A hiring mistake to remember

Last week I was privileged to speak at CTO Craft Con with Hung Lee. The theme of that first day was hiring, and Hung—who is a long-time recruiter and host of the Recruiting Brainfood podcast—was asking about my hiring mistakes and lessons from 20 years in tech.

I told him about one particular hire, from very many years ago, that really bothered me for a long time after it was supposedly over. I was in a smallish company—about 70 or 80 people—and we were interviewing for a software development team lead. The candidate in question had already proven himself on the tech side, demonstrating not just an ability to complete our coding exercise, but to complete it well and reason intelligently about the design and future extensions. Another team member and I spoke to him about his more general approach to work and problem-solving, and there he showed he was driven not so much by writing software, but by delivering value to customers. There was no doubt he was an excellent candidate, and we hired him.

But from very early on it was clear he wasn’t fitting in. He had a very keen eye for rigorous engineering process, from the analysis to the testing and beyond. But this company, and its people, were not used to such particular demands. Less time was spent documenting things; some steps in the development process varied between team; very often the desire to release something took precedent over the completeness of testing.

His dissatisfaction with the way things worked was evident. He wasn’t happy, the rest of his team weren’t happy, and at the end of his probation period he announced that he had found another job. So he left—for a very large organisation.

Although that was supposedly the end of the story it bothered me for a long, long time afterwards. Objectively, he was an excellent engineer. He was always polite and communicative. The rest of the team worked extremely well together (they went on to deliver great things after he left). “What interview question,” I asked myself over and over again, “could I have asked to realise it wouldn’t work out?”

It was only years later that I came to an answer. It wasn’t about asking the right question, it was about understanding the culture of the company and being open about it. He was used to large corporations with tightly defined and very defensive processes. This one was lighter-weight, it favoured speed over thoroughness, and relied very much more on personal interaction than codified process. Neither is wrong, but nor are they the same.

Hiring is not about find the best people, it’s about finding the best people for your particular organisation. A hiring process needs to be able to make the distinction.

My thanks to Andy, Fiona, Valentina and all at CTO Craft, to Hung, and to the audience for creating a great conference.

Photo by Aram Bartholl