The Hiring Games Part 1: Preface and Culture

Ruminations ,Tech
March 11, 2014

This is the first post in a series centered on hiring in Silicon Valley.  My approach is hardly a unique; a certain excellent post on LinkedIn is what sparked me to write this series in the first place. I hope through a series of posts to take the concept a bit farther including things like interviewing strategies, candidate qualities that I find myself looking for, team balance, and last but not least letting go. I’m not historically great at keeping up with writing blog posts but technology management has become such a passion over the last year or so that I’m having more problems NOT writing about it.

Overall I’ve been in IT / operations for close to 17 years and not once has finding the right candidate got any easier. I started back in the good ole days when there were no degree programs and only MS had (frequently ridiculed) cents.  You were judged on what you knew and what you could figure out.  Google wasn’t a thing though we had usenet, a loose equivalent.   I can remember seeing someone print out the manual to this new web hotness called PHP, and thinking a t1 was a lot of bandwidth.  It’s safe to say that at 35 I’m probably an old fogey here in the valley but I like to think in that time I’ve picked up a fair amount of useful knowledge along the way.  It a also goes without saying that these are my views and aren’t the views of my employer.

The Culture Club

As someone in a managing capacity in technology it’s not a question of if but when I’m going to have to play the hiring game. It’s possibly the least favorite part of my job (even worse than budgets), but since the core tenant of our profession is that “our people” want to learn new things and will inevitably outgrow their position, it’s an inevitability. If they don’t you’ve probably hired the wrong people.

I can’t begin to stress the importance of culture enough and it’s one of the first things I look for in a candidate.  It’s also one of the hardest things to figure out in an interview setting.  If you don’t understand your team or company culture how do you know if a candidate fits?  You also have to nearly set aside personal bias as it might YOUR values and point of view that are out of alignment.  On top of that most candidates have done this many times over and are practiced at telling interviewers what they want to hear.  For start ups making sure that the company and candidate cultural values align is vital; there are frequent long hours and high stress levels that can easily sink the company over resentment and lack of cooperation.  For larger organizations in-team culture is generally  sufficient, though if the team’s culture is far enough from the official company one then it often requires extra management overhead.

So what do you do?  Social media these days has permeated every crack and crevice, so use that to your advantage.  Not one applicant that makes it past a resume screen with me doesn’t get a full scrub over Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google…  and not because I’m being nosy.*  Chances are a candidate is doing the same to me and preparing their answers accordingly. (Hint:I like pitbulls, photography, my dorky cat, and I take too many pet and/or food pictures on Instagram.) Many candidates are professional new hires, either by choice or by circumstances, and they know how to land a role.  The Bay Area is now in it’s second tech boom with the competitive job market that goes with it which means there’s either too many jobs and not enough candidates or vice versa depending on the time of the year.  On top of that with every company billing itself the next Twitter or Facebook greed is at an all time high and everyone is out for a piece of the pie.

Tunein is of course the exception; we’re totally the next big thing and folks should come work for us.

So at this point you have a guy or gal you like, and they don’t seem to be enjoy ritual kitten sacrifice or Nickelback so you think you want to talk to them.  “Let’s do a phone screen!” you cry.  “Everyone is busy and this will be quick and impersonal and I won’t have to make a commitment or feel guilty if I pass.”  This is a pretty big mistake in my book.  I’d rather have an unofficial meeting over a beer or lunch or at least a Skype call if they can’t meet you in person.   Body language is one of the biggest ‘tells’ for me if someone is fibbing and can even give clues about a candidates true opinions.  It may also help to offset those brilliant candidates who interview poorly- they exist,  I was one of them for a long time.

In the first meeting I try to keep the dialogue centered around the candidate.  I want to know their passions, what gets them out of bed in the morning, and what’s the last thing they think about before falling asleep.  The ideal candidate for me doesn’t think about this and will answer almost immediately; they know themselves and by understanding what motivates them in their life outside of work I can hopefully start to draw parallels to what our company cultures and values are.

Next up: The Myth of the Perfect Candidate.