In the past year I've spent a lot of time thinking about hiring due to a recent surge in the amount of interviews I've participated in as well as a surge in the number of folks I know who've decided to "try new things". One thing I've noticed is that software companies and teams within large software companies like Microsoft tend to fall into two broad camps when it comes to hiring. There are the teams/companies that seem to attract tons of smart, superstar programmers like a refrigerator door attracts magnets and then there those that use the beachcomber technique of sifting through tons of poorly written resumes hoping to find someone valuable but often ending up with people who seem valuable but actually aren't (aka good at interviewing, lousy at actually getting work done).

Steve Yegge talks about this problem in his post Done, and Gets Things Smart which is excerpted below

The "extended interview" (in any form) is the only solution I've ever seen to the horrible dilemma, How do you hire someone smarter than you? Or even the simpler problem, How do you identify someone who's actually Smart, and Gets Things Done? Interviews alone just don't cut it.
Let me say it more directly, for those of you who haven't taken this personally yet: you can't do what Joel is asking you to do. You're not qualified. The Smart and Gets Things Done approach to interviewing will only get you copies of yourself, and the work of Dunning and Kruger implies that if you hire someone better than you are, then it's entirely accidental.
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So let's assume you're looking at the vast ocean of programmers, all of whom are self-professed superstars who've gotten lots of "stuff" done, and you want to identify not the superstars, but the super-heroes. How do you do it? Well, Brian Dougherty of Geoworks did it somehow. Jeff Bezos did it somehow. Larry and Sergey did it somehow. I'm willing to bet good money that every successful tech company out there had some freakishly good seed engineers.
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You can only find Done, and Gets Things Smart people in two ways, and one of them I still don't understand very well. The first way is to get real lucky and have one as a coworker or classmate. You work with them for a few years and come to realize they're just cut from a finer cloth than you and your other unwashed cohorts. You may be friends with some of them, which helps with the recruiting a little, but not necessarily. The important thing is that you recognize them, even if you don't know what makes them tick.
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I think Identification Approach #2, and this is the one I don't understand very well, is that you "ask around". You know. You manually perform the graph build-and-traversal done by the Facebook "Smartest Friend" plug-in, where you ask everyone to name the best engineer they know, and continue doing that until it converges.

This jibes with my experience watching various software startups and knowing the history of various teams at Microsoft over the past few years. The products that seem to have hired the most phenomenal programmers and have achieved great things often start off with some person trying to hire the smartest person they know or knew from past jobs (Approach #1). Those people in turn try to attract the smartest people they've known and that happens recursively (Approach #2).

I remember a few years ago chatting with a coworker who mentioned that some Harvard-based startup was hiring super smart, young Harvard alumni from Microsoft and a couple of other technology companies at a rapid clip. It seems people were recommended by their friends at the startup and those folks would in turn come back to Microsoft/Google/etc to convince their ex-Harvard chums to come join in the fun. It turns out that startup was Facebook and since then the company has impressed the world with its output. Google used to have a similar approach to hiring until the company grew too big and had to start utilizing the beachcomber technique as well. I've also seen this technique work successfully for a number of teams at Microsoft.

Although this technique sounds unrealistic, it actually isn't as difficult as it once was thanks to the Web and social networking sites. It is now quite easy for people to stay in touch with or reconnect with people they knew from previous jobs or back in their school days. Thus the big barrier to adopting this approach to hiring isn't that employees won't have any recommendations for super-smart people they'd love to work with if given the chance.  The real barrier is that most employers don't know how to court potential employees or even worse don't believe that they have to do so.  Instead they expect people to want to work for them which means they'll get a flood of awful resumes, put a bunch of candidates through the flawed interview process only to eventually get tired of the entire charade and finally hire the first warm body to show up after they reach their breaking point. All of this could be avoided if they simply leverage the social networks of their best employees. Unfortunately, common sense is never as common as you expect it to be.

Now Playing: Soundgarden - Jesus Christ Pose


 

Thursday, June 19, 2008 3:57:40 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
The real problem is not the "smart" piece, which Yegge obsesses too long about. We can identify smart. It simply may not matter, or worse, it may have no desire to work for the likes of us!

Rather, it is the "gets things done" part this is the genius of Spolsky's original post. If all we're doing is wondering who is smart, we're leaving aside a much more important component. Rather than hire colleagues whom you thought were smart, or networking about who others think are smart, try to drop that and focus on who got things done.

More on my blog:

http://smoothspan.wordpress.com/2008/06/19/smart-is-as-smart-does/
Thursday, June 19, 2008 6:33:11 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
great post. I've always thought the "no poaching" rules that some companies have for internal hiring are really a detriment to building great teams. they are typically a way to protect weak managers who can't keep stars on their team through quality management.
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