HIRING & THE SIXTH SENSE OF EXPERTISE
by d.curtis I’ve recently noticed that many startups hire junior programmers and designers immediately after they receive funding, and then hire up the ladder, filling the most senior positions last. When you’re building a new team inside a company with lots of money, this is almost always a bad idea. By the time a senior employee is hired, his team has already been built entirely without his input. This is bad for multiple reasons, but the most important one is that experts (senior employees) have a weird sixth sense for instantly detecting good talent that non-experts lack.
A few years ago, I was working at a brand new startup that was making a consumer hardware product (it was like a Furby). After running on tiny amounts of cash for months, suddenly millions of dollars were deposited into the company’s bank account after a huge venture capital financing. The new money was intoxicating, and it instantly changed the philosophy inside the company from, “we don’t have time to build that feature, because we have to conserve resources and only build the most important stuff,” to “let’s build every feature because we can afford to waste money trying to see what sticks.” One of the prerequisites to building more features is hiring more people, so we started interviewing engineers and QA testers, one after another.
One day, after I had just finished interviewing a programmer who was going to be the first guy on a team building the software, the whole company got into a room and reported our hire/no-hire votes. It was split down the middle — half the people who interviewed the guy said they wanted to hire him, and the other half said they didn’t want him on the team. After arguing for thirty minutes about about everyone’s reasoning, the guy in charge — who had a background in fine art — stood up and asked, “If we hire this guy, will he increase the number of lines of code we produce each day?” Everyone answered yes, obviously, he would write code. He got the job.
A few months later, he accidentally committed a horrible piece of code that worked great on the staging server for a few days, but when it was auto-updated to the production hardware devices, it broke them all. Customers were pissed, and the company’s reputation was severely damaged. We called this event The Bad Day.
HEAD OF ENGINEERING
In the intermediate time between the guy being hired and The Bad Day, a Head of Hardware Engineering had joined the team. We poached him from a public company, where he was an executive, and he was kick-ass. The guy knew exactly how to manage and build a team of programmers for embedded software. After looking over the engineer’s resume on The Bad Day and talking with him for less than five minutes, he immediately declared that no one should have hired him. He said it with such stern confidence that no one would have dared disobey him in the hiring room. He knew what he was talking about.
THE SIXTH SENSE
I bring up this story because it was my first lesson on the awesome power of having expertise and experience. People who know what they are doing — people who “get it”, or have real talent in their area of expertise — can instantly and accurately rate the ability of peers in a way others can’t; it’s like a sixth sense. Great designers immediately know when they see good design, because they have refined taste in design. Great programmers know when they see good code, because they have developed taste in code.
An extremely common mistake made by great designers and great programmers who have become entrepreneurs is expecting their sixth sense instinct about people— which has been perfected around only their area of expertise— to be trustworthy in other areas they are not as familiar with. This is commonly mistaken as arrogance, I think, and it always ends badly. The guy in charge of the hardware company made the mistake of thinking lines of code == progress in the same way paint on a canvas leads to progress, and he refused to listen to anyone who suggested otherwise. He trusted his false instinct, and hired a bad junior programmer. When the head of engineering was hired, he felt out of place firing the existing people on his team, so he didn’t review their abilities. Had he been hired first, The Bad Day would never have happened and the team would have been made up of more talented programmers.
When you hire the senior, kick-ass people who have refined taste in their area of expertise first, you can be confident in their ability to make good hiring decisions down the line to the most junior staff. Don’t underestimate the value of specialized expertise, and don’t make the mistake of hiring from the bottom upward.
Note: Some (major) details of this story were intentionally
changed to protect the guilty.