Business & Technology Nexus

Dave Stephens on technology and business trends

Hiring the Best

with 2 comments

At a software startup, the most critical mistake that we could make is to hire the wrong people. If your company has 1000 employees and you make a mistake, it's bad but not the end of the world. When your company is under 10 people and you screw up, you may go out of business.

There are many aspects of the hiring process, preparing the job post, finding resumes, sifting through the resumes, doing phone screens, interviewing the candidates, reference checking, getting approvals. By no means am I an expert in all of these things. But I think I've learned one thing that has led to successful hire after successful hire. And it surrounds the "pre-interview homework".

Before I can get to the "homework" phase, I need to cut down the field. I don't have time to phone screen every resume, so usually the top 10 or so get a call. After the phone screen, I'll select the 2-5 best candidates for in-person interviews. That's when I call the candidates up and give out the homework.

I'm not a huge fan of surprising candidates with really difficult questions that they'll probably screw up. Others probably disagree, but the ability to think quickly on one's feet is not the main factor for success in 90% of the jobs out there. For a software company, some people in the field need that quality and executives do…but the rank and file indiidual contributors? It's just not how work gets done, so why should I use that to pick my new hire? As someone who has led product management teams, I can say that I've never asked anyone to write a design document in the next 30 minutes sitting in front of me. But there are ways for me to know that I'm hiring a good product manager or a good product marketing person through the homework phase.

My favorite example was hiring a product marketing expert at Oracle. I asked the final 3 candidates to look over the current datasheet for one of my products and, when we met in person, suggest how to improve it. I wasn't very proud of that datasheet and I told the candidates as such. I wanted them to be as critical as possible. There was a good week or so for them to do this prep work and it should have only taken a few hours of thought. If a candidate can't put in 2-8 hours trying to get a job, then I don't think he/she will put in the extra effort on the job.

Candidate #1 put together a nice list of things that were wrong with the datasheet, but it was like pulling teeth for recommendations on what should be there. Candidate #2 had a super resume and great work experience, but he had some vague recommendations, a lot of consultant-speak. Gave me the sense that he felt overqualified to be doing a datasheet. Candidate #3 came in and hit a home run. He talked about why the structure of the current datasheet was wrong and what needed to be done. But he didn't stop there. He had actually un-PDF'ed the datasheet and rewritten the first 1/3rd of the document. Clearly, he had a passion for the type of work that he was going to be asked to do on the job. Needless to say, Candidate #3 passed the rest of the interviews with flying colors and we hired him. And he became a super valuable team member at Oracle. When Coupa gets large enough to afford a product marketing expert, I'll try to convince him to join.

I told my mom about this technique when she was hiring someone for her PR group. She tried it out and had the candidates write a press release as interview prep. It worked for her, but you may be wondering if it can be applied to your role. I think it can. You want to come up with a task that is extremely relevant to the job. If you need a UI designer, don't ask them to write documentation. It should also be possible to accomplish in a relatively short amount of time and not need "insider" knowledge or access. Some examples:

– QA engineer: Have them write some automated test scripts for doing tests on a site like Google or Yahoo!. There are plenty of open source test automation tools out there that they should be able to handle this without a problem. You are looking for how well they approach the testing process.

– Strategic buyer: Have the candidates create a small RFP/bid package and how they will analyze the results.

– Contracts specialist: Ask the candidates how they would change a contract (choose one that is weak) to meet specific objectives.

– Product manager: Have the candidates write a short design document on a common feature (don't pick something arcane). Maybe it's a design on the login process.

You probably have better examples, but I'd encourage you to try it out. We'll be doing it at Coupa!

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Written by Noah Eisner

06/25/06 11:47 AM at 11:47 am

Posted in Opinion

2 Responses

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  1. Noah is absolutely right … the wrong hire in a small software startup is absolutely critical, even if the hire is only your UI developer or accountant. I can say this because I've spent the majority of my employee/consulting career, whenever possible, working for, and with, small companies, and small technology companies in particular as my particular specialty is helping these companies design and build systems to solve real problems and, in some cases, building key parts of those systems my self.

    My colleagues thought I was crazy, but for a single position I'd often review over a hundred resumes just to come up with about 10 possibilities for a phone interview which would often whittle down to 3 to 5 candidates for an in-person interview which, if I was lucky, would leave me with 1 suitable hire, even if I was trying to fill multiple positions (such as intermediate / senior developer). They couldn't understand how that many experienced individuals couldn't do the job. It wasn't that they couldn't do the job or weren't qualified, it's that they weren't stars.

    Small software companies, especially software startups, are very different beasts from mid-size or large companies. Whereas a company like Oracle will have multiple people that can cover each function, in a small software company, each person will likely have to cover multiple jobs with no backup since the company usually cannot afford to fill every position it really should have.

    Furthermore, the continued success (or at least the bank account) will often depend on winning or maintaining a single sale, and this will often involve not just going the extra mile but running a marathon in a short time window. You not only need people that can think on their feet and work hard, but people who can handle very high pressure situations, which can often be drawn out for weeks at a time and turn coal into diamonds.

    As Noah hinted, candidates that are too timid or uninterested to make recommendations are not appropriate for small companies, nor are candidates who feel overqualified or underqualified to do anything that relates to the job they are applying for. The reality is that even though industry moves faster everyday, software companies, especially those embracing on-demand, have to move faster still.

    I agree with Noah in that asking them to do simple tasks is much better then asking them overly difficult questions (because, in reality, you'd expect them to research such a problem before choosing a potential solution). However, I also like to do in-depth interviews that would ask them how they would attack solving a problem that I would not expect them to answer on the spot (re-architect part of a system to solve an encountered problem, develop a new supply strategy for a category because the current one has too much risk and cost, define an extension to the current product that will address current customer needs) and see how they talk, and walk, through the issue. Problem solving skills and the ability to think logically and rationally are much more important then whether they already know a solution as they'll be facing new problems every day, and no one can memorize all the answers.

    Michael Lamoureux

    06/26/06 5:17 AM at 5:17 am

  2. Noah and Michael, thanks for sharing your experiences. I am trying to find two partners to head sales and operations functions. In my opinion, this is the most risky area of the business, how to find good people who could operate at my level with same commitment! Welcome any further advice and thoughts.

    http://manojranaweera.wordpress.com/2006/08/01/entrepreneurs-wanted/

    Manoj Ranaweera

    08/23/06 1:16 AM at 1:16 am


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