The wrong stuff

Now that IT departments are starting to do just a little recruiting, it’s time to think about how to hire the best and brightest people. Despite having had a few years when they could be really choosy, hiring managers seem to have lost sight of how to pick great employees.

We’ve all seen job postings with statements like, “Must meet all requirements below to be considered. Otherwise, don’t waste our time by applying.” What follows is invariably a list of required experience that would elude even the most energetic and accomplished centenarian. Usually the list includes a long string of ill-considered, mutually incompatible skill sets and temperaments. Statements like, “Must have a successful record as a sales hunter, a seller of large-scale software solutions to senior executives and a J2EE programmer, with a minimum of 25 years of experience,” seem all too common.

I imagine some junior HR person fresh out of college sitting in a windowless cubicle sifting through piles of resumes. “Hmm. Here’s one. Oops. Only 24 years of Java. Reject. Next. Steve Jobs; that name sounds familiar. Oh, didn’t finish college. Next.”

I’m not suggesting that hiring managers shouldn’t be choosy now that they have the chance, but they should use the opportunity to choose based on meaningful criteria. Too often, it seems, these attempts to be selective are based on a few myths that lead to poor decisions.

Myth 1: Past experience equals future success

At the heart of absurd selection criteria is the assumption that an applicant’s previous experience doing exactly the same job implies future success. But there are a number of problems with hiring someone to recreate a previous performance.

People frequently try to repeat past success by doing things exactly the same way as before, failing to recognize the uniqueness of the new situation. In fact, if someone has done a job before and been wildly successful, he’s unlikely to reproduce the results. Early success doesn’t lead to learning. Failure is a much better teacher.

Also, people get bored doing the same things over and over again and don’t engage completely with the job.

A much better rule to follow when hiring would be “past drive for success implies future drive for success.” The desire to be effective is much more enduring and important than some specific experience. You can see it in a progression of increasing responsibility, but mostly it comes through in the interviews.

Myth 2: Specialization equals productivity

This myth has deep roots in the business community. Ever since studies of scientific management were conducted at the turn of the last century, specialization has been considered a bedrock of productivity. The more specialized someone is, the more productive he must be. Obviously, this belief has served us well over the past 100 years or so, helping to multiply the productivity of physical labour by a factor of more than 50.

But just because this assumption has proved true for improving the productivity of physical labour, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it will work the same way for improving the productivity of knowledge work.

A better assumption would be that every organization and project needs a blend of both deep specialists and broad generalists. Hiring a bunch of specialists more often results in internal competition and posturing than in outstanding productivity. In the right environment, people with varying perspectives find the most efficient and creative solutions to the problems at hand.

Myth 3: You can do only one thing well

This myth assumes that each of us is entitled to only one primary skill. If someone has pursued a career writing mystery novels, he clearly can’t be much of a programmer.

For me, one of the great privileges of being in IT has been working with just these sorts of talented polymaths. I’ve worked alongside people who started their careers as opera singers, concert pianists, high school teachers, mathematicians, physicists, historians, salespeople, factory workers and psychologists. They all bring varied perspectives from their other careers, enriching our work experiences and the quality of our technical products. If we allow these people to be forced out of the industry by checklist recruiting, our projects and work lives will be poorer for it.

Paul Glen is an IT management consultant in Los Angeles and the author of the award-winning book Leading Geeks: How to Manage and Lead the People Who Deliver Technology (Jossey-Bass Pfeiffer, 2003; He can be reached at [email protected].

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