November 1, 2010
Hacking the Hiring Process

Hacking the interview process

Recently, the team I work on has had several positions open, so we have been doing a lot of interviewing.  The position requires a unique intersection of skills, making the likelihood of a single candidate having all the qualifications rare.  We were really looking for a mid-level developer with the aptitude to learn quickly.  Normally, I’m a confident fellow, I know my strengths and a good number of my weaknesses.  However, I don’t think myself anything special or out of the ordinary.  I would place my development skills within one standard deviation (plus or minus) of average.  Not a bad spot to be, considering my educational background (several false starts and no degrees).

What do these two things have in common?  Nothing, really.  However, I have also been interviewing on occasion with other companies, mainly earlier-stage startups.  If I leave my relatively cushy job, I want to go do something interesting, not just chase a bigger paycheck.  Now, this is where the first two points begin to merge together.  We had a VERY difficult time finding people that even matched their resumes, let alone had a base of knowledge to learn from or the natural curiosity to allow them to learn.  The general impression was that folks wanted a job that didn’t ask too much of them.

This isn’t a bad thing, some folks honestly peak earlier in the career ladder than others.  But therein lies the conundrum.  The result of interviews where I am the interviewee was that I would not be a good fit for the position.  That is very understandable, they are looking for a specific candidate and skillset/skill level.  But the feedback is generally atrocious.  It is a sense of general rejection without anything to improve upon.

So I decided to hack the system a bit and solicit feedback on the areas they perceived as needing improvement.  I received excellent feedback by getting no direct feedback from one company.  They said they felt I was probably a good developer, but that wasn’t strong enough to fly me out for an in person interview (understandable, this company was looking for the best).  They also brought up the interview anti-loop (http://steve-yegge.blogspot.com/2008/03/get-that-job-at-google.html).  This was positive feedback as if it was no lack of skill, but happening to hit several weak areas.

I thought about pressing for more details so that I had general areas to work on for personal improvement, but decided against it.  I thought back to all the candidates that I had rejected and tried to decide what I would respond with if I were asked the same question.  And I drew a blank.  I could not come up with answers that wouldn’t be a potential liability or cause the requester more grief than just the general feeling of rejection.

And thus ended my attempted hack of the interview process.  I’ll still ask for feedback, but I expect the same, generic responses as the actual rejection.  The hiring process is deeply flawed when the only quantitative skills and characteristics for any given position are “can breath, with assistance is okay” and “can show up.”  Nearly all other requirements are subjective with a large number of caveats and cannot be qualified or measured.  The cover letter becomes a fraud to get you in the door so that a subjective measurement of intangible qualities can be taken and weighed against (usually) arbitrary valuations of those characteristics as needed for the position.

Why the current hiring process is the current hiring process

This leads to an interesting aspect of the hiring process.  Every employer knows and recognizes that there is a “ramp up” period before a new hire can be completely productive.  The amount of time is based on the type of position and the learning speed of the individual, but is rarely zero.  Combine this with the cost of hiring and there is a significant investment in each employee by the time they are able to contribute to the company.  The current system is working to balance these costs with the more expensive scenario of bringing on a candidate that has to be let go.

The cost of hiring an employee is amortized over the length of their employment.  Employers are willing to spend more money to acquire a candidate that will stay with the company long enough to recoup their costs and profit from the employee’s contributions.  For any system to replace the current method, it needs to be proven to reduce the cost of hiring significantly, increase the length of tenure of an employee or significantly reduce the ramp up time for new employees.  The challenge is that the length of tenure and ramp up time can be directly controlled with documentation, training process and company culture.  This necessitates an approach that is more efficient, even when paired with those systems.

Variations on a theme

To be able to provide an alternative method of seeking candidates, the first necessary piece is to be able to define measurable requirements for a particular position.  This definition is difficult because it is assumed that the candidate will need training in at least one area.  The comprehensive, perfect candidate will need less training than others, but still a non-zero amount of training.  This provides for a wide range of variability within the necessary skills.

With the wide variety in skill levels, there is also a variance in the base skills that are needed.  This occurs because proficiency in one area may be as beneficial as proficiency in another.  This complexity increases the space of applicants and greatly increases the need for a human or manual element in determining if the applicant is indeed a potential match.

If the skill requirements can be determined and the skills of an an applicant can be properly quantified, the filtering process becomes trivial.  The key components of an alternative talent acquisition process then becomes the definition of the required quantitative skills and the measurement of those skills for each applicant.  Each position at each company is unique.  There has been some convergence in different areas, but there will always be variation.  

I don’t have all the answers, yet.

All the pontification in the world will not create a suitable “replacement” for the current hiring process.  I even decided to post this write up prior to finding the answer myself because simply rationalizing about it will not solve the problems with the current system.  No amount of technology can determine if a candidate should be hired.  However, technology can be used to improve the process of determining which candidates should be evaluated by a person.

Problems with the current process that need to be addressed.

  • No quantitative skills necessary — This can be solved by technology and I believe is one of the key components of improving the current process.
  • Subjective determinations are needed — While many facets of an individual can be whittled down to measurable values, there will always be a necessity on a subjective measurement of the individual as a whole.
  • The filterer is not the one that knows the most about the position — In nearly every company, the representative that manages the openings, resumes and filtering process is divorced from the actual position.  The hiring manager must be more easily involved in this part of the process.  It can be overcome with company culture/process, but tools that automate this as much as possible help to remove ingrained methods.
  • Uncertainty — The cost of hiring and losing an individual is so high that any amount of uncertainty results in not hiring the individual.  This is difficult to overcome as many of the costs are independent of the company.
  • Feedback — Laws and regulations limit what employers are willing to disclose to applicants when they are not selected for employment.  Opening the company to potential liability is more disastrous than helping people to improve.  In addition, new technologies mean that companies receive many orders of magnitude more responses than before.  This can be resolved by an automated system informing the applicant of the determination if the resume is not forwarded along.