The Right Stuff

I’m sorry for the time between posts.  Our family has been very busy over the last few weeks with one daughter graduating high school and another getting married.  It was a lot of fun and we also had a tremendous amount of family and friends that stayed for awhile after the festivities and we had some tremendous fun in and around the Rockies.  Everyone else has gone back to their homes now and the house is a lot more quiet leaving me time to think.  Recently my thoughts have turned to hiring quality talent or people with “the right stuff”.

Some time ago I worked as a manager at a start-up that had been acquired by EDS.  As you might expect with a company like EDS, they had a well defined program for training new managers that I was fortunate to attend.  I had already been managing small teams and had done some hiring.  We were still growing at a good clip and adding new people so part of the training was devoted to hiring the right people for the company.  Up to that point when hiring new people for the team my focus had always been on their technical ability and experience with the systems and networks that we had in use.   Interviews were peppered with questions that helped determine if the candidate understood Cisco’s IOS or could program in C.  Did they have wireless/cellular experience and if so what platforms.  While I am certainly glad we asked a lot of those questions (because we did weed out some folks who claimed to be expert in those areas and did not come close), we were only covering a small portion of what mattered.

At the managers course I was asked a series of questions that helped change the way I view bringing in good talent.  For example I was asked if someone demonstrated a strong knowledge of FORTRAN (OK, this was a while ago) could they learn C?  Or if someone knew how to troubleshoot a T1 could they learn to manage DS3’s?  Basically if someone was demonstrating great proficiency in a technical area that was of similar complexity could they learn what they needed to master the technology we were using?  While I know that this needs a standard disclaimer that past performance is not necessarily a guarantee of future performance, it’s fair to say it’s a good indicator.  My thoughts were that most people who were good at other complex systems could quickly come up to speed on new systems of similar complexity given the right amount of training (investment in their skills).

Then the questions turned to things that were about as far from technical as you could get.  If a candidate was a dishonest person, could they be taught to be honest?  If they were lazy, could you teach them a good work ethic?  If they had a negative attitude, could you teach them to be a more positive person?  The list went on but I think you can get the picture from here.  Basically, while we know people can change and we all do change and grow even in later years, ethically speaking, a lot of what makes you who you are is fairly well set by the time you are in your early 20’s and entering the job market.  If you did not have the benefit of being taught the importance of integrity by your parents how well can a hiring manager fix that?  If you weren’t taught a strong work ethic, how easy is that for the company to train?  Would you prefer to teach an employee who demonstrated proficiency in Ethernet how a switch works or would you prefer to teach an employee who likes to call in sick all the time the value of a good work ethic?  Which one do you think would be more successful?

As I talk with candidates lately about their experiences in the market I’ve noticed what appears to be a fair amount of companies focusing more on very specific skills or market experience and less on figuring out if the candidate is the right kind of person for the culture of the company.  Or at least that is the way it seems.  Over the years while working with candidates applying for jobs I have split my energy between hard skills and the more subjective soft skills and I feel that I have made much better hires when I know someone who would be truly passionate about their new role and quickly adapt to their new surroundings.

In a difficult job market like the current one, I think it’s good for a company to be choosy (actually it’s smart to be choosy in any job market).  Hiring smartly is something that pays dividends for years and years as you stock up on great employees that can help move your company forward.   I would be curious for feedback from the readers of this blog.  Do you think companies are valuing the ethics and attitude of candidates or do you think people are stuck on whether or not you are a god with Java?  Please give it some thought and leave your feedback!

– Yeti

P.S.

If you are looking for good leaders who also happen to blog, there are two in particular I enjoy that you might want to check out:

Dan Caruso who is the CEO of the Zayo Group and he has a blog at Bear on Business.

Brady Rafuse who is the CEO of euNetworks and he has a blog at BradyRafuse.com.

10 thoughts on “The Right Stuff

  1. Chris,

    I absolutely agree with your statements. It is extremely important to hire talented people who are not just skill specific but have the personality and willingness to learn. While I was at Sprint I hired several people who I knew could “learn” the job. I did the same at Level 3. They did and became top performers. Just because someone has experience does not make them the best choice. A company culture is built on many facets. Attitude is a huge component of a successful culture. Management needs to be trustworthy and demand that from their employees as well. There are many stars out there that are willing to shine. Just as we were at one time!

    Regards,

    Joey

  2. Here’s the checklist I walk through when considering someone:

    1. do they seem trustworthy? I can’t stand weasels.

    2. do they communicate well? Having all the technical skills in the world won’t help if they can’t understand the job or communicate back.

    3. do they wanna? Do they want THIS job or just some job? Are they self-motivated, or will someone need to push them to get stuff done?

    4. are they practical? I’ve dealt with too many theoretical purists who never get anything done (but would if only the world were perfect).

    5. do they have the skills and experience?

    Have I told you about my Rules? I wonder how many I stole from you.

  3. PS – it does help if they’re a sponge (they pick up whatever is around them), but I find that the self-motivation and communication skills are the keys to that.

  4. Joey,
    Thanks for the encouragement and the feedback on attitude. My experience is similar.

    Ed,
    Whatever you may have stole from me, consider us even cause I know I’ve taken a whole lot of lessons from working with you as well!

    – Yeti

  5. Excellent blog Chris and I will keep for future use.

    One question I always as candidates is: Tell me about a time when you did not perform up to expectations? This is a true integrity question that should be answered honestly. It is not the failure I am looking for, it is the integrity of the person answering the question I am challenging. We have all made mistakes, or wish we had the time to turn back the clock and perform better.

    If a candidate answers the question as to never having not performed well I am immediately suspicious of their character

  6. Yeti – Great stuff.

    Why do you think I hired you? :^)

    Our interview lasted about 10 minutes. Your resume made it clear you knew the technology (or made me willing to take a chance on that). I don’t remember one word of technical glop you said during the interview, but to this day I remember the enthusiasm.

    80% of people are hired or fired not because of their technical ability, but because of their attitude.

  7. Chris,

    This is good stuff. Candidly, I think the resume should give a hiring manager a good sense for the presence of “required” skills. I tend to spend the bulk of my face time with candidates focused on the softer stuff that makes you a good (or not so good) fit.

    Thanks!

  8. Hi Chris,

    I remember that little company so well. I learned so much there and when EDS bought us.

    I would say that between your blog and the comments, you have it pretty well covered. Hiring the right people is critical to making a company Go! Learning the technology isn’t the hard part. Making the leap between the requirements and the technology is the hard part. Those folks who have the talent to understand the business AND how the technology improves the business are critical to making Information Technology not just a cost center but a differentiator.

    The best folks have the technical ability, the attituded and most importantly, the oral and written communication skills to ensure that the vision is carried from conception to reality.

    I sat down with a young director at my current company. We were phone interviewing someone for a Project Management position. My friend had a list of questions identifying his projects and what those applications did and how they were implemented. He was trying to be impressive and really didn’t allow the candidate to speak much. Finally, I asked the candidate the following: Tell me about a project that failed and what you did that worked and what you did that didn’t work.

    There was silence on the phone. The candidate said that they never had a project that failed. After a short time, we closed the conversation and my young friend told me that the candidate was a great option and we should fly him from the east coast to Hawaii.

    I disagreed and explained: If you have never failed then you have not stretched yourself enough.

    Hiring the right people sometimes means hiring someone who has failed and has learned from it.

    Take care!! Jack

  9. @Mark: You’re assuming that everything on the resume is truthful and accurate. Should an unethical candidate exaggerate or outright lie on a resume, your methodology overlooks that. If they are willing to lie, they just might be enough of a sociopath to be able to waltz through the interview. Or maybe I’m just paranoid.

    A common fix to this dilemma is to have the alpha geek in the group play “stump the chump”. However, this often backfires, doesn’t it, as the alpha geek and the candidate get all passive-aggressive at each other. Example 1: In a recent interview, which lasted 90 minutes, in all of 3 minutes, I was white-boarded a drawing of a firm’s network’s border. I was told they had two identically configured border routers, that worked just fine. BGP on the outside, OSPF on the inside. When one of them failed, the primary, the OSPF routing on campus stopped working. What was the problem, I was asked.

    I had keyed on the phrase “identically configured”, and said so, so I overlooked the obvious problem, that the secondary router did not have a default route defined. I asked a few probing questions, and knew what the issue was more or less, but was as unable to move forward, just as the alpha-geek was unable to rephrase the scenario, just as it was his failure to program the default route in the first place. Perhaps it was simply my failure to ask the right question, but I feel that the question was spur of the moment, not thought through, and as posed, a geeky Kobiashi Maru kind of deal. In any case, if I ever get that question again, I’ll be sure to ask about the default route and not assume they guy knew what he was doing.

    Example 2: Coming from a large international tier 1 provider environment (Genuity), I was interviewing for a network engineer job for a regional outsourcing company which provides IT services for companies that need people to do so, and don’t feel the need to have the expertise in-house. So the simple CCNA-level question: “Can you access a Cisco router through an HTTP interface?”, was met with the following response: “Yes, but why would you want to, as it exposes critical infrastructure to additional threats?”, which was, to say, NOT the response they were looking for. I didn’t get that job either.

    So instead of having the alpha-geek play stump the chump with off-the cuff questions, I’m in favor of more structure and planning up front. My guess is hiring managers don’t think they have the time for that. My response to that kind of thinking is that good engineering doesn’t just apply to hardware.

    I’ve been asked the “what projects have you worked on that failed” question. It’s a tough one to answer. You can’t sound like you are blaming management for a lack of support, as an example, and you just can’t come out and say “I was ineffective”, or whatever. The project was likely extremely complex, and as such, the reason for the failure may have been so as well. There are lots of moving parts, you know.

    Personally, I don’t believe I interview well. While I generally have a can-do attitude, in the back of my mind, I feel I come off as tentative, as I simply wont misrepresent myself. Sure, I may have worked with blotzmo widget for 3-5 years, but I’m not the expert you think you want. You want the expert, ask the guy who wrote the RFC, and pay him or her accordingly.

    Czar, expert, guru, ninja, they are terms that are overused, overhyped, and therefore meaningless to me.

    In my current role, I manage a group of people that I inherited, as they didn’t want the hassle of management. I’ve not hired anybody into my group but have participated with other groups’ hires. My feeling is that with each hire, you get a little better at it.

  10. You bring up an interesting point. Technical skills are probably more easily learned than many of the “soft” skills, such as communication or teamwork.

    What skills are most important depends on the job. I agree that values, such as respectfulness and integrity, are part of one’s character and regardless of the job, you want to find someone that demonstrates the values that are important to you.

    As for technical skills, sometimes it’s important that you hire someone with a lot of experience in a particular technology. Other times, if you’re hiring a manager, for example, it may be more important that the candidate has strong leadership skills with a background in a similar technology. I’ve found that I can be a stronger leader when I don’t have as much expertise in the particular technology because then I’m less likely to want to dig in and do the work myself.

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