This is not a rant caused by a spell of unemployment, nor is it a cry for help or an invitation to a raging pity-party. This is a reminder of the convention of hiring knowledge workers, especially within the software industry, that we allow to coerce our decision making at the expense of our organizations.
In fact, the thoughts in this post have little to do with my present lack of an employer, even while knee-deep in wildly ineffective hiring conversations. Instead, this post primarily contains notes from past engagements where the hiring process felt like throwing darts blindfolded.
Before I share my notes on this dysfunctional convention, I imagine nothing I’ll expose in this post will be especially new. In fact, a great number of vastly more experienced, intelligent, and inspiring people have written superior papers and articles on this subject. For your convenience, and illustration that I am a latecomer to the topic, I have provided a sampling of links at the bottom of this post.
With that said, my notes below are contained as follows:
- Rubbish: resumes and screening
- Folly: hiring a person versus filling a position
- Hiring: “professionals” are a liability
The Rubbish: Resumes, screening, and the perversion of technology.
My resume is garbage. Or, at least, I’ve been told this by a wide variety of resume professionals, colleagues, and HR-type folk. I once had a friend proclaim I am “brilliant”, refer me to her VP, then lament on “how embarrassed” she was after seeing my resume. My “brilliance” summarily executed over format expectations of an 8.5″ x 11″ piece of paper.
Recently, as an added bonus for uploading my resume to an online job portal, I received a complimentary resume evaluation from a “talented” professional (the jury is still out whether this was a person or an automated bot). The critique was not pretty. The biggest complaint? A lack of bullet-points, subsequently leading an automated tracking system to have difficulty assessing my worth. In fact, according to this litmus test, I’m most qualified to work in an entry-level human resources position.
And this, according to convention, is my fault. The use of a real, human voice to describe my beliefs and experiences–rather than bullet-points and self-indulgence–is something I’m advised to change… because the computer doesn’t like it. Worse, some of the most outstanding people I’ve met accept this illogical, impersonal status-quo as process to be followed. A recent Twitter exchange from a colleague, someone I admire and think highly of, illustrates the point perfectly:
This is a problem we created ourselves. Our use of technology to create job portals, single-click employment applications, and an inflow pipeline that far exceeds our human ability to process it, has coerced us to insist on conformity to software applications as a solution that ignores the systemic cause. As it was emphasized to me in my fancy resume critique, “more than 95% of companies use resume scanning software to filter candidates from the applicant pool.” I don’t stand out. I haven’t written a resume that conforms to computer requirements (requirements that I did not participate in defining). And this, according to convention, is my fault.
It occurs to me that I stand out exactly the way I want: I’ve written a bit of dialogue that uses my conversational voice to describe my values, beliefs, and experiences. My resume isn’t perfect; just like the person I am. I’ve offered myself in the same fashion that you might hear if we sat down for coffee and you asked, “So tell me about yourself…” I would hope you asked the question with intent to listen, too.
Thus, as our companies willingly accept a mechanism to hear as little as possible and filter for robots, perhaps I am being filtered out as a human being. Meanwhile, the top professionals of the business world lament the shortage of talent needed by our organizations. Rubbish; this, evident in the convention, is our fault.
The Folly: Hiring a person versus filling a position. Job specifications for knowledge work ignore the crucial attributes of what is truly needed.
In my experiences as a benevolent trouble-maker (i.e., some sort of change agent labeled as Agile coach, consultant, etc.), one of my favorite questions to ask–especially HR management–is: “What is the difference between hiring a person and filling a position?”
Typically, this question causes some visible discomfort, especially given the (intentional) juxtaposition of culture and “people as resources”. It’s not uncommon for the person to deflect and divert from the question by responding, “Neither. It’s more important to hire the right person for the position.” But playing the non-committal, safe card doesn’t answer the question, does it?
Further, answers to this question tend to vary based on the role of the person. For an IT recruiter that received a bonus on her primary performance metric, “time to fill”, what do you think she said? Would you be shocked if I told you her manager had an opposite viewpoint? (The mindset difference between manager and subordinate in performance reviews is a post for another day…)
Here’s the truth: our industries still have complicated, repeatable, predictable work that experience and expertise alone can provide the mastery needed for success. Traditional theory-X management and hiring might suffice here, perhaps even be ideal. But these jobs are dwindling and, in some industries like software development, simply do not exist.
People do not cross into the realm of knowledge work without at least a sufficient degree of aptitude for the tasks necessary to do the job. An intelligent person would not seek work in a position where s/he believes defeat (inept failure) is inevitable. Thus, their physical execution of tasks (the job specification) become somewhat diminutive to the sum of all skills–especially soft skills–that define a person’s ability to succeed.
As an example, I’d like to share an experience:
A company was under the impression that expert, “top 5%” talent was needed to bolster “failing architecture” and improve code quality (the root cause being management impediments and desire to favor imposed deadlines over quality).
Upon hiring an expert, one who nailed every coding and logic problem presented to him, a number of teams began degrading even further. The expert’s arrogance, ego, and demeaning nature caused team members to feel fear, anxiety, and demotivated. They became fearful of backlash and acted robotic, instead, waiting to be told exactly what to do and how to do it.
As the situation crumbled, the company promoted the expert to senior manager – an effort to “fix” the problem with more technical oversight and management.
Do I need to continue? This, according to convention, was the fault of the team members.
Operating in a complex environment, that which I argue most of our software development activities lie, requires far more than simple execution of tasks associated with a particular realm of knowledge work. Pounding a nail in one stroke does not suggest I can build a house; throwing a perfect spiral every time does not suggest I can quarterback a team to victory; writing genius code to tricky puzzles does not suggest I can collaborate with a team to deliver working software.
It is utter folly that we cast our net for knowledge workers in the same fashion we attract mechanical, traditional workers. This is true of developers, product leaders, marketers, managers, and nearly every other worker bravely diving into the creative economy of today.
Meanwhile, our organizations fuss over a fraction of the skillset needed to thrive and construct interview formats that shove personality, temperament, and soft skills to the side. But this, according to convention, is the interviewee’s responsibility to demonstrate. Folly!
On Hiring: “professionals” are a liability and out of control.
I’d like to pose a question to you:
What if the convention of organizational hiring is a load of antiquated garbage and we’re trying to perfect this impotent model in the name of professionalism… because that’s what professionals do?
How else can we explain the acceptance of hiring dysfunction, our attempts to conform rather than expose it, and commiseration among peers over that unfortunate talent shortage?
It occurs to me that that both the convention of hiring and organizational behavior places a premium on “professionalism”. A professional exemplifies work ethic through her dedication, loyalty, and excellence within the system. In most cases, the upper echelon of the hierarchy consists of like-minded people, thus a please-up mentality demonstrates behavior satisfying to the characteristics of the existing system.
But again, what if the existing system is broken or, at the very least, outdated? Are self-described professionals and experts typically able to question all that they know, even their own values and principles? If not, how do we hire to evoke change and overcome organizational pain-points?
Thankfully, there are many thought-provoking people exploring this question. I see value in simplicity and one model I’m particularly fond of is Bill Joiner’s “Leadership Agility” framework, which describes an ever-so-simple three tier lens for behavioral development: expert, achiever, and catalyst.
While the model focuses on management, the attributes of each level can easily be applied to explore the realm of knowledge work, where collaboration, communication, and adaptation are particularly important. Unsurprisingly, the dominant tier in our places of work is the expert, characterized by a problem-solving orientation and, rather unsurprisingly, an emphasis on ability (expertise). A perfect fit for our typical execution-heavy job descriptions. On the other end of the spectrum is the catalyst, possessing an alternative mindset that seeks inclusion of ideas, inputs, opportunities for feedback.
Here’s the catch: even if this simple model doesn’t resonate with you, the people who demonstrate a catalyst mindset make great team members, mentors and teachers, and possess the ability to help others self-discover and grow. And, often, they don’t look like professionals or try to attract the spotlight in professional-esque fashion. They don’t say what you want to hear, opting instead to explore together what needs to be said. Yet, they listen deeply and attend to your needs, especially when such conversations create conflict. It’s highly likely they will be uncomfortable with inane interview questions like, “tell me about your greatest weakness?” or “what kind of animal would you be?”
Lastly, I suspect the search for professionals will continue to exclude them. And this, according to convention, is their fault.
Recommended Reading (just a few of many…):
- How to Write an Agile Job Ad (Tobias Mayer)
- Cheap Agile. Yum! (Tobias Mayer)
- A Good Place to Work (Ben Horowitz)
- Talent Assessment (Dr. Charles Handler)
- The War With Talent (Dr. Charles Handler)
- Antimatter Recruiting (Bob Marshall)
- Why Job Interviews Suck (Bob Marshall)
- Interviews Can Be a Terrible Way to Identify Good Programmers (Andrew Wulf)
- Hiring for a Collaborative Team (Ester Derby)
- Redesigning Knowledge Work (Martin Dewhurst, Bryan Hancock, Diana Ellsworth)