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Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

Hire the Best

Hire the Best post image

I took a part in a panel discussion at GeeCON about presence of women in IT industry. One of my arguments on why we should hire more women sprung an interesting comment:

I can’t agree with ‘hire woman even if she is a worse candidate’

Pawel Wrzeszcz

In fact, I’d agree with such a statement. I would as I wasn’t proposing hiring worse candidates. What I was pointing out was that I would hire less skilled or less intelligent woman over man. Why? Simply because she would be a better candidate.

Now, you may be confused so let me point two things. A typical hiring process is about individual traits. How much a candidate knows, what skills or traits he or she possesses, etc. Then, once we hire them, we put them on a team where key things are how one acts as a part of the team and how they help the team to get better. A very different thing.

If something I need to make my team more effective is more empathy and a different cognitive style I’d do the right thing focusing on these characteristics (which, by the way, promotes women over men). What almost all hiring managers would do instead they’d hire the best possible coder (which typically promotes men over women). Was he the best candidate?

On some accounts, I guess…

Let me rephrase: was he the best candidate in that specific context?

Definitely not.

He might have been most skilled and most intelligent candidate, which doesn’t make him the best. Not even close.

If sport teams had the same hiring strategy as we do in IT industry they would be hiring only people for one position, possibly only stars. Can you imagine a football team (proper football, not American one) with 11 world class forwards?

Yes, this is a dream of many hiring managers in IT.

We forget that building software in vast majority of cases is a team sport, not an individual effort. And we don’t get points for having the most awesome person on the team but for what the whole team has achieved.

So my challenge here is to rethink what “the best candidate” really means. We should be thinking more in terms of improving our teams, which is was more than simply hiring the most skilled person at hand.

Hire the best still stands true, but we should first answer the question: the best for what?

in: recruitment, team management

11 comments… add one

  • Becky Hartman May 15, 2013, 7:07 pm

    Well said! Totally agree..

  • RnR May 15, 2013, 8:41 pm

    I’m not sure it’s so easy – you don’t hire contractors for each single specific project/team right? The person you choose this way (looking at skills needed today in a very specific team) may be a complete miss-fit in a month when your teams or projects change. I think the important thing is to hire great coders that are also humans and who will grow with your company, get your current team involved in the interviews and consider all of this having the long term in mind. The favors man/woman thing is not necesairly true as it all depends – I work with one team where one of the best coders is a woman and I’m sure she never needed to be hired for empathy ahead of her domain skills.

  • Pawel Brodzinski May 16, 2013, 4:05 am

    @RnR – You point hiring for specific skills as tricky. If you look at what counts for effectiveness of a team it’s not that tricky as you may think.

    Let me start with that: as counterintuitive as it sounds focusing on technical skills is the wrong way to go. If you do so, you will likely end up with pretty monolithic team, heavily dominated by males with strong bias toward engineerish cognitive style. At the same time traits you need to make any team better are empathy, focus on quality and evenness of communication in a group or diverse cognitive styles. This, by the way, more frequently promote women over men.

    And you need these traits in any team, not just a very specific team working on a very specific project. You basically can’t go wrong with that.

    Of course I don’t advise hiring technically unskilled people. The point is that technical skills aren’t the only or the most important recruitment criteria.

    “I work with one team where one of the best coders is a woman and I’m sure she never needed to be hired for empathy ahead of her domain skills.”

    I can imagine. This is, by the way, a perfect picture of a typical approach to hiring in IT. But the fact that the company hired the awesome person for the wrong reasons doesn’t make the method right. I mean, I can imagine a situation when she wasn’t hired because there was another candidate who was just a bit more skilled developer but at the same time he wouldn’t add even a fraction of what she adds to the team capabilities.

    The hiring process is set up as every tam was one-person team and your story is a great image of that. You seem to assume that it’s the best for a team to have best possible coders. It just doesn’t seem to be backed up by the research.

    The short version: technical and domain skills are overrated.

  • RnR May 17, 2013, 2:33 pm

    How is having the candidates meet the team they will work with and getting a go-no go a sign of hiring everyone as a single person team?

    The point is you always hire the whole individual and consider soft and domain skills – there’s nothing new here – except maybe that when you will ‘hire less skilled or less intelligent woman over man’ it will be a nice case for a lawsuit in many countries and that personally, I would also feel a bit sad being that girl – just my 0.02$

  • Pawel Brodzinski May 17, 2013, 3:48 pm

    @RnR – The question is how the meeting with the team would look like. What the team is going to check or verify? Having more people during an interview won’t help if you keep asking the same questions…

    The other thing is about ‘less skilled’ person. In the context of discussion I meant ‘less technically skilled’. Now, if were hiring, say, a football player, could less technically skilled or less intelligent person be the best candidate? Of course. Would someone sue the club for such a decision?

    I know the example is extreme. I bring it here to show one misconception that I keep seeing. If we change our principles in hiring and start focusing on things that matter for team to make them better, technical skills or individual intelligence won’t be primary criteria for assessing the quality of a candidate. In the same way as right now we don’t treat, e.g. organizational skills as primary criteria for hiring software developers. Does it mean that we discriminate the best organizers and should be sued?

    The point is that in these discussions we are still thinking about hiring in the old ways. Best candidate for a software developer? The most skilled and intelligent person. Well, it seems it’s not true. But if we judge our hiring decisions using the old paradigm, they will look unfair. At the same time if we adopt the new paradigm and look for example from a perspective of collective intelligence we will be choosing the best available candidates. It just so happens that this approach will statistically favor women.

    So no need to feel for that girl, unless she is closed with the old way of thinking about recruitment and has enough ego to make that a problem. Even then, it will be just an ego problem, which can happen to everyone, not only to women.

  • RnR May 17, 2013, 10:22 pm

    So you assume all great teams of the past were created/forged by accident?

    As to your points – how do you know it’s better? Compared to what? A badly run recruitment process? That means nothing… Compare to good process after yeats of market data and then it will not sound like populism – but then I suspect you’ll find it’s whst we were/are already doing.

  • Pawel Brodzinski May 18, 2013, 2:30 pm

    @RnR – I don’t think I said that all the great teams were built by accident…

    Talking about reasons for me to change my approach to hiring is the research on collective intelligence, as well as the way I perceive my past experience from different teams. I don’t want to compare one recruitment process to another. I just challenge the way we hire people so far as it is inconsistent with the results of the research. I guess the best answer for that would be pointing the research which proves the opposite, e.g. showing how individual technical skills or intelligence are predictors how the team would operate.

    I’m always willing to challenge my views and have changed them quite a few times.

    And, as you mention populism… well, basing on the feedback I get it’s pretty much the opposite. It’s basically going against the stream.

  • RnR May 18, 2013, 9:44 pm

    ‘ I guess the best answer for that would be pointing the research which proves the opposite’ the point I’m trying to make is if you hired well in the past you already were looking at these things – just not simply by the gender maybe – to every complex problem there’s an answer that’s simple and wrong.

  • Pawel Brodzinski May 19, 2013, 1:20 pm

    @RnR – I guess you confuse research with experience reports. A specific company using a specific approach to recruitment to build a great team is an experience report. We likely can learn from that but we don’t have an opportunity to compare that to alternatives, thus we can’t say what would be better or worse approach.

    Research on the other hand attempts to create environment where such a comparison in possible. We have statistical example of teams working against similar challenges, thus we can draw conclusions about better or worse strategies.

    So again, I’m really looking forward to learn more from the research that showing how different skills can help us predict how effectively the teams would operate. The research I know helped me to change my approach to hiring. What’s more I can align that with my past experience. Understanding how cognitive bias works though, I’m open to learn more and to challenge my current views. I would just appreciate more scientific sources.

  • RnR May 19, 2013, 1:40 pm

    So how do I solve my problems by hiring woman to have at least one in each 5 person team if 5% of cs graduates at my timews and now maybe 10% are woman? How do I build a great team if no woman respond/send their cv’s?

    The research nice and all and I think we all agree the idea behind it is sound and like I mentioned I don’t really think there’s anyting new here – it’s the simplified answer to the problem that may hide the real solution we’re looking for that causes some problems for me but it’s my 0.02$.

    Thanks for the discussion – I’ll look forward to hearing updates on this – one interesting topic on this level would be – if 1 girl more in a team is good – are two girls even better? What about three?

  • Pawel Brodzinski May 20, 2013, 7:24 am

    @RnR – “How do I build a great team if no woman respond/send their cv’s?” Now, that’s a very good question and very different discussion. And you can expect updates on that subject soon, either here or at Lunar Logic blog. This question is also representation of a different mindset. It’s not “it’s difficult so it can be right.” It’s “OK, so how we may make it happen?” Personally, I wouldn’t ask for more than about such a mindshift.

    If you pay attention to details the research is far from delivering simplified answer. In fact, it wasn’t a hypothesis that the more women the better. It was just a follow-up conclusion after they pinned down traits and behavior that positively affected collective intelligence.

    And the answer for the last question is the part of the research. The more, the better, up till the point where vast majority of team are females. Pure female teams do worse than teams with very few / a single man, but better than pure male teams.

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