Thursday, June 9, 2011

Everyone sucks at interviewing. Everyone.

Just. Don't. Interview.
Jason Freedman's lessons learned...and relearned.

Interviewing is broken. Has been for years. This rigid commitment everyone seems to have to the standard resume/cover letter/interview system of hiring is just plain insane.

I've been fascinated by hiring processes for years. Hiring great talent is such a massively tough challenge, and I see so few companies that do it well. Even the best companies hide a deep dark secret: their hiring processes don't predict success accurately. It's long been whispered that Google's sophisticated HR scoring system has little correlation with an employee's success at the company. One management consultant for a top firm told me recently that, despite incredible efforts to improve hiring analytics, the best predictor of success for junior employees was still just their SAT scores.

Paul English, one of the absolute best said this about his style of hiring at Kayak:

"At times, I've fired maybe one out of every three people I've hired. That might make people think I'm bad at hiring, but I think I'm quite good at hiring."

So, Paul English, one of the most respected out there, gets 1 out of 3 wrong? Shit. This stuff is hard. But Kayak is at a stage of development where the organization can sustain the disruption of people leaving. Most startups I know have such difficulty firing because everything is already so unstable. Can't fire during a product launch. Can't fire during a funding round. Let's give him 3 more months and see if things improve...

I don't claim to be good at hiring, but I do have a particular style that I learned from some advisors.

I never actually interview people. Ever.

I think of hiring as mutual courting. The only way to court in a work setting is to spend time working together. Whenever I'm thinking of hiring someone, whether entry-level or senior, we do a project together. I pay them a reasonable contractor fee for the work, and I make sure it's the type of work that's easily definable, has clear deliverables, and lasts a few weeks.

Sometimes we do this process and the project goes outstandingly well, and we make a full-time offer. Our ability at this point to define a job description and compensation package is remarkably easy. We know what we're getting. The employee is also motivated at this point because we've all proven ourselves to each other. He's learned the real strengths and weaknesses of the business and of working with the team. A decision to accept a full-time offer at this point is a well-informed one.

Sometimes, the project turns out only so-so, at which point we wish the very best to the applicant and do whatever we can to help him find a role that is perfectly suited for him. There's no termination paperwork, no 6 months of trying to make it work, no awkward conversations about his progress behind closed doors.

Sometimes, a talented person can't, for whatever reason, commit to a 3 week project. But maybe there's a smaller project he can do over nights and weekends. Maybe there's an open source project of mutual interest. Maybe he can take 3 days off his oyher job and work half a week and a weekend with us. If it's a student, maybe he can join us for part of spring break. And if none of that works, then well, we can't hire him. And we wish him well and do our best to refer him to a company that will work.

But what we don't ever do is engage in some interview/code puzzle/awkward question process that has nothing to do with what it's really like to work with us.

Courting great people, working together temporarily as contractors, and then only engaging in full employment when everything proves out as hoped--that's the way to go. This method is spreading throughout the startup world, and I think it's good for everyone involved. Most of the BigCo business world doesn't work this way. Most larger companies have HR departments that hire through a more formal process. I would guess that BigCo Inc. could actually be far more flexible than it currently is, but that's out of my scope of expertise. I know for certain that startups can be more creative (and less insane) in their hiring practices...and they should.

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