should be open to bringing on A players, even if they don't fit into an immediately defined role.

I know nothing about "Wheremyfriends.be, a simple webapp " and it is interesting to see how a brand is being built around one of its three developers. However, I hope we see less of these hero-worship posts on the front page (or at least limit the number of hero-worship posts until something more substantial has been accomplished)

Btw self-seeking flattery of powerful, influential people is generally considered as sycophantic.

Is there a good term for flattering people like the guy described in this post :)

[edit] for chc and anyone else who didn't get the sarcasm, yes, the intern wasn't powerful. That is precisely why the smiley-question asked for a new term

I thought we were talking about a college sophomore who wrote something cool and gained recognition for his skills. Who's the powerful, influential person that Mr. Farmer is flattering?

I believe the term for flattering people like Dan Shipper is "paying a compliment."

EDIT: You're right, I didn't get the sarcasm. In the context of a comment that described the OP as "hero-worship," it doesn't come across as sarcasm. If we acknowledge that the guy is neither powerful nor influential, it seems pretty obvious that the OP's "flattery" is merely paying a compliment to somebody he respects. I think we could use more of that and less "So-and-so is full of shit" articles.

Turns out if you trace the etymology of sycophant, you end up with "fig-shower" (sykon = fig in Greek), where "showing the fig" meant something along the lines of "flipping the bird" today.


The opposing hand gesture to bird-flipping might be peace-sign-showing. So how about "pacophantic".

(And FWIW, I thought the sarcasm in your question was immediately clear, not sure how other people misunderstood it).

This isn't a powerful, influential person. From what it sounds like, this is a programmer who is engrained in the startup ecosystem, being blogged about by the founder of a startup because he was acquired by another, more noteworthy startup.

The term you're looking for is self-seeking.

But in a review between myself and the company cofounders, one sticking point kept coming up: Not enough relevant development experience. We were trying to build a core front end team that had an existing passion for mobile/tablet, and Dan was a square peg in that round hole.

It's hard to comment accurately without knowing much more about both sides involved here, but generally speaking, rejecting a (skilled+proven) developer who's willing to learn a new technology because he doesn't have experience in it is just...a mistake.

(OP Here)

I certainly won't disagree that the rejection was a mistake (since admitting that mistake is the whole idea of the post).

However, it is worth noting that when we rejected Dan, we rejected a skilled developer. We did not reject a (skilled+proven) developer as you asserted.

Our mistake was in failing to see past Dan's relative inexperience in the areas that mattered to us. We knew he was skilled, but we were unsure how well his raw talent would translate to our product needs at the time. In other words, he was not "proven" in the ways that mattered to us.

Obviously, Dan has now developed enough of the social proof needed to be classified as (skilled+proven), but I think he would be the first to say that his skillset last year was very different than it is now.

Many companies regularly pass on very good people who simply don't fit an immediate defined need. I think this is a common mistake, and one that isn't just made by corporate HR drones and technical recruiters. Part of the goal of this post was drawing attention to how common this mistake is.

"Many companies regularly pass on very good people who simply don't fit an immediate defined need. I think this is a common mistake, and one that isn't just made by corporate HR drones and technical recruiters. Part of the goal of this post was drawing attention to how common this mistake is."

There are always stories going around, maybe true, maybe urban legends about how, for example, IBM could had an opportunity to buy Xerox and could have owned the copier market (which was a really big deal at one point). People talk about how a company passes on an opportunity and, after the fact, what a mistake it was.

What the stories never mention is how many ideas they passed up that never amounted to anything. They only focus on the mistake they made.

You can't hire everyone and you used your best judgment given what you needed and what you saw. If 42floors hadn't written the blog post and it hadn't appeared on HN this situation with Dan wouldn't mean anything to you you wouldn't even know about it.

Actually, I think you made the right call to reject him during your initial interview (based on your telling), and you second-guessing it simply because another company is publicly kissing his ass is worrying. Your reasoning is sound to turn him down, and you don't have to hire everybody; the rest of your comment basically reinforces that point.

I, personally, know three people in college who have turned out Web apps, iPad games, and even Linux drivers for underrepresented hardware. I think their accomplishments are great, and for every Dan Shipper I bet there's six or seven people not getting the same milk and honey publicly. This hero worship on HN is tiring, and that you're buying into it (and second-guessing your hiring decision!) is just wrong. It's bad for your company to admit it publicly, too, because you're too easily bandwagoned.

You made a decision. Own it, and don't give in to the flavor of the week that HN is lauding.

I dunno. I think you're taking this post a little too seriously. Seems like the OP wanted to give a shout out to a friendly professional acquaintance whose name was making waves in the ecosystem. In doing so he also made a point that you do have to pass on people you think interviewed well.

>>You made a decision. Own it, and don't give in to the flavor of the week that HN is lauding.

It is of wise men to change your mind.

Changing your mind about a decision at the time based on how little experience Dan Shipper had at the time much, much later after he gained experience is not "wise".

I agree. "Not enough relevant development experience." is an answer that I would expect from an HR drone, not someone interested in hiring the best and brightest.

It screams that technical recruiter type ethic: "at least 10 years Ruby on Rails experience required" when Rails isn't even 10 years old yet.

No, it doesn't. Sometimes you have to choose between investing a shitload of money into training someone in the platform that you have, or hiring someone who won't require as much time to ramp up. Never underestimate how much of an investment is required to train someone on a platform; what if it doesn't work out? You've just trained someone partially who can't work for you.

No one 'trained me' on Ruby on Rails as I transitioned out of working on the MS stack for the past 11 years. I learned that stuff myself.

After 4 mos using RoR on one small project, I worked to get my foot in the door for a sit down at a startup looking for their first engineering hire. They wanted someone with 3+ years experience. After seeing some of my code and doing a sample project for them (learning the basics of Sinatra/DataMapper/OAuth/FBGraphAPI to crack a problem they had a need for in a weekend), the CTO said I pretty much blew away many people he's seen who've had such experience, and in the end I was the one to say no to moving forward after the interview process.

If you're looking at people who 'need' to be trained then you're looking at the wrong people. You're looking for people who can crack the more meta-problem of actually learning shit quickly and subsequenty getting shit done quickly.

Well, all else being equal, you're going to get more out of a hire who knows how to work with the technology you're using. If I have a choice between someone who can learn quickly and someone who can learn quickly and already knows what I need him to know, I'm going to pick the latter.

Sure. We'll hire Steve Wozniack and John Carmack after they apply. But we need a strategy for the rest of the applicants, too :)

What are the boundary conditions here? I'm a young developer (23) who's made over half a million USD$ from web apps while in school - would many companies be interested in hiring even with programming languages I have little to no experience with?

The startup I work for would! Assuming, at least, that you have experience in a couple moderately dissimilar languages (e.g. not only Java) it's really not a big deal. It's important to have someone who is a real expert on a language you're using, but most people can just be good at it, and you can get good at most languages quickly with sustained effort.

What is a big deal is being smart and motivated and knowing a lot about at least something useful. Everything else is gravy.

The better question is, in your situation, why would you consider looking for a generic opening? If you can build that sort of business, then you probably don't need a "job".

I'd expect the boundary condition to be whether those web apps were all exactly the same technology, or if there's evidence you're quick to learn and pick up new stuff. If you're like "I did this first thing in PHP but for the second, bigger project I moved to Python/Django with some client-side JS", your odds should be great.

Hiring highly skilled programmers that know exactly the technologies they need is what many companies aim for when hiring, and never accomplish. They're wrong. Even Google has problems finding (and hiring) those. That's why I said it was a mistake.

So, I would expect that you can find these jobs. And the companies that are willing to hire you might also be the ones you want to work at. But some HR departments will turn you down, and some people (like the original poster) may turn you down because it's a risk. (I can't blame them - hiring the wrong person is a bad mistake, too - but they shouldn't complain it's hard to find good people.)

My suspicion is that the underlying motivation in both cases is a desire for "social proof". You might have evidence that the person you're interviewing is a good fit for the job, but why hasn't anyone else hired them to do it? As much as I dislike the whole idea, it seems to just be a fact of human psychology that you have to deal with.

I suppose at the end of the day, startup founders should at least have empathy for this situation. After all, starting a startup is an exercise in not having enough "social proof".

Naming names in these "Why we didn't hire this person" always comes across as showy posturing. If you want to talk about insight gained in the hiring process, you don't need names. You only need names if you want people to be impressed by all the famous people you turned down.

They're trying to ride the Dan Shipper bandwagon. I thought that would have been clear; there's no other reason to write this post.

> it was clear that Dan had the mentality and intellect of an A Player. He was young, driven, and extremely intelligent.

Young has nothing to do with mentality or intellect. Nice to hear someone who is in charge of hiring be honest and say it out loud though.

Whoa there. The quote can be interpreted two ways; the way you read it ("young, driven, intelligent" = "mentality and intellect of an A Player") and the way I read it ("mentality and intellect of an A Player. In addition, he was young, driven...")

There's no legal upside to publicly being interested in young people. The best you can really do is look for inexperienced people with low salary requirements.

Either way, "young" is surrounded by a bunch of other clearly desirable attributes. Were I a litigious applicant over 40, I would find that significant.

Agreed, but without the additional language you added, I did read it differently.

It's funny, when I read that 42 floors offer, I thought Dan Shipper was a name they made up for a hypothetical developer who "Ships" (produces) code.

So I thought it was an open letter to all good developers that they wanted to hire them.

Granted, I only read the first half of the post...

I think the whole thing is kinda ridiculous, making a blog post to hire somebody.. Maybe I'm just outgrowing HN or it's because I'm from Europe that I don't get the fuzz.

More on topic, I quite liked this blog post & think it was much more informant than the one from 42F

You're conflating HN with a single blog post.

Who is Dan Shipper?

I didn't remember until I read the article. Even then... well, I suppose "celebrity intern" is something Silicon Valley is going to have to get used to?

So what? What have this guy done?

Oh, and we've rejected another set of John Does here, by the way.

A sophomore at Penn university I believe. He has written a couple of interesting blog posts, which were featured here on HN.

A self-promoter.

I believe it's referring to this: http://bit.ly/IHTk05.

Actual link the above obfuscated link refers to:


Hiring is random. There have been numerous studies that show people are highly influenced by interviews despite the fact that it's not a good indicator of ability. Would you have hired Systrom or Krieger (instagram) as engineers? AFAIK, they had no experience building large-scale sites, yet put together instagram. Would you have hired Paul Bucheit when he applied to Google? AFAIK, he hadn't done anything spectacular yet.

A-players are by definition people who have done something big. Who hired these people to give them a chance to do something big? What about the larger group of people whose startup flamed out before they could demo their skills? It's all a crapshoot.

Hiring is easy. A small startup is receiving resumes from a self-selected group of people who want to work there despite the low pay and lower job security. Most of the people reading HN could build an instagram-type system. So once you filter for ability with some stupid programming quiz, just pick the guy you like. If your company succeeds, he will magically be considered an A-player.

writing one sided stories about your business relations in public, like this, is not ethically correct, in my opinion.

Dan reviewed this post in its' entirety before it was published. I gave him final say on whether or not it was published or submitted here.

I agree that personal stories like this should have the approval of everyone involved before they are published.

I strongly suggest you add this to the post itself. If not early on, then at least at the end. My thought that "they probably let Dan sign off on this, but it would be good to know for sure" distracted from focusing on the broader point of your article.

I strongly agree with this point. I was also very distracted during this very good post wondering if Dan signed off on it before it was published. By the end I assumed that was the case, but the message would have been better served without the distraction.

fair suggestion. I've added an edit to the end of the post which clarifies this.

Dan here. Just want to back up what Quinten's saying. He went about it the right way and cleared the whole article with me before publishing it.

You probably didn't read the article. I came into it with a similar mindset.

Even if the article was entirely positive, I personally wouldn't want anyone to know when and where I was applying. What if I were happily employed elsewhere when that interview occurred? I don't want somebody that didn't hire me to have any sway on my current employment unless it's where I'm working at the time.

In this case, Dan personally reviewed and approved the article, but that wasn't known at the time (nor was it disclosed), so the caution was certainly warranted.

Caution is certainly warranted but assuming that they did wrong rather than asking if they did right is generally a bad way to go.

I'm waiting for the michaelochurch analysis of this situation.

Did Google also reject Dan?

(Kidding, I have really enjoyed Michael's recent spurt of blog activity.)

What is an "A Player"?

It's anybody who you hire at your startup - until they leave and then all of the sudden they are C players. Because, if you only hire 'A players' and you have decided to hire John Doe #4 for some combination of skill, experience and vibe, then John Doe #4 is now an 'A player' by default until proven otherwise. And thus the myth continues - "We only hire A players."

It appears to be a reductive staffing methodology invented by this book: http://www.amazon.com/Topgrading-Leading-Companies-Coaching-...

The key points:

- Hire people who are awesome

- Fire people who aren't

The term A-player originated in the sports world a long, long time ago. It is literally a player of the sport who is considered A-grade material. This phrase, like many other from the sports world, has been adopted into the business lexicon.

First time I've heard the term, but I take it to be the sort of person who is brilliant enough that you hire them and then work out what to do with them.

I know a sporting example might not be overly popular on HN, but let me try! In the NBA draft, teams will choose between drafting to fill a need (e.g., they're weak at centre, so they'll draft the best big guy), or drafting the most talented player still available (e.g., a brilliant point guard even though they already have two).

In this hiring context, it's a bit like drafting on talent alone - take the "A Player" and worry about the details later. In the NBA example, this means trying to force a fit (shifting a SG to SF), trading them for things you do need (an elite SG for a decent big and a roleplayer), or rebuilding your team around them.

Michael Jordan was drafted third in 1984. The first pick (Olajuwon) was a top-tier talent but the second pick (Bowie) was a bit of a bust. Portland took Bowie ahead of Jordan because they already had Paxson and had recently drafted Drexler.

This feels like a reach to prove superiority and save face. Surprised Dan approved it.


HR at some no-name start-up gets it into their head that some kid can make all their programming dreams come true. They made a blog post to lure him.

Later, HR at some other no-name startup makes a blog post proudly announcing that the kid in question applied there first, also making some annoying backhanded compliments about how their standards were too high or some lame shit.

What next? Nothing at all.

Not only do I hate TL;DR meme (I don't believe it fits the community at HN), but that isn't even an accurate summary of the article or the situation.

Agreed. I thought the parent was ill served by editing the post and moderating the language, which for me more accurately described how I felt about the article and situation.

Obsequious omphaloskepsis.

Always hire A Players

Words cannot describe how tired I am of hearing these sorts of weird sports metaphors used to describe tech talent. Are we really so immature as an industry that we have to constantly rely on sports metaphors? It's as bad as talking about ninjas and rockstars.

Also, I'm really sick of all these mindless, droning, uninsightful posts about hiring in general. Who cares? Tech interviewing and hiring is a joke, and everyone here knows it. Larger companies act like you're saddled with the new hire forever, even though in most places reading HN it's extremely easy to fire people. Small companies act like they absolutely have to find the best talent in the universe, even though what they actually need to do is get some product shipped. It's all just ego stroking and an attempt to codify insecurities.

How about more awesome submissions about hacks, ingenuity, and product success, and less B.S. about name-dropping, baseless pontification on interview tactics, and overuse of bad metaphors. While were at it, let's drop the bubble FUD and ridiculous guesses about big company tech strategy.


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