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Startups

You hire what you measure

At a recent conference, I spoke with an engineer who confided in me that the well-known tech company he works for is having an “innovation crisis”, where everyone is brilliant and works hard, but progress towards launching new features seems slow and uninspired.

So I asked him: what’s your hiring process? He answered with the mantra we’ve all heard before: “we hire the best and brightest engineers from the top schools – we have PhD’s and polymaths… We should be innovating like crazy!”

When did we get it in our heads that to create a successful product we needed only engineers that fit this traditional mold?

The beating heart of your startup begins and ends with the people you hire, and I believe that true innovation starts with your engineering team. After all, feature specs for a fast-growing startup are an ever-moving target: wouldn’t you prefer an engineer who can think on her feet, filling in the inevitable uncertainties that arise with her own good sense?

I’d argue that most startups still working things out don’t need engineers with strictly deep technical chops. I’d suggest that many of us would be better off if we started hiring more like IDEO:

Candidates [of IDEO] bring in examples of work they’ve done, things that they are passionate about. They have to get excited when they’re talking about what they’ve made and what they want to make. It’s easy to evaluate them when you get them in a room with a bunch of people who feel the same way.

Beth Strong, Director of Recruiting at IDEO

When was the last time you interviewed an engineer and asked them to talk you through a previous project from a product perspective? How would they go about things differently knowing what they know today?

I look for engineers who know when to cut corners, who choose launching over perfection, who think three steps ahead of the product vision and anticipate change with flexible code.

The next time you think of running a candidate through a tired whiteboard problem like “rotate a matrix 90 degrees”, be critical of yourself: does this inform you of their ability to be an effective member of your product team?

Instead, how about sitting them down with a relevant and open-ended project, and see how they set about accomplishing the task? Do they organize their time effectively and focus on the right things? Is their code structured well? This form of technical interview is more interesting and engaging to the candidate – and by talking with them later about what they produced, you’ll get a significantly better signal on their real world abilities.

If you start hiring this way, your startup will undoubtably be more innovative.