The Way To Hire Right

The Truth in Technology

Hiring right now is crazy. I'm not talking about people who don't want to work, or anything like that. I'm talking about the fact, in technology, that it's crazy to try to find talented folks right now because everyone's looking and the competition is hot! But sometimes we look the wrong way. So today I wanted to focus on how to hire right.

But before I get into that…let me tell you a story.

When I was accepted to Berkeley (a long time ago), it was in the College of Engineering for a relatively new discipline called bio-engineering. I had spent a summer working at a bio-engineering firm before college and thought I knew what I was getting into. Even though I changed my major a couple of times at Cal, I can assure you one thing for sure: no one knew then what bio-engineers would be doing today.

When I graduated a few years later the Internet was still something we connected to with dial up modems. We used networks like CompuServe and AOL to get a glimpse of the public web. I started working at a government research lab, trying to build applications for the web, and the hard core software engineers I talked to couldn't even comprehend how you'd build an application that didn't hold state. A stateless, disconnected environment made no sense. Nothing in their background prepared them for web applications. We had no idea that web applications would still be around and a dominant model for software today.

Over the last 20+ years, we've seen one theme repeat itself:

When it comes to my work in the technology sector, every year there's something new to learn.

How Do We Hire Right?

Every time I have to hire someone, I start in the same place. I bet you do too. It's the need to write a job description. And we start writing all the skills we want. And all the knowledge that will help them.

We do this to set expectations.

But we also do it because we want the person to hit the ground running. We want deliverables met right away.


But what if none of that would help us hire right? What if none of that matters? Or matters a lot less than we tell ourselves that it does.

This Theme in Sports Movies

I just watched a Draft Day the other day with one of my kids. It's a movie about the NFL draft. The plot doesn't really matter and the movie isn't anything to write home about (but I did enjoy it).

In the movie is a moment when two folks are talking about whether a quarterback will be great or flop as they transition from college ball to the NFL.

I wanted to shout, “you have no idea!” as I watched the film.

The same theme appears in another well-known sports film about baseball – MoneyBall. It's about Billy Beane. The movie doesn't revolve around this theme, but again it highlights that it's challenging to know whether a young star will make the transition to the Major Leagues and deliver on their expected promise.

We all want to hire an up and coming star – someone who is going to deliver. We want someone who has proven that they can do it.

We want to hire an insider who can hit the ground running.

And that might be exactly the wrong way to think about things….

Can I Tell You About Innocentive?

I know you're probably thinking I've lost my mind. If I'm talking about how to hire right and I suggest that maybe hiring experienced folks who show great talent is the wrong approach, you might think I've gone crazy.

But let me tell you about a company you may not know. They're called Innocentive and they're pretty amazing.

The company powers a web site where other companies can post a challenge. These challenges come from all sorts of folks, including those with tons of PhDs on staff (like Kraft and GE).

So when you hear that Kraft posted a challenge about a kind of chocolate that won't melt at outdoor temperature, you might think, like me, that there's no way anyone else will figure this out if they can't.

But Innocentive has a success rate of 80%. Harvard studied it and found one interesting thing we can all take away from the experiences of companies like Kraft and GE. The final answers didn't come from insiders, from experts in the field of the challenge.

They came from people just outside the space.

So a microbiologist might solve a physics problem. Or a physicist might have an idea for the next floor mop. Outsiders, smart ones, that could offer something transferrable into the space of the insiders, normally did the trick.

To Hire Right You Need To Hire Outsiders

When we were building the first web apps at Berkeley Lab it wasn't the computer scientists that helped us figure the stateless stuff out. Graphic designers, game programmers and more got involved.

And in the world of bio-engineering and nanotechnology, it was more than my Cal brethren studying mechanical engineering who figured out those circuits. Outsiders who were flexible in their thinking with the ability to apply their thoughts across industries were the ones that made everything work.

Did I Mention I'm Hiring?

Maybe you saw the notice the other day. I changed jobs – still under Liquid Web – and now I'm the GM of LearnDash. That means I'm going to be adding to my team. And I'm looking for a product marketing person. But I'm not just looking at folks who have done product marketing for plugins in the WordPress space. I'm looking at outsiders who can bring more to the table than just the same methods we see daily inside our ecosystem.