The Casting chapter is about hiring. The book’s core message is that a company’s ultimate product is its culture. How could I exclude some of our most important experiences – successes and failures? But this chapter was contrary to my objective to keep each chapter as short as possible. So I ripped the following section out of that chapter, telling myself that I’d likely release it separately at some point.
Over the years, many people have asked me to expand upon my hiring process. After much procrastination, here goes.
This section covers a period in 1998, just after our first large funding round. The market for talent was very hot, making it essential to work with recruiters. This picks up near the end of the Casting chapter. As it was extracted from the book, this prose is told in the past tense, but I still apply the same principals and practices today…
A candidate’s schools, degrees and employers did not matter at all. However, their education and job history was important. The pattern I looked for was – logical curiosity. I liked to see a rational, but unconventional progression from one degree program to another. Or from one job type to another. These were signs of a person willing and able to explore new things. I would ask about these patterns during interviews because these same signs might also indicate a person who couldn’t follow one thing through to conclusion. Or that they pissed everyone off so much that they couldn’t even stay in the same profession. Well, there was risk in every unconventional decision.
I culled through stacks of resumes as quickly but thoroughly as possible. Some key points are worth mentioning here. I know that advisors belabor the importance of a specific structure for a resume. Doesn’t matter at all. Beyond looking clean and free of grammatical errors, the order of presentation or specific length is of little importance. Just tell it like it is. That’s the only important rule. Oh, and include a true cover letter. A customized cover letter worked better than anything else. One that emphasized my company and how the candidate fit in, not the other way around. Follow-up letters didn’t matter at all. They are pleasant, but once the interview was done I had made my decision to move forward or not.
Once I selected someone I might want to interview, I would speak with the recruiter to get a feel for the person. Those that gave me accurate descriptions were the ones I would continue to work with. Like any other segment of society, recruiters were a varied lot. Some were nice, but incompetent. Others, efficient but prejudiced. The good ones were empathic, but objective. They cared about their candidates and they cared about the employers. Most of all they cared about creating a match that worked. Their priority was on the quality of the match, not the quantity of their commission.
I interviewed most candidates first by phone, partly for sake of efficiency and partly so that I would avoid the biases inherent in a face-to-face meeting. If that went well, I’d set up an in-person interview. I had two, sometimes three, objectives during an interview.
First, to make the candidate feel comfortable. The only time I had traditionally sought a job, just after college in a weak economy, I had sent a hundred resumes to architects in the area. I received few interviews and no offers. I did not know how to present myself back then, especially considering that I had an unconventional resume. Most importantly I learned what it feels like to be on the other side of the desk, how concerned I was about how I presented myself.
My first task was to connect to the real person opposite me. Sometimes this would be a direct issue. I can see you’re nervous, can I get you some water? I know that feeling nervous always makes me thirsty. I’d often offer some personal glimpse of me, to make me seem more human. Sometimes I would flatter. Other times I would discuss irrelevant events. I allowed my instinct to guide me on what technique to use.
Occasionally, I would spend the entire interview on this first objective, without success. I would not hire this person. There might be somebody great in there, but waiting to find out until after hiring him or her was not worth the risk.
Sometimes I didn’t feel good about the personality I saw within the candidate. They were not a fit to the company’s culture. I didn’t need to analyze why. I would not hire them.
If I did get a glimpse of the person within, and found a possible match, I would move on to my second objective – which was to make the person uncomfortable. Now, this might seem contradictory, or even cruel. But, we, this stranger and I, were here this day to make a very important decision. Would we be good for each other? Without an honest answer to this question, one or the other of us would be very unhappy. Maybe it would take a day, or a month, or a year, but we would be unhappy.
So, I sped things up, asked questions quickly, switched from subject to subject, from time period to time period. I would interrupt. I would allow long periods of silence, waiting to see what might come out. I would ask my two favorite questions, in order. What do you see as your greatest strength? And. What do you see as your greatest weakness? One would think that experienced interviewees would have smooth answers to these. And, perhaps they did, but I tried to have them off-balance enough by then to illicit an honest answer. It usually worked.
On the strength question, if I got answers like programming C++ on Unix workstations I would probe one more time, clarifying that I was looking for strengths of character, not experience. Those that said something similar again were not hired. To survive the turbulence inherent in a startup, one needs to be invested in the company vision, well beyond the surface.
On the weakness question, if I got answers like I have a temper or I have difficulty working with others, and, believe it or not, I often did – well, they would not be hired.
There was one other question that was very important, but not always critical. What do you think about what we are up to here? Now, if this was a candidate for a position in which understanding of company strategy was not critical then I would only be disappointed if they didn’t display knowledge of what the heck we did. If this was an interview for a strategic position and they hadn’t even spent enough energy to open up our website, then I would not hire this person.
The third objective was included only when needed, which was to actually get the person hired. This was exercised when I made the decision to hire a person early in the interview.
You see, I was doing so much interviewing, up to eight interviews per day, that I got a pretty good feel for people very quickly. I was in the groove. In almost all cases, I would know whether I would hire or approve a candidate within the first five minutes of an interview. In the case where I knew there was no match, I wanted to say, Thank you for coming in today… that will be all. However, out of respect for the self-image of the candidate I would try to last for at least thirty torturous minutes before halting the interview. I often used this time to honestly tell people that I think you’re looking for the wrong sort of position for yourself. My advice may not have always been welcome, but I was adamant about how important it was for both employers and employees to see this process as a partnership. Not servitude.
A woman who became a senior manager at Neoforma later told me that the candidates she sent to me for approval were intimidated by me. I told her that this was intentional, my objective being to make the right far-reaching decisions in a very short time. She didn’t say so, but I felt that she thought me to be a not-so-nice person.
Anyway, when I was convinced that I had a winner, I would move on to the close. I would quickly identify the big issue for this candidate. It might be helping people, or a good salary, or stock options, or challenging work. Whatever it was, without indicating that I had already made a decision, I would work this issue into the interview. I learned to become very good at this. There were only two candidates that I wanted who got away.
Of the first hundred employees of Neoforma, I hired, directly or indirectly, about seventy-five of them. Jeff interviewed many of them and shaped the decisions too. While this was a very diverse group of people, they shared a core set of values. A core culture.
When we had somewhere around fifty employees, I felt that I should start allowing other managers to do their own hiring. The fact was that the hiring process exhausted me. I wanted a break. This was a big mistake. They hired some individuals that did not fit the culture at all. The culture was too young to hand over. Just as bad, many key positions weren’t being filled. Hiring took intense discipline. The job market was so hot that waiting even a few days to review a resume or set up an interview meant losing good candidates. I had undervalued the hiring experience and instinct I had gained. I jumped back into the hiring melee, headfirst.
Each time I opened myself up to a new employee I paid a toll. Kinda like getting married seventy-five times. Or, more like having seventy-five children and several hundred grandchildren, trying to nurture and support each one according to his or her needs.
It was tough enough to support those that we hired, but the interview process itself was devastating to me. As long as I can remember, I have loved building teams – gathering together different people to create something new. Little clubs in childhood – the high school fish business – teams for architectural design projects. I loved the creative possibilities of a group. I took the membership process very seriously. I had experienced the results of carelessness. I brought my full attention to each interview, however tired I was.
I have never articulated it to anyone, but my strength and weakness in these situations is my innate empathy. No matter how straight my facial expression is – if the candidate scratched her head, my head would itch. If she displayed nervousness, I would feel tension. If she expressed frustration, I would feel helplessness. My feelings would guide the interview. This empathy would assure the fairest chance for the candidate, but it would leave me vulnerable.
The first sign of this vulnerability came early in Neoforma history on a fairly light day of interviewing.
It was a weekend. We were interviewing a few candidates for our first marketing position. This was a key position, so Jeff was in the interviews too.
The first interview started normally. The candidate, a grizzled man in early middle age, had a creative and noteworthy background. He was a bit stiff but the getting comfortable part of the interview seemed to go fine. Then we began jumping around a bit. Asking detailed questions, seeking clarification, doubting assumptions.
His break with reality was instantaneous. One moment he was cheerful, lucid and engaged, the next he was completely out of control. He stood up, speaking gibberish, visibly shaking with anger, and walked out of the room. We heard him ranting all the way out of the building. Jeff and I simply sat there, eyes wide and hearts beating loudly, gazing at each other with looks of confusion and dissociation. When we were calmed enough to discuss what had happened, neither of us could identify where or why things had suddenly gone awry. We couldn’t see how we caused his reaction, but based on the intensity of this reaction we were particularly cautious when we entered and left the building for a week or so.
I wish I had been able to rationally dismiss this misadventure completely. But he had hit me when my door was open. Pieces of his dementia stuck inside, along with other emotional question marks that had penetrated before. Not much I could do but cover it up again and move on.
About a year later I reluctantly went along with an idea that one recruiter proposed. She felt strongly that the best way to quickly fill three of our open positions would be for them to host a daylong interview session. The idea was for them to line up a series of unscreened candidates for us to interview one after the other in their offices. This recruiter felt that the combination of us being undistracted, and presented with all of the candidates at once, without preconceptions, would result in an improved chance of success.
I was skeptical, because my filtering process was fairly mature and effective at that point. However, I was willing to try anything that might speed the process or improve the results.
Stephen, our head of sales, joined me that day. We were seated in a simple room behind a table with two copies of a resume for us to review. We had a few minutes to review the resume, then the candidate would be brought in and the recruiter would step out for a prescribed period of time. The rule that everyone had agreed to was that we could stop the interview at any time without the need for niceties. Several interviews went fine, varying in quality from poor to great.
The moment one candidate for Systems Administrator walked in the room, we knew that we were in for trouble. He was terribly nervous and wouldn’t make eye contact. Stephen said, “So tell us about yourself.” What happened next is still vivid to me today. This candidate started describing his childhood. He went on through every event of his development, detouring to debate with himself about the decisions he made. This detour would lead him in new, seemingly unconnected directions. And so on. This might not seem like such a big deal, but you had to be there. He talked at breathtaking speed, like the guys reading the disclaimers at the end of car commercials. And he talked non-stop for twenty minutes. Never pausing for us to ask another question. He seemed to glance directly at us occasionally. I assume that he must have imagined us nodding – go on.
One might think that we would simply interrupt him and get the thing over with, but we were entranced. His monologue was so otherworldly that Stephen and I were unable to even glance at each other. We were glued to our chairs. Captured in a spell. I am not exaggerating here. It felt just like the time in Mexico City that I had chomped down, without hesitation, an entire hot pepper. As I found myself floating well above my body, I glanced down at the frozen looks on the faces of those sitting across from me. They were aghast that I had just chewed this thing up and swallowed it. It was only then that I realized what was happening. Being colorblind I had not noticed that the dish was laced with peppers. I had simply assumed that I was crunching some delightful vegetable. I like spicy food, but this was something else entirely. Anyway, that feeling of floating out-of-body – that is exactly what this interview felt like.
Just as suddenly as he started, he stopped. And said, “And that pretty much sums everything up.” He paused, waiting for the next question I suppose. After an awkward silence, one of us managed to gather our senses long enough to say, “OK … well … thank you for your time.” He didn’t seem to believe that his time was up already. We had asked only one question. But when he concluded that we really weren’t going to ask any more questions he eventually got up and left the room. As usual, the recruiter came in immediately to debrief us. He was already in the door before Stephen and I looked at each other and audibly gasped. We had the giggles. We couldn’t believe that this had just happened. The recruiter looked at us with an expression of confusion. I said, “Do you have any idea what we have just been through?” And she didn’t. We tried to describe the experience. I could tell that she believed we were exaggerating. The guy had interviewed fine with her.
We finished the rest of our interviews for the day. Even though we actually hired three candidates that day, I told the recruiter that we would never do this again. One of these candidates would work out very well – the other two would end disastrously. This was much worse than our average, so I can’t recommend this process.
… That’s the end of the removed section. I then went on to observe the long-term impact of the decisions made above. I welcome your comments and stories.