Hiring Generalists

2 minute read

One of the things that a lot of companies in the Silicon Valley (and, by extension, the rest of the country) struggle with is the hiring process.  I work at a company where we have a lot of phenomenally talented people working here, and an almost infinite supply of talented people who want to work here.  As with a lot of other companies, we’ve been streamlining our process somewhat and have created a process where people from different groups interview candidates for particular skills, with the theory that the person might fit well somewhere else in the company, and we don’t want to miss that chance. We’ve got various specific skills we’re supposed to interview on, and it’s kind of a cookie cutter experience.  You have these skills or you don’t, someone likes you or they don’t.

There’s a problem with this kind of hiring, though.  It’s a great idea if you’re trying to hire someone who can already do exactly the tasks that you’re hiring them for.  However, an interview process like that is likely to eliminate people who can do a phenomenal job at that task even though they’ve never done it before.  I frequently joke that “I don’t know anything, but I can *do* anything.”  Which isn’t really true.  I know a lot of things.  But they don’t extend to CS algorithm puzzles because I don’t have a CompSci degree.  I can, in fact, study up and pass the Google Interview Questions… but I won’t.  Because I am a kick ass engineer, my code is solid, my problem solving skills are phenomenal, and more importantly, if the company needs me to do some magical new thing I wasn’t hired for, there’s a good chance I’ll be happy to do it, and do it exceedingly well.  I don’t want someone to hire me because I’m willing to pretend to be something I’m not.  I want them to hire me for the spectacularly cool things I bring to the company.  If they don’t value those more than my ability to reverse a linked list, then they don’t really get why they should hire me.

Sure, specialists are great.  You know what you’re getting, you can put them in front of a defined, bounded task and they’ll do it in the expected way.  But in today’s environment where companies need to stretch, innovate and grow – at a company where the monthly hackday consistently puts out products the company can leverage – companies need to understand the value of someone who can figure out how to do new tasks, not just hire people who can do the tasks already identified. Every company has people who they hired to do particular things because they can do them.  The spectacular companies also have a large percentage of individuals who thrive on taking on new challenges and exploring new frontiers.

On the other hand, as a generalist, I frequently have helpful feedback in these interviews where we’re looking for skills I don’t currently possess.  But my feedback is usually about the candidate as a thinker, as a doer, as a leader, as a participant in the conversation.  And less about the SQL statements.

Posted in Geek Stuff, LinkedIn on the blog.  Friends and Open Source on G+.