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The Way We Hire Is All Wrong (medium.com/backchannel)
23 points by steven on Jan 26, 2015 | hide | past | favorite | 19 comments

A couple things bother me about this article.

First, in the author's story about her project she mocks "Ms. Red Dress" but seems to provide no more value herself. I guess the author brought extension cords and snacks? What did she contribute to the project? Hackathons don't seem like a good way for nontechnical and non-design folks to showcase their skills.

More importantly, though, the hackathon-as-interview concept itself has problems. Requiring a lot of time from your candidates is disrespectful, and ensures that no one with other (likely better) options will talk to you. It also biases the hiring process towards people who thrive at hackathons, which are notoriously biased toward presenting over producing as well as toward typical "hacker culture" types (remember that titstare app from techcrunch?) over minorities.

FutureAdvisor recruiter here:

The author is saying that she brought the tools required to work, which is more than her former team-mate did. The idea and domain-specific knowledge about making amends was hers. That's not everything, but it's a good start. The other two people volunteered to join her, which means they thought her idea was good.

There were clear flaws to asking non-technical people to participate in a hackathon. But it wasn't the end of the world. Some groups needed to generate copy for the web sites they mocked up, and the writers and editors in the room were useful. In addition, the page flow and decision trees of some apps were clearly superior because experienced people with no coding or design experience had helped determine their structure.

Your second paragraph begs the question. The point of this whole article is that the interview-as-interview concept has problems. The main problem is that interviews don't teach recruiters or hiring managers jack about the interviewees. They are literally useless in gathering information about candidate potential.

The hackathon-as-interview is an attempt to let interviewees transmit the only information that is of any use in hiring: can this person get a job done? do they work well with others? The hackathon is actually great at showing who is capable, committed and professional.

The whole "you're asking for too much time" also misses the point. These events are designed for people who cannot get hired by other means, because their resumes do not present well. Those are precisely the people who DO have time for this sort of event. And despite its flaws, many of them got something out of it.

I congratulate the people who have no time for Staffup Weekend. Their lives are easier than mine. I am still looking to fill several positions, including UX designer and infrastructure engineer. (Those are not the roles I sought to fill with Staffup.) I may have to pay a contingency-based recruiter $35,000 to find them. Is that a good solution? Not really...

Even if you're targeting candidates who are unemployed and desperate, you can still find a way to screen them without requiring them to waste 1-2 days for the chance of maybe getting an interview.

For example, asking someone to switch from a full-time job to contract-to-hire won't work. If the candidate is unemployed, you can hire them for 1-10 days if you want to "try before you buy".

Would this process be less valuable if you paid the candidates $10-$20/hr each for the time they spent? When a good candidate costs $10k-$20k+?

The 1-2 days was the interview. And what people had was the chance to build something they chose, something that they felt mattered. People who feel that's a waste of time probably wouldn't be the right fit for us.

Everyone in California is employed on at "at-will" basis. That means they are on trial before their employer everyday. 10-day trials don't change the situation or derisk it for employers. It's already derisked.

This weekend was free to anyone who attended, in a good space, and we provided free coffee and drinks. My employer FutureAdvisor bore a burden of several thousand dollars. It's up to candidates to make some effort, too.

So, a method which involves making applicants do a ton of useless free work, costs the employer a ton of money and led to a total of zero long term hires is better than what we currently have? How?

Everything you've pointed out is a legitimate criticism.

That said, yeah, I think this might be better, because what we currently have is really bad. Recruiters scan resumes for buzzwords. Candidates are contacted and asked to code fizbuzz, or are given 10 java questions. If it's clear they're not a total waste of time, they're brought in for several hours at the whiteboard. They might be asked data structures and algorithms questions (the kind you get from the back of a 2nd year CS textbook), otherwise they might be quizzed on the intricacies of a programming language. If they pass the exam, the process may move toward "culture fit", more soft interviews with various managers and directors. Other variants on this involve homework assignments that can take the candidate a full work day (but reduce the amount of time a company has to spend interviewing them).

All in all, I'd rather spend a couple days building a fun app than spending a day reviewing my old data structures and algorithms textbook and reading up on ruby syntax to make sure people believe that I've actually be using it as a programming language for the past few years, followed by a couple of days of technical grilling.

I don't think hiring is an easy problem to solve. It's very difficult to evaluate programming talent, even if you're a programmer. None of this would be objectionable to me if employers weren't so adamant that there is a shortage of programmers (the bit about paypal was particularly hard to take - at one point, we're hearing about how desperate silicon valley companies are for programmers, next, we hear that a programmer was rejected from Paypal because he used the word "hoops").

The answer is to stop using recruiters.

Post your jobs to the typical sites. Manage the resumes yourself (for the position you're hiring).

People say hiring is one of the most important things you do, then they turn it over to the car salesmen of the IT industry and can't figure out why they're getting shitty results.

How this is so hard for companies/people is beyond me.

I agree with you about recruiters, but that would still leave the rest of the chain in place. So instead of getting your candidates through recruiters, you put out job ads and get candidates. This might improve your success rate in getting good candidates in for that first interview…

But after that? If an employer is still doing fizz buzz, adding branches to binary trees, seeing if they can write an outer join, quizzing them about ruby syntax - the approach is still pretty bad. Just not quite as bad as when they start with a recruiter.

My goal is to never do another technical interview again. The way I'm trying to do this is by expanding my contacts - and I don't mean exchanging business cards, I mean open source projects where I work technically with a large and wide spread group of people in a number of different organizations. People think you need to be some "rock star" to do this, but really, you don't. Keep in mind, it doesn't need to be the equivalent of being a major contributor to rails or the apache server. They can be business apps with a smaller install base and maybe a dozen or so developers. The key is, at any given moment, there are several dozen developers at perhaps 6-12 organizations that wouldn't need to ask you about binary tree traversal because they have already worked extensively with you. You've done presentations and code reviews, you've made contributions to the code base, you've fixed bugs. If they had a question about certain tech issues, they'd probably call or email you.

Unfortunately, this still describes a relatively small number of jobs. Most orgs aren't willing to make their own code base open source (reducing hiring opportunities for developers), and almost by definition most people doing this already have jobs (reducing hiring opportunities for employers_s who want to get away from the unpleasantness of the hiring process. Get involved in meaningful open source projects, and develop a good reputation for your work. Blog about your technical breakthroughs. See if you can speak at conferences.

I also would say that this isn't at all easy, and that people with this sort of ability are likely to find other opportunities outside software development with better pay and greater career prospects.

I agree completely. You need a "rockstar" if you're doing a rockstar project. 99% of projects don't even approach that level of need.

I found simply talking to people about development gave me more than enough to know whether they could develop or not. It's hard to fake out someone else that's knowledgeable. Now when you have managers who haven't been engineers doing the interviewing, they have to focus on other shit because they have no idea how to differentiate. I've dealt with that so much in my career I've pretty much given up.

Also, if the interview process is a whole day, you're excluding candidates who already have a job.

Demanding applicants to spend a lot of time only works on recent grads, or unemployed and desperate.

I'm starting to use it as an anti-filter. If a job prospect demands me to invest time before an interview, I just pass.

Who are you that I should waste 5-10 hours on your interview project, before I even meet you?

Also, the article opens with the following quote: "If hiring managers were doctors, half of new patients would be dead in 18 months."

I can't see Doctors lowering themselves to participate in this charade, but clearly, programmers should expect less.

You can't really extend the analogy. Doctors don't face the same problem as hiring managers. Their patients walk in the door. They don't have to find a good patient they want to keep for 30 years. Hiring managers have an acute information-processing problem, in that they do not know who's good, and have to find out. Try to put yourself in their shoes. If you ever found a company, you'll be there someday, wondering how to hire people...

That's not she's saying. She's saying that the job market is broken and that people are trying to fix it. In fact, the method has worked well in other settings, outside the hot SF job market.

Nothing truly interesting & new works perfectly the first time. That's what makes it an experiment.

"46% of them had failed within 18 months. In other words, most recruiting practices are about as effective as a coin toss."

I guess I'm not quite clear what this is claiming - you could read it as saying that tossing a coin would be as effective as current recruiting practices, or you could read it as saying that current recruiting practices just aren't as effective as hoped. I think the author meant the second thing, but it's pretty confusing.

If it's the first, then you were selecting candidates completely randomly, then the percentage of successful people you hire would be the same as the percentage of successful people in the applicant pool. There's no reason to think that ~50% of the candidate pool will be successful - I'd think less.

Oh, this is the same guy who made everyone take a couple day APL course as part of the job interview process.

She never said what her contribution to the project was, beyond the "idea".

Hey guys, this is Brooke Allen, the fellow Deborah was talking about. And yes, I am the guy who changed how he hired in 2004 and wrote about it in How My Life Was Changed When I Began Caring About the People I Did Not Hire. (On: http://BrookeAllen.com)

And I am the guy who offered to all takers a free three-week course in a little used language called APL, and I am the guy who helped the folks who did really well find jobs elsewhere if I couldn’t hire them.

I am also the guy who talked about how I learned APL in "I owe EVERYTHING to some funny symbols" (also at: http://BrookeAllen.com). In that I describe how in the spring of 1972 I was just falling in love with programming language when the semester ended and they took it off the mainframe and so I convinced a book author to give me 11 copies of a textbook that used the language and I rounded up 10 students for the summer and I got IBM to waive the $10,000 licensing fee and I got the computing center to put the language up for the summer and waive the CPU and connection fees. That is how I came to teach a class all summer for free to a bunch of eager young people all because I wanted to learn a language a chapter ahead of my students. I got so much for free and gave so much for free and luckily there wasn’t Hacker News then so none of us had to defend ourselves against people with keyboards, opinions, and too much time on their hands.

I am also the guy who, in 2009 became sick and tired of my unemployed friends at a finance industry conference bellyache about how there is no work. I was sort of annoyed that half of them helped engineer our financial collapse, but I still told them about how I used to believe that crap about “no work” until the morning of May 6, 1982 when I was unemployed and the first speaker at a conference I attended began by saying, “Never ever in the history of human endeavor has there been a shortage of work, and when the money dries up the work piles up.” He said I should forget about finding a job but look for worthy work and roll up my sleeves and start doing it. I started doing stuff for free but within two weeks I was working for pay at Morgan Stanley and that is how my career in finance got started. I’ve been unemployed for about a week in 1993 but I’ve worked as much as I’ve wanted to ever since. I have gotten rich because I believe that money is the soil, not the spoil, and if you have a choice do something of value for others and "what's in it for you" will take care of itself.

So in 2009 I started http://NoShortageOfWork.com where our motto is, “Even when you’re not doing something for pay, do something anyway.” I invited a few dozen unemployed people from the conference for a dinner and instructed them to all get to work for each other. Within a few weeks they were all busy and soon thereafter they were landing paying jobs left and right.

It is obvious to me that if you want to get work you should never fall out of the habit of working, even when nobody is looking or paying you a bribe to do it. But boy did I attract the cranks and complainers who criticized my message – one woman even told me I shouldn’t build my website for free until I got someone to pay me to do it. I told her I’d respond if she sent me $50 and I have heard nothing from her since.

Eventually I couldn’t take it so I created http://HumongousShortageOfWork.com where the motto is, “No teaching without tuition. No learning without grades. No work without pay.” Sometimes people have no idea how ridiculous their complaints sound until you get them to make the case for what they want instead of against what they don’t.

The default way people hire sucks for most people. I’ve innovated how I hire and helped others do the same and many of the ways I’ve come up with suck for some people too. They are especially unpleasant for the kind of people I don’t like working with, which is fine, because there are plenty of bosses who hate their work and hate working with people who do, so these complainers should go hang out with them.

My favorite complaint is how my approach advantages people who are unemployed. Actually it only advantages kind-hearted generous curious hard-working unemployed people who wish they weren’t discriminated against because of their hard luck. But so what; the employed shouldn’t bemoan the fact that someone doesn’t care about them if they don’t care about loving work. Or, if you love your job then congratulate yourself and let someone else try for the job I'm offering.

I love to work and I love to work with people who love to work and I don’t like working with people who won’t do anything – no matter how interesting or valuable to others – unless they know what’s in it for them.

Now, any of you out there going to Burning Man?

This is what I’m working on: http://brookeallen.com/pages/archives/1329.

Nobody is paying me to do it and I’m not looking for anyone to be impressed and hire me as a consequence. I do what I do because anything is better than daytime TV (and posting complaints on blogs) and if any of you out there feel the same then I hope to meet you on the Playa or at a Staffup Weekend – they are both one and the same in spirit if not in dustiness.

I almost forgot. You can see all the people who finished Staffup Weekend at: http://staffupweekend.org/2014/11/22/report-on-staffup-san-f...

If you are looking to hire someone just let me know. I cannot vouch for their skills but I can attest to their grit. As Woody Allen says, 80% of success is showing up and these folk did way more than that.

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