Management is the most noble of professions if it’s practiced well. No other occupation offers as many ways to help others learn and grow, take responsibility and be recognized for achievement, and contribute to the success of a team.
I sat down with Semil Shah at TechCrunch to talk about my experiences and the state of tech talent in Silicon Valley.
What I’m Reading - a Tech Talent Syllabus
A Primer on Hiring Technical People
- Hiring a Designer: How to Review Portfolios, Chad Thornton in Design Staff - For when you need to hire a designer, then start reading portfolios and realize you have no idea what they do or if they’re any good.
- How to Hire a Programmer, Jeff Atwood in Coding Horror - For when you need to hire an engineer, then start reading resumes and realize you have no idea what they do or if they’re any good.
- How to Find and Hire Amazing People, Adam Smith’s blog - This is Part 2 of (of at least 4) of the Xobni founder’s generous overview of his recruiting process and corresponding thought process.
- Programmer Nesting Rituals, Joel Spolsky in ERE.net - 10 things other than salary that engineers care about when deciding where to work. Any recruiter, even if they aren’t highly technical, should be able to speak to each of these. I try to have answered most these for candidates by the time we give an offer (whether they asked or not), and that’s served me well.
- Recruiting Programmers To Your Startup, Chris Dixon’s blog - He has a lot of great content on startups, but this post highlights two things that should form the basis for how you recruit engineers: 1. figuring out what’s important to them and how your opportunity satisfies that and 2. establishing a process through which you’ll attract, assess, hire and keep the best people you can find.
- The Guerrilla Guide to Interviewing (version 3.0), Joel Spolsky in Joel on Software - It’s a long post, but when you think about how much time you’ll spend interviewing engineers over the course of your career, the investment to make sure you’re using all those hours in little conference rooms wisely is worth it. Also, though it’s Version 3.0, the post is from 2006. Great interviewing advice, like great advice in general, is timeless. If you’re not an engineer who interviews engineers, skip to the last paragraph, which is relevant to interviews at any company at any stage:
“If you’re having trouble deciding, there’s a very simple solution. NO HIRE. Just don’t hire people that you aren’t sure about. This is a little nerve wracking the first few times—what if we never find someone good? That’s OK. If your resume and phone-screening process is working, you’ll probably have about 20% hires in the live interview. And when you find the smart, gets-things-done candidate, you’ll know it. If you’re not thrilled with someone, move on.”
- How to Interview an Engineer for your Startup, Tawheed Kader on TK’s Weblog - It’s always interesting to see how other startups do it. In this case I was surprised there wasn’t more emphasis placed on examining (non-pseudo, properly syntax-ed and structured) code during an in-person interview, particularly if the engineer works in a language they don’t know. I assume the author either has other interviewers focusing on coding or they insist on checking a portfolio or GitHub beforehand.
- Top Executive Recruiters Agree There Are Only Three True Job Interview Questions, Forbes Blog - I didn’t want to click on this because the title was so linkbaity, but it’s a good pragmatic approach to assessing candidates. Spoiler alert, the three “true” questions are 1. Can you do the job? 2. Will you love the job? and 3. Can we tolerate working with you?
- Building a world-class team: six mistakes I made early in my career, RethinkDB Blog - I was surprised to find this on a company rather than personal blog, and was impressed by the author’s humility and self-awareness. It covers really easy traps for well-intentioned but inexperienced or insecure hiring managers and interviewers.
Tech Company Culture
- How To Start a Movement, TED Talk by Derek Sivers - This 3 minute video will change the way you view leaders and followers. In a world of entrepreneur hero-worship, this reminds followers of their importance (because, after all, one lone person can’t become a leader until they’ve gained their first follower) and, if you’re the leader, the importance of nurturing the first few followers as equals.
- Fostering a Culture of Dissent, New York Times interviews Yammer CEO David Sacks. If your startup doesn’t have any way to measure performance, accountability or achievements, read this then implement it immediately:
“We just implemented this quarterly process called Morph. So Morph stands for Mission, Objectives, Results, People, and the H is for “How,” as in, “How did you do by the end of the quarter?”
Mission is just a one-sentence description of what’s your mission at the company? What do you have ownership of? And that really gets people to think about, O.K., what is my overall mission here?
Objectives are the top three, maximum five, things that you want to achieve this quarter. Results are about the metrics you’re going to use to measure those objectives. How do we know if we’ve achieved them? People refers to, what changes do we need to make in the organization to achieve this? Do we need to hire people? Do we need to create new teams? Do we need to change the way that a team is defined? And then at the end of the quarter we just ask, “How’d you do?”
- Twitter, The Startup That Wouldn’t Die, Brad Stone in Businessweek - Twitter’s regime change over the past year and half redefined the company right down to its core values. When I worked there, each week Ev and Biz would give a dual presentation on the history of Twitter to new hires, which included a walk-through of the then Core Values (e.g. “Take an Artful Approach” and “Remove Friction.”) Here, Brad Stone writes:
“The entire company eventually joined in and came up with a list of 10 principles, including “Grow our business in a way that makes us proud” and “Innovate through experimentation.” That may sound like the worst kind of corporate offsite banality, but Costolo says it helped. “If you don’t know where you’re going, it seems like any road will take you there,” he says.”
- How Facebook Finds The Best Design Talent and Keeps Them Happy, Fast Co.Design - This is pretty fluffy in the spoon-fed-PR sense, but no one can deny Facebook is scooping up the world’s best designers that you’d never ever think would want to work at Facebook, so Respect.
- Building the Machine that Builds the Business, Skillshare class - Mike Karnjanaprakorn, the CEO of Skillshare, really lives his product. He’s a voracious learner who’s not afraid to divulge the dark arts of entrepreneurship & building a company culture from scratch. I’ve recommended it before, but I enjoy his among countless similar blogs because there’s no vanity or pretense in his writing. He just wants to be helpful to those that could find his experiences helpful. If you’ve met him, you can hear his voice saying the closing line of this post:
“Today, it’s easier than ever to start a company, but building a company will always be as hard as it’s ever been. Wherever you are in your journey, understand that you will always make mistakes. But as long as you learn from them, improve, and stay focused to your mission; great things will almost always happen.”
Self Development (Inspiring commencement speeches are such a guilty pleasure).
- Life and How to Survive It. Adrian Tan, author of The Teenage Textbook, addressing the NTU class of 2008.
“Do not work. Find that pursuit that will energize you, consume you, become an obsession. Each day, you must rise with a restless enthusiasm. If you don’t, you are working.”
- We Are What We Choose. Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon addressing the Princeton class of 2010.
“I was working at a financial firm in New York City with a bunch of very smart people, and I had a brilliant boss that I much admired. I went to my boss and told him I wanted to start a company selling books on the Internet. He took me on a long walk in Central Park, listened carefully to me, and finally said, ‘That sounds like a really good idea, but it would be an even better idea for someone who didn’t already have a good job.’” Ha.
- Life is Long. Drew Faust, Harvard President, addressing the Harvard class of 2008 - I’m a YOLO (you only live once) person but not a “life is short” person so I liked this a lot. I had a paraphrased version of her quote on my blog for a long time.
“if you don’t try to do what you love — whether it is painting or biology or finance; if you don’t pursue what you think will be most meaningful, you will regret it. Life is long. There is always time for Plan B. But don’t begin with it.
I think of this as my parking space theory of career choice, and I have been sharing it with students for decades. Don’t park 20 blocks from your destination because you think you’ll never find a space. Go where you want to be and then circle back to where you have to be.”
- In Over Your Head - I have no idea who Julien Smith is, though I bet he’s intense but incredible to know. He’s got an unconventionally motivational blog. Read it. The post titles range from “How to Change Your Life: An Epic, 5,000-Word Guide to Getting What You Want” to “The Short and Sweet Guide to Being Fucking Awesome.” If it’s all TL;DR, just skip to the end of every post for gems like: ”We need more awesome people in this world, and I would like you to be one of them.” and “I plan to be unrecognizable in 5 years. I plan to surprise everyone.”
Peggy Olson on Negotiating
Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce Partner Roger Sterling walks into Peggy’s office to persuade her to do a major assignment last minute—and cover up that he’d fallen behind on it. She’s unmoved, so he tries to offer a small bribe.
Peggy: Hold on a second. You want me to work up an entire corporate image campaign for 10 bucks?
Roger: I can make you do it for nothing. I’m the boss.
Peggy: You’re right. The work is $10. The lie is extra.
Roger: Incredible. What do you make a week, sweetheart?
Peggy: Oh, you don’t know. That’s helpful…
Roger: You know, I could fire you.
Peggy: Great. There are some portfolios in Joan’s office. You could find someone tonight.
Roger: Why are you doing this to me?
Peggy: Because you’re being very demanding for someone who has no other choice. Dazzle me.
Roger: Fine. How much do you want?
Peggy: How much you got?
Roger: [flips through wallet] Four hundred dollars.
Peggy: Give me all of it.
Roger: Jesus. [hands it to her] This better be good.
Peggy: You want me to take your watch?
- Mad Men Season 5, Episode 5
What I’m Reading - Organizations, Culture and Self-Development
Tech Company Culture
- Building an Entrepreneurial Startup Culture and Creating a Product Focused Startup Culture - Mike Karnjanaprakorn, CEO of Skillshare, a company that knows who they are and where they want to go.
- How Tumblr Created a Design Culture With No Design Team - Fast Company Design. “We think the users are smart, and don’t need things ‘sold’ to them,” Peter Vidani says. “Keeping this in mind gets rid of the clutter, like labels and chatty copy.”
- Foursquare Tries a Bicoastal Approach to Engineering - AllThingsD. “Code doesn’t care where it’s written.” - Benjy Weinberger
- Netflix Culture: Freedom & Responsibility - The famous “Great workplace is stunning colleagues” slideshow
- How Gordon Moore Invented the Talent Economy (and Changed The World) - PandoDaily. “The introduction of venture capital essentially reversed these roles with capital now chasing talent. It is difficult to understate what a dramatic change this was. Instead of capital (the means of production) acquiring talent, Silicon Valley runs on the basis of talent acquiring capital.”
- What It Means To Work Here - Harvard Business Review. “A signature experience is a visible, distinctive element of an organization’s overall employee experience. In and of itself, it creates value for the firm, but it also serves as a powerful and constant symbol of the organization’s culture and values. The experience is created by a bundle of everyday routines, or signature processes, which are tricky for competitors to imitate precisely because they have evolved in- house and reflect the company’s heritage and the leadership team’s ethos.”
- Mentoring Millennials - Harvard Business Review. “In four years Millennials—the people born between 1977 and 1997—will account for nearly half the employees in the world.” In some companies [and most tech startups], they already constitute a majority.
- Management Quality Assurance - Ben Horowitz’s Blog. “Everyone in the technology industry seems to agree that people are paramount, yet nobody seems to be on the same page with what the people organization—Human Resources—should look like.” Using QA as an analogy for HR, Ben goes through exactly that.
- The Update, the Vent, and the Disaster - Rands in Repose. This is 1:1 101. So many people squander what could be the most valuable twenty minutes of their week by giving status updates. Also take The Rands Test for a close examination of your reporting relationships.
- When Smart People are Bad Employees - Ben Horowitz’s Blog. Three examples (the heretic, the flake, the jerk) of the smartest people in the company being the worst employees. When you interview someone who is clearly brilliant, as them about their previous company—you may spot one of these things.
- Sheryl Sandberg: Leveraging Relationships and Scaling Yourself - Stanford Entrepreneurial Thought Leader Lecture, 2009. I’ve listened to this entire lecture a dozen times and found it much more valuable than her famous “sit at the table” TED Women talk. (If this is an area of interest, check out the entire Stanford ETL series podcasts—like TED talks I can’t believe they’re free). She expands on advice nuggets like “go for growth, not trajectory” and explains “scaling yourself” and how to distinguish between those in your network who can help you, and those that will hire you—and leverage them accordingly.
- How Will You Measure Your Life? - Clayton Christensen, Harvard Business School. “The powerful motivator in our lives isn’t money; it’s the opportunity to learn grow in responsibilities, contribute to others, and be recognized for achievements.” … “If your attitude is that only smarter people have something to teach you, your learning opportunities will be very limited. But if you have a humble eagerness to learn something from everybody, your learning opportunities will be unlimited”
- Goal Obsession: The Flaw that Creates More Flaws - Marshall Goldsmith in Fast Company. The author of What Got You There Won’t Get You Here describes how goal obsession can turn us into self-absorbed schemers. We all know someone like this but may not have thought about why.
- The Talent Society, New York Times Opinion. “We have gone from a society that protected people from their frailties to a society that allows people to maximize their talents.”
Previous reading list found here.
Social Media Week begins Monday, February 13th. “Empowering Change Through Collaboration” is the global theme. #SMW12 happens across 21 cities and there are events happening all over San Francisco and Silicon Valley.
I really like Social Media Week because anyone interested can attend the panels and talks. Those in the “startup scene” often take in-person access to technology leaders for granted; and it’s nice for people who can’t spend thousands of dollars on conferences to not have to sit at home watching a livestream or waiting for bloggers to give a recap. SMW has a lot of speakers that usually only appear at the expensive or exclusive conferences. Although I am not one of said fancy people, I am giving a talk tomorrow. I’ll be discussing my favorite subject, engineer hiring and happiness, and taking a bunch of questions. The description is below, you can RSVP here to attend, and be sure to check out the schedule for events all week.
Technology leaders agree that the difference between good and exceptional software engineers can make or break a company. If compensation is any indicator, Stars add exponentially more value than their peers. Hiring just one “10x engineer” can translate to competitive advantage and millions in revenue. This has ignited a war for talent in Silicon Valley and beyond, but those with the deepest pockets don’t always win the best talent. So how are the underdogs able to compete?
What I’m Reading: Startup Hiring & Development
Also, here’s a more detailed “What I’m Reading” on tech company culture, organizational development, and managing yourself.
- Focus on building 10x teams, not on hiring 10x developers, Avichal Garg
- Engineering Management - Hiring, Yishan Wong
- In Silicon Valley, Buying Companies for their Engineers, New York Times
- Hiring the Best Is Your Most Important Task, Steve Jobs
- How to Hire Great Engineers For Your Startup, Sachin Rekhi
- The Definitive Guide to Recruiting in Good Times and Bad, Harvard Business Review
- Hiring With Your Gut Is The Worst Thing You Can Possibly Do, Geoff Smart
*Reblogs are not endorsements, particularly because there are lots of contradictory sentiments within.
“Hunter Walk, a long-time Director of Product Management at Google who has steered YouTube’s product side for years, recently decided that he wanted to spearhead YouTube’s social good efforts. Granted, the role he wanted didn’t exactly exist yet, but he managed to convince YouTube chief Salar Kamangar to let him create it.
Walk’s new, self-appointed mission: Bake ‘good’ into any part of YouTube he can.
The definition of ‘intra’preneur.
I hope to see many more leaps like this, especially covered in tech press. I’ve listened to star employees at the big startups dream about moving on to form the next PayPal Mafia; but there’s so much to improve, innovate and impact within the already-successful tech companies, especially those rich in goodwill and human and financial resources like YouTube.
I’m certain that more than a few future former foursquares will become phenomenal entrepreneurs someday; but one of my longer term talent goals here is to keep a culture where the win-win-win (for the employee, company and world) internal career moves don’t take much convincing.
How I Will Measure My Life
Before I came to Silicon Valley, the first twenty years of my life weren’t very interesting. I grew up mostly in Flint, Michigan (yes, of Michael Moore fame), which, if you’ve heard of it, is exactly like you imagine. If happiness is reality compared with your expectations, then I am the happiest person alive and little could change that for the rest of my life.
In self development, there’s your comfort zone, your panic zone, and your learning zone. Picture a target board with your comfort zone in the center. Despite some (literal and figurative) stray bullet holes, Flint was the bulls-eye. At 21 I’d already satisfied my major life goals. I was first person in my family to go to real college, achieving my goal height of 5’8”, and was going to be the first of my friends to make it not only out of Flint, but to California.
In 2006 I drove 2,500 miles west, parked, and got out in the panic zone. The economy in Silicon Valley was booming, everyone knew it—and acted like it. None of the hot tech companies wanted my resume, so I starting sending them other people’s. I hired engineers to all the top tech giants, save for one glaring omission. It was common knowledge that to get into Google, you had to go to Stanford or an Ivy. As the most desirable employer on the planet, it was their privilege and prerogative to only hire the Best of the Best, and my Big 10 degree didn’t cut it. As I found out later, there’s actually an internal chart saying so.
I never applied, I wouldn’t have had the guts. They found me. They offered me a contract position. I never asked how much I’d be paid, because I knew I’d take whatever it was, and I’d heard that because Google could hire whoever they wanted, they didn’t pay very well. They started me at $45 per hour, or $95,000 a year. No vacation or benefits.
Even in the contractor orientation, I was the only state school grad. After weeks of training, I was allocated to what was only referred to as “Yolanda’s team.” I thought I’d be put on something like Site Reliability Engineering or the Partner Solutions Organization so I didn’t know what that meant.
As it turned out, Yolanda, a Stanford MBA who’d been an investment banking VP and a Principal at Boston Consulting Group, was starting Google’s X Labs for People Operations—the Seal Team Six of staffing. It was all up and to the right from there.
We came up with strategic experiments and special projects that other groups were structurally inhibited from devoting time to. We also did unglamorous triage work and acted as a clearinghouse for orphaned and misfit candidates, but that let us partner with senior managers across Google globally. I went on to travel to four continents for Google and hired people to twelve different offices.
Yolanda helped me “convert” to become a full-time Googler. At Google, employees wore white badges and contractors donned the Red Badge of Shame. I called it the Red Badge of Courage, but I really hated it. There are thousands of Google contractors, but the badge embarrassed me. It seems silly, but getting that white badge significantly improved my self esteem.
I was later told I was individually selected for this team. That still amazes me, considering there was nothing about me on paper that could’ve impressed them. Working for Yolanda was the best thing that could have ever happened in my early career.
In “How Will You Measure Your Life?”, an article that has changed the course of my life, Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen writes that “management is the most noble professions if it’s practiced well. No other occupation offers as many ways to help others learn and grow, take responsibility and be recognized for achievement, and contribute to the success of a team.” If there’s nobility in good management, then Yolanda is royalty. Management is not my chosen career path, but the most valuable thing I could learn early on was how much of a difference having the right people in an organization makes.
As I embark on a new adventure in my career in Talent, I want to help people like I was back then. As important, I want to help connect them to people like Yolanda that see the potential of people like I was. The best part of my career (and life) has been helping people get to the most exciting moments in theirs, and the scale at which I’m able to do that is how I will measure my life.
When You Feel Like Quitting Your Startup
Don’t leave a startup because of politics or a bad manager. Quickly-growing organizations are also quickly-changing organizations; and these things have a way of working themselves out.
If you’re at your wits’ end and can’t take one more day, here’s my advice: pretend like you just resigned. You just met with your direct manager and announced that you’re leaving. You’ve been thinking and talking about it for months, and you just pulled the trigger. You’re giving two weeks’ notice so you can wrap up and transition your work, then you’re free.
Now that you’ve already put in your notice, you don’t have anything to lose by speaking your mind and giving immediate direct feedback on the things that are causing you to leave. Have a 1:1 coming up? Well this is your last one, so don’t just give status updates—tell your manager what’s broken and what’s going wrong for you. Haven’t had a 1:1 in three months? This is your last chance, so schedule one right now so you can tell your manager how you really think things are going and what could be different if you hadn’t been holding back your thoughts for so long. Ask your manager everything you’ve ever wanted to know about cultural problems and bad company decisions so you can get some closure before you leave forever.
Your coworkers and friends at the company? You haven’t told them you’re leaving yet and you only have a little bit of time left, so get to know them better, learn everything you can from the good ones, and make sure the ones you like and admire know it and know why. When they find out you’re leaving, they may not be surprised, but they’ll be sad. Make sure you give them a great last impression so they’ll genuinely wish you well in whatever you do next. Make sure the best ones and the ones destined for success will want to hire or work with you in the future under much better circumstances.
If you get an e-mail that would’ve really bothered you before you quit, now you get to politely explain why what someone just proposed doesn’t make sense, why their idea would be bad for the product or the culture, or why someone can’t treat their colleagues or reports that way. Call them out. Call every single thing out you see that’s wrong. You have friends at the company that will be staying, and by sticking up for them, you can make their lives easier. Don’t let anything slide, this is what got everyone here in the first place. So write what everyone’s thinking when they see that email. Write what important things someone didn’t think of before they sent it. Of course, even though you resigned, you don’t want to burn any bridges so you won’t be belligerent or rude, but even if you rock the boat, there’s nothing they can to do you because you’re already leaving.
At the end of two weeks, so how you feel. You know what I think? After doing this just a few times the first day or two, you’ll feel completely different. You’ve released your resentment and frustration by giving automatic, candid and completely honest feedback as soon as something happens. Doing this just a few times after holding it in can be so liberating it’ll change your entire perspective. You have no idea how much say you have in a company until you start actually saying things. You may have thought you have already stated your case and aired your grievances, but until you don’t let any messed up thing happen without someone recognizing it as such, your manager and everyone else may not have understood what you were trying to tell them or just how bad it is.
If, instead, after two weeks of treating every interaction and day at the company as one of your last you feel as negative as you did at the outset, or you felt better about some things but you still have the fundamental concerns, you’ve tested and proven your hypothesis and the conclusion is to leave. You’re exactly where you need to be, and now with certainty. That’s how to make a big decision. Congratulations!