2010-11-10

Smart and Gets Things Done Isn't Enough (redux)

I've recently had the pleasure of helping some clients with staffing needs. I haven't been helping from a recruiting perspective but more from a candidate vetting and team building perspective. I have long been from the Spolsky school of thought on hiring. Candidates should be smart and get things done.

Joel's premise is very simple. When recruiting, don't worry about years of experience, educational background, publications and so on. Instead ask yourself two key questions. Is the candidate smart, and can they get things done? If so hire, if not pass. For a town like Indianapolis, this can be a great way to hire, especially if you are using a technology stack that most candidates don't have experience in.

The thinking behind this premise is that if someone is smart, learning a new technology/language/etc is trivial. That's the easy part. I've personally found this to be very true and often hired people with little to no experience in the technologies employed at a company. But, smarts isn't enough. If you're a PhD with loads of publications and can't code your way out of a paper bag or worse, just can't produce, then you don't meet the second criteria. Hire people who get things done.

Recently I've been helping a client hire a senior systems engineer. As I started talking to potential candidates I realized that I needed to add a third criteria. Understands the fundamentals. I look at it this way. If I was looking for a doctor, smart and gets things done only gets them so far. If they can't diagnose, based on experience and understanding some fundamentals, I don't want them as a doctor. There are just some things that doctors need to know.

Granted, I'm not hiring anyone that will be in a life and death situation. However, there are some things in my opinion that people need to know. It's not a lot, but it's important. If you're a system engineer and you can't tell me the difference between a switch and a hub, or what some basic RAID levels are and what good applications are for them, those just seem like basic fundamentals to me. If you're a software engineer and you can't give me a basic rundown of the differences between a hash table and a binary tree, those are fundamentals.

Can people learn the fundamentals? Sure. Of course. Absolutely. And a smart person will pick them up very quickly. However, while they're learning those fundamentals they're likely making mistakes, some that could be very costly to recover from. This isn't a new idea but my point is this. Knowing the fundamentals gives you a broader base for sound decision making, and great employees make sound decisions.

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