Hiring "Smart"

by Amitt on Oct 06, 2010
At my last few jobs we used a mish-mash of semi-unique languages: UnrealScript at Epic, PHP/Flash combo at Zynga, and so on. It's rare that someone possesses experience in every technology the job requires of them so we needed to find a different way to hire.

In addition, if you're at a hot startup experiencing rapid growth, more likely than not, your required set of skills is going to change. In order to sustain that growth, you need a team that can grow with the organization and adapt to the new challenges the company faces within its lifetime.

So now when I evaluate candidates, two of the things I look for are:

<li><b>1) Can they learn?</b>

Note that this is different from the traditional "Are they smart?" question popularized by Joel Spolsky<sup><a href="#footnote1">1</a></sup>. There are a lot of people out there that are incredibly smart and talented but unable to pick up new skills or refuse to challenge their conventional way of thinking.

This applies to efficiency as well, not just general knowledge, since a person that can learn can learn the "tricks" to become a more effective engineer.

<i>(As a side note, this can also apply to organizations and their ability to adapt to changing market conditions, more on that in future post)</i>

<li><b>2) Are they fun to be around?</b>

When training is such an important part of inducting someone into an organization, they need to be easy to get along with to make the experience rewarding for the TRAINER as well.

If the experience is not enjoyable for the trainers, they'll be less effective in their training and not take ownership of actually making sure that new hires are getting the attention they need to succeed.

Making sure that the folks we are bringing on are a cultural fit and fun to work with helps mitigate this issue.

<b>Turns out this approach to hiring works surprisingly well (for us)</b>

When we are scaling up teams at Zynga, we concentrated on finding folks that had a solid foundation in Computer Science and were willing to work with us to learn something new. Normally candidates would either know Flash or PHP but rarely both (and sometimes neither).

We would work with them and invest time to fill in the gaps in knowledge (through boot camps, code reviews, pair coding, etc.) so that they would become better developers, a cost we gladly paid to ensure we had a highly specialized team ready to take on the unique challenges we faced.

It's a win-win for everyone involved:

<li>We get talented developers that are more effective at their jobs</li>
<li>The developers grow in their careers and acquire a broader set of experiences which will hopefully set them up for the next set of challenges the company would face</li>

<div class="footnote" style="font-size: 10px;">
<div id="footnote1">[1] <a href="http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/GuerrillaInterviewing3.html">http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/GuerrillaInterviewing3.html</a></div>