Building a good team

“…and I know a few superstar programmers who could crank out a Fortran compiler by themselves in one week, and lots of programmers who couldn’t write the code to print the startup banner if they had six months.” – Joel Spolsky

Joel Spolsky runs StackOverflow and has some amazing articles. In this post I have abridged one of his articles on hiring quality staff and added my own emphasis.

The full article was written in 2006 and can be found here

On picking the right people:

You’re going to see three types of people in your interviews. At one end of the scale, there are the unwashed masses, lacking even the most basic skills for this job. They are easy to ferret out and eliminate, often just by asking two or three quick questions. At the other extreme you’ve got your brilliant superstars who write lisp compilers for fun, in a weekend, in Assembler for the Nintendo DS. And in the middle, you have a large number of “maybes” who seem like they might just be able to contribute something. The trick is telling the difference between the superstars and the maybes, because the secret is that you don’t want to hire any of the maybes. Ever.

Why am I so hardnosed about this? It’s because it is much, much better to reject a good candidate than to accept a bad candidate. A bad candidate will cost a lot of money and effort and waste other people’s time fixing all their bugs. Firing someone you hired by mistake can take months and be nightmarishly difficult, especially if they decide to be litigious about it. In some situations it may be completely impossible to fire anyone. Bad employees demoralize the good employees. And they might be bad programmers but really nice people or maybe they really need this job, so you can’t bear to fire them, or you can’t fire them without pissing everybody off, or whatever. It’s just a bad scene.

OK, I didn’t tell you the most important part—how do you know whether to hire someone?

In principle, it’s simple. You’re looking for people who are

Smart, and

Get things done.

People who are Smart but don’t Get Things Done…have a tendency to show up at your office, coffee mug in hand, and try to start a long conversation about the relative merits of Java introspection vs. COM type libraries, on the day you are trying to ship a beta.

People who Get Things Done but are not Smart will do stupid things, seemingly without thinking about them, and somebody else will have to come clean up their mess later. This makes them net liabilities to the company because not only do they fail to contribute, but they soak up good people’s time.

On how to interview properly:

The worst kind of interviewer is the blowhard. That’s the kind who blabs the whole time and barely leaves the candidate time to say, “yes, that’s so true, I couldn’t agree with you more.” Blowhards hire everyone; they think that the candidate must be smart because “he thinks so much like me!”

The second worst kind of interviewer is the Quiz Show Interviewer. This is the kind of person who thinks that smart means “knows a lot of facts.” They just ask a bunch of trivia questions about programming and give points for correct answers. i.e.

“What’s the difference between varchar and varchar2 in Oracle 8i?”

This is a terrible question. There is no possible, imaginable correlation between people that know that particular piece of trivia and people that you want to hire. Who cares what the difference is? You can find out online in about fifteen seconds! Remember, smart does not mean “knows the answer to trivia questions.”

Anyway, software teams want to hire people with aptitude, not a particular skill set…it’s better to hire people that are going to be able to learn any new technology rather than people who happen to know how to make JDBC talk to a MySQL database right this minute.

I am very, very careful to avoid anything that might give me some preconceived notions about the candidate. If you think that someone is smart before they even walk into the room, just because they have a Ph.D. from MIT, then nothing they can say in one hour is going to overcome that initial prejudice. If you think they are a bozo because they went to community college, nothing they can say will overcome that initial impression.

On how to identify high-calibre individuals:

One: Look for passion. Smart people are passionate about the projects they work on. They get very excited talking about the subject. They talk quickly, and get animated. Being passionately negative can be just as good a sign. “My last boss wanted to do everything on VAX computers because it was all he understood. What a dope!” There are far too many people around that can work on something and not really care one way or the other. It’s hard to get people like this motivated about anything.

Two: Good candidates are careful to explain things well. I have rejected candidates because when they talked about their previous project, they couldn’t explain it in terms that a normal person could understand. Often CS majors will just assume that everyone knows what Bates Theorem is or what O(log n) means. If they start doing this, stop them for a minute and say, “could you do me a favor, just for the sake of the exercise, could you please explain this in terms my grandmother could understand.” At this point many people will still continue to use jargon and will completely fail to make themselves understood. Gong! You don’t want to hire them, basically, because they are not smart enough to comprehend what it takes to make other people understand their ideas.

Three: Look for signs that they took a leadership role. A candidate might say, “We were working on X, but the boss said Y and the client said Z.” I’ll ask, “So what did you do?” A good answer to this might be “I got together with the other members of the team and wrote a proposal…” A bad answer might be, “Well, there was nothing I could do. It was an impossible situation.” Remember, Smart and Gets Things Done. The only way you’re going to be able to tell if somebody Gets Things Done is to see if historically they have tended to get things done in the past. In fact, you can even ask them directly to give you an example from their recent past when they took a leadership role and got something done—overcoming some institutional inertia.