Saturday, February 1, 2014

Hiring Problems

The great double-edged sword at a startup is the fact that I must wear multiple hats. The hardest hat for me to wear is by far the ‘people’ hat. This is the hat that manages people, leads people, instructs people and empowers people.

Computers are easy. They only do exactly what some person somewhere instructs them to do. They execute the instructions I give them. I use the instructions someone else to gave me so I can get at the guts of the machine. Outside of mechanical failure, when things go wrong, the machine is still executing the instructions someone gave it.

People though - they are different all together.


I try to lead by doing. I simply do and help others do their daily business of doing and for some crazy reason people seem to want to follow that. People seem to like to know that if worse comes to worse, they aren’t stuck on a deserted island.

In previous roles this approach has served me well. I never forced my vision, approach, methods or whatever on anyone - but then I wasn’t exactly in the position of formal leader. Some peers would simply follow once they saw I was competent and fair. The thing is, I was implementing someone else’s vision, so if push came to shove I had a fallback - don’t shoot the messenger. aka,. “Ours is not to reason why, Ours is but to do and die.” I also had the luxury of it never being my official job to Herd All of the Things.

Now things are different. It is my application architecture. These are my interpretations of the best practices. These are my rules. So, when the Rebels decide they want to draw up their plans to destroy my Death Star - I can’t blame the Emperor. I am the Emperor - but a nicer, better looking one and one without Jedi Mind Tricks (too bad on that last one).


The thing about a Startup is that you have this completely unique opportunity to start the right culture upon which to grow. So all those things you’ve seen wrong for years at your various positions? You know - all those things you’ve read about for years that successful people do? Yep, this is your chance to do this right and lay a firm foundation on bedrock. Not sand. You know things like “I know the root cause of failure XYZ is the failure to implement and embrace Software Engineering Best Practice 502.1.c.” (Insert your personal experience here).

The Rub

The problem for me lately has been in convincing the Natives that I am A: Not Edible - “Those are not for eating” and B: that my practices are good and reasonable and will ultimately make us Jedi. There are a couple of problems with this. 1 - some of my Padawans cannot see the bigger picture. 2 - some of my Padawans (in spite of their ‘many years of experience’) clearly have no experience with complex systems. As such, they see the problem space from the experience of a series of trivial exercises. They also seem to have this misconception that I should Know All the Things. Obviously I do not. Since I am not omnipotent I am therefore more stupider than they.


Now some would say to me at this point, Jeremiah, its your job to lead them and show them the answers to 1 and 2. I agree. But they actually have to read the material I give them right? They actually have to try the things I ask before shooting them down. Eventually things break down to the point of the daily-convincing-of-others-of-the-truth-in-your-decisions. The debate ultimately comes down to me having to drop the proverbial ‘Cause I Said So’ Hammer. Then I’ve moved from leader to boss (totalitarian) which is not so much fun.


The moral of all this is that my people problems are really a hiring issue. Cheap definitely brings some unexpected problems with it when considering people. In hindsight, cheap probably cost us more than ponying up for the right candidates in the first place. But we are a startup, with limited funds - we really do need to eek out every cost savings we can. We also want to give people a chance to grow, foster learning, get them to own part of the product by helping to find appropriate solutions to the problems at hand - and all that warm fuzzy stuff. Thing is - that "Appropriate" word? I am on the hook for that.

The biggest lesson for me is that we definitely need a much more formal hiring process. We can’t just hire ‘cause we like ‘em or have because candidate 'bob' has a great personality. Don’t get me wrong - I did some tech screening and tossed some candidates out early on. But since I have had the honor of working with highly esteemed professionals in my past, there are more than a few things I’ve taken for granted. I never dreamed I’d see some of the behaviors I’ve seen.



Adding the Recruiter Hat

Now I must also be Recruiter. So all those irritating things we've gone through in the past to get hired for great positions? You know multiple interviews, completing projects as a resume, checking references and answering seemingly ridiculous questions? Guess what, I’ll be doing those things to some poor souls in the very near future.

The wrong hire really could tank us. Besides, there is just way too much stress in dealing with Stupid Human Tricks.