Principle based hiring: focus on what matters

Standard

tl;dr: know which principles matter to your team, and pursue them ruthlessly in engineering candidates.

You’ve probably heard this before: Hire good people and get out of their way.  Problem is: hiring is hard because “good“ is so subjective.

If you put principles at the center of your hiring process, “good” becomes less subjective.  It breaks down like this:

  • People provide value in many ways
  • The value someone provides is based on a number of principles
  • The goal of interviewing is to determine if a person represents the right principles for your team

Focusing more on principles has helped me change habits.  Over the last ten years, I stopped:

  • Weighing too much of my evaluation on one question
  • Asking gotcha or weed-out questions
  • Using the same exact questions for every candidate
  • Avoiding time spent on intangibles

And, as a result, I:

  • Had more fluidity in my questions, tailoring them to the candidate
  • Asked more open ended questions with a goal in mind
  • Spent more time on intangibles that mattered to my team and company

This post is meant to be a conversation starter about how to approach principles in hiring.  I’d like you to consider how they apply to your hiring process — to your team — so you can make hiring enjoyable and successful.

Data is not enough

To understand how people provide value, we often start with data. When we evaluate resumes and candidates, there are the usual suspects:

  • What school someone is from, what degree or GPA
  • How well they answer a pre-formed set of questions
  • What companies they worked for
  • How many years of experience they have

These are all important, but it is possible for someone to look and sound great and still not be a great fit.  When this happens, it’s possible to see:

  • Role confusion: you learn over the first six weeks that a candidate is not as experienced as you thought. Maybe they are struggling with projects someone in their role should be able to handle, or maybe they take too long. Worst case, they just can’t get the work done when you needed someone who could. Now you have a problem.
  • Poor mutual fit: this is reflected by motivation and morale. When a candidate’s motivations and principles don’t line up with the team they joined, you can have unnecessary conflict or a lack of motivation in the team as well as in your new hire. This is hard to fix.
  • Turnover: when you have a mixture of bad mutual fit and improper skills for the role, you will end up with turnover — either for your team or for the company.  The best case is you find another team that fits the hire while the worst case is you have to let someone go.  Either one is very expensive to yourself, your team and the individual.
  • Declined offers: the thing about being shallow in your hiring is that intelligent candidates know it’s happening. Your company is judged based on the kind of interviews you do and what questions you ask. If you seem mechanical in delivery or process, it’s easy to spot, and it’s easy to pass on it.

Why does this happen? Because raw data does not tell you enough about someone’s principles. For example, you can’t tell if someone has a life-long passion for building things based on what school they went to or how they answer your FizzBuzz interview question.

Aside from being soft on principles, question-based or score-based regimens can actually promote “maybes”.  For example — if you had a 4-point scale, what do you do with a 3 out of 4?  What about a 2.5 out of 4?  Or do you only hire 4′s?  How do scores map to solid decisions?

Mapping data onto principles

Data is important, just not enough. You can give data more purpose and value by mapping it to principles.

Consider the SAT. When someone takes the SAT, their score matters, but by itself it is not the best indicator of potential or success.  When schools evaluate potential students, they aren’t just looking at SAT scores — extra-curricular activities and demonstrated leadership matter as well.  Why?  Because universities don’t just want smart people — they want successful people.

The SAT maps to fundamentals.  Using the college example, consider these mappings:

  • SAT score: is this person smart enough to learn (the SAT)?
  • Extra-curricular activities: does this person have the ability to manage their time?
  • Leadership in the community: does this person have good emotional intelligence?
  • Course selection and diversity: does this person have a passion for learning?

The SAT is just one piece of the puzzle for a college to determine if someone is smart enough to learn.  Likewise, for engineers, there are many data points.  Here is how they might map to principles:

  • Past experience, personal projects, open source contributions, portfolio, hobbies, github activity: Does this engineer have a passion for building things?
  • Blogs, conference talks, books written, references: Does this engineer understand things well enough to teach them?
  • Specific projects, real-life examples, mistakes made, attack vector exercises: Does this engineer think about security day-to-day, or do they just read about it?
  • Syntax, code questions, sample code: Is this engineer as good at [language/framework/area] as they claim they are?  Do they have what we need?

Mapping data onto principles clarifies why data is important.  This leads to clearer, more confident hiring decisions — people adhere to principles or they don’t.  If they don’t support the principles you value, you don’t hire them.

Subsequently, discussions in round-ups or debriefs should be focused on whether or not an engineer meets the right principles, not how well they answered a particular question.

Customizing for the role

Once you’ve covered some of the engineering basics it makes sense to focus on a particular area.  Depending on your team, this could mean distributed computing, front-end optimization or application security — or something else.

One of my favorite questions is around front-end optimization.  I’d ask, “What are your best practices for front-end engineering?”

  • Simple enough, but what do I really want to know?
  • What they can build, but also how they build things.
  • Does this engineer build things the right way?
  • Has this engineer actively improved the way they build things?
  • Does this engineer follow standards?
  • Does this engineer suffer from not-in-house (NIH) syndrome?

Those types of answers are hard to measure and not found with your typical algorithm or FizzBuzz questions.  If you don’t get to answering these, you’ll never quite be sure about someone — or as sure as you’d like to be.

For me, the best thing about this question is that it’s simple and flexible.  I can always remember this question, there’s no right answer, and it’s open ended enough to let me take it wherever I need to.  I can dig deeper on technical details or dig deeper on direct experience — whatever I need to do in order to get at the engineer’s principles.

What kinds of domain-specific questions would matter to your team?  How would you like an engineer to build things?  How would you get that out of your short time with them?

Final word

If all else fails, try to understand:

  • What kind of person are they?  Would you want to work with them? How do they handle feedback?  Are they a good person?  How do they work with a team?
  • What can they build?  Do they build teams, products, libraries, utilities or cultures? What do they _love_ to build? Do they do it in their free time?  Could they build your product?
  • How do they build? What are their engineering philosophies?  What are their best practices?  Did they help define them?  Do they actively improve these over time?
  • How do they approach metrics?

If you understand these about your team, you can intentionally look for candidates whose principles line up with yours.  When that happens, you have a situation where your candidate is more likely to be successful. I’ve seen this work time and again, and it leads to stronger performance, better culture and higher retention.

You’ll notice some trends here:

  • These aren’t simple questions to answer.  You need all sorts of data and directed questions in order to form an answer.  There is no silver bullet question.
  • They are very hard to quantify.  Intangibles and other things that matter usually are hard to define or measure.
  • It’s not something you apply a point scale to.  People practice a principle or they don’t — there is no ‘try’ or ‘sort of’.

And that’s why interviewing is an art.  Your data and questions are all signals, but in the end, what allows you to really make sense out of it is what your principles are and how well the person you’re talking to practices them.

Remember: It’s hard to hire good people and get out of their way if your definition of good is flawed.  Know which principles matter to your team, and pursue them ruthlessly.

2013: The year in pictures

Standard

I’ve taken a lot of photos over the past years — about 60,000. One of the cool things about being a photo nut is being able to look back and remember the moments you’ve had.

Capturing time and memories is one of the powerful things about photos. So many things come back to my mind just from a photo: sounds, smells, feelings, lighting, people, laughter and music.

So here are five of my favorites from 2013. I wanted to share a little about why they are special to me and how I shot them. If you’d like to look through more, I’ve created this set for 2013 on flickr.

1. Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia

cathedral

Tucked away near the gothic district of Barcelona lies this old church. The photo was taken near the entrance, hand-held, with a 16-35mm f/4 lens. Settings: f/4, 16mm, 1/25s

Why I love this photo:

  • Contrast of colors. The lighted dome represents purity and sanctity, while the area below is dark, dirty and imperfect. Not sure how to put it, but the contrast between the two makes my eyes happy — like pizza for my eyes.
  • Symbolism of the architecture. To me, the photo symbolizes the struggle of man and the difference between who we strive to be and who we actually are.
  • The size of the place. The cathedral was enormous, and I couldn’t imagine how hard it would have been to build it back in the 14th century.
  • Gargoyles.  The outside is littered with gargoyles, and I remember going on the roof to see the city from the top.  The wind was crazy, but it was worth it.

2. Sagrada Família

sagrada família

This photo of Sagrada Família, Barcelona’s most famous landmark, is one of many I shot while in Barcelona. I shot this particular photo with an 85mm 1.4/f, handheld. Settings: f/2.8, 85mm, 1/100s

This photo reminds me of a spaceship. It is the canopy above the main altar. The inner dome is littered with very ornate decorations and bathes the altar in sunlight. It looks like something from another world — something man couldn’t possibly have built.

3. Point Arena Light

point arena light

The Point Arena Light is a lighthouse in a pretty remote part of northern California, about 100 miles northwest of Point Reyes. It sits on a thin peninsula overlooking the Pacific Ocean. This picture was taken from the very top of the lighthouse, handheld, with a 16-35mm f/4 lens. Settings: f/4.0, 16mm, 1/60

This picture reminds me of our last trip before Ella was born. It was the last time we’d take a trip with just us — Jaime, the dogs and myself. It was a time to think: about being a father, of the changes to come. And, yes, a little bit of worrying and convincing each other things would be okay. Luckily, they would be.

4. Hopes and Dreams

ella

Ella was born on May 12, 2013. It was the happiest day of my life. She was born with dark blue eyes and black hair. As she grew, her hair turned light brown and her eyes turned a lighter shade of blue, getting even lighter in the middle. This photo was taken with a 105mm f/2.8 macro lens. Settings: f/4.0, 105mm, 1/60s

This photo reminds me of how I feel about Ella, sure, but it also represents how I feel about time. Ella, pictured here at about 5 months old, has an entire lifetime ahead of her. So many things to do, so many firsts and a world of possibilities before her. What fits in a lifetime is overwhelming — and she’s just starting.

When I look at this photo, I think about all of the things she will experience in her life. My hopes, her dreams — I hope she is fortunate enough to live well and reach her dreams.

5. A Place to Sit

chair

I started my new job on August 19, 2013. After nearly 10 years at Mozilla, which included the Firefox 1.0 launch and many different milestones, I joined Box. This is a photo of a bench at a ranch house in Santa Rosa. I was at a team off-site with engineering leaders, and it was the first time I really got to know some of my peers. It was taken with my trusty 16-35mm f/4, hand-held. Settings: f/4.0, 35mm, 1/200

I sat in this chair for a bit earlier that morning thinking about my life. I thought about the folks I left behind at Mozilla — there are so many memories, and I will always cherish them. I thought about my new colleagues, what was to come and my future at Box. I sat in that chair, between two worlds: the world I came from, and the world I was joining. I felt nostalgic, but after a while two feelings surfaced above all others: I felt lucky and grateful.

What a Year

Among other things, we had our first child, I changed jobs, I went to Europe for the second time, I officiated a wedding and said goodbye to my uncle Craig. It was a full year — a year of change, love and diapers.

To all of you who have helped me along the way: thank you. Let’s make 2014 just as awesome.

If you have time, check out my entire 2013 set.

Calibration

Standard

Every once in a while, if you’re a manager, you’ll find yourself in a massive meeting with other managers talking about performance evaluation.  If you’re lucky, it’s only 2 hours.  If you are growing fast, it might be 2-5 hours.

Either way, you’re probably asking yourself: what is the point of these meetings?! Well, the goal of these meetings is to make sure you recognize accomplishments consistently across your org.  Before you scoff at it, consider what might happen if you didn’t:

  • A worker in another group might get a higher rating with half the work (or, via poorer quality of work)
  • Some teams or managers would promote unfairly or too quickly
  • Workers would reach positions of importance without the competence needed to succeed at that level

Consider the Law of Crappy People from bhorowitz:

For any title level in a large organization, the talent on that level will eventually converge to the crappiest person with the title.”

I consider this to be true — we tend look at the level above us, find the crappiest person, lean back and exalt, “WTF — I’m better than Billy!!!  He can barely tie his shoes.  If that guy is a Level 70 Unicorn, I should be a Level 70 Unicorn.  Ugh!”

Two things:

  1. Don’t limit yourself by comparing yourself to the worst.  Instead, compare yourself to the best person at the next level — or better yet, the best damn engineer/designer/whatever at the company.  I think it’s self-defeating to adopt an obsession with titles and get wrapped up comparing yourself to the worst person with a title/level above yours.  It’s not a great way to make progress.
  2. Calibration and consistency is critical to morale.  Because we all tend to do this anyway, calibration and consistency in gauging performance is critical.  If the worst person at a given level is _really bad_ it demoralizes people bit by bit, one day at a time.  That’s why it’s important for managers to have this meeting — to make sure we get treated fairly and consistently.

At Box, we take care of people and we handle calibration well — it’s one of the reasons I’m proud to work at Box.  My hope is that if you work somewhere where managers don’t do this you should speak up — and push for change.  The adverse side effects of not handling calibration are devastating.

Being a Dad

Standard

Hopes and Dreams

How could I feel so much love for this little person I’ve never met?

I asked myself that when I first held our daughter.  Ella turns six months old tomorrow and I get the same strong, inexplicable feeling when I hold her.

The first time I met Ella, I cried.  I hid it well, but I cried.  Mostly, I smiled.  My cheeks hurt.  My heart swelled.

From the first day, I liked to watch her sleep.  As I watch her dream, I am in awe of the stark contrast between Ella and what amounts to a lifetime of experiences yet to come.  A clean slate, new beginning and sheer, utter innocence.

I envy her — I wish I could see the world without judgement or analysis.  To see things for what they are is a gift a grown man like me isn’t capable of.

What is to come?  Crawling, walking, first words, solid food (stinkier poops!) and so much laughter.  I hope to see her learn to ride a bike, throw a ball, swim, play music and run around in circles for no reason.  I want to be there.  I get to be a kid again, and I will be her sidekick.  Yes!

Before Ella was born, I spoke about how liberating being a father would be for me.  I was ready to be a dad because I was tired of focusing so much energy on things that didn’t matter.  I had to let go.  I would have someone else to take care of.  My own worst critic just got a lot busier with someone more important.

She freed me.  I was able to breathe.  In a way, she’s saved me from myself.

There are moments where Ella stops and looks up at me, almost to say, “hey Dad, you’re silly.”   In that moment, not a whole lot else matters.

Not the apathy of politics, the pain and misfortune in this world, the environment, chores, work, video games.  My faults, insecurities and baggage — it all melts away, like the crowd to a stage actor in the spotlight.  All wiped away — for that moment — by a smile, sound or touch.

Being a father is great, better than expected, and I try hard every day to just to enjoy it.  I try to see and accept these moments for what they are — nothing more, nothing less. Life is simpler, happier now. I have Ella and Jaime to thank for that.

Leadership is simple and simple is hard

Standard

It’s been a while since the last time I wrote a summary of what I had learned about leadership. This post is about some of the general concepts I’ve picked up along the way — partially so I have them written down, mostly so I can share them.

Mind you — there’s no panacea to be found, just guidelines. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I just try to absorb as much as I can.

Management philosophy: lolwut?

A common question I get from folks: “What is your management philosophy?”

My first response to this question is to ask if you think management and leadership are related, mutually exclusive or complimentary. If I had to boil it down, leadership is your ability to motivate people. Management is how well you execute. I’ve also heard that management is doing things right while leadership is doing the right things.

However you define these, I don’t see how you do one without the other. Lean too far in one direction, you’re a babbling prophet with great intentions. Lean too far the other way, you’re a lonely, walking and talking autobot. Both are undesirable fates not meant for humans.

Let’s just say I strive for competency in both and always will.

A useful list of stolen wisdom

I still need to answer the question, which leads to a discussion about non-hierarchical empowerment. I don’t think leadership or management philosophies have a 1-minute elevator pitch, though.

To answer in long form, I constantly draw on a series of idioms, quotes and principles I’ve accumulated over time. Some of them I have borrowed permanently from other leaders, and I’ll link to sources. Others are just things I say all the time. Let’s run through these:

  1. Start with the why, ask questions about how and the what takes care of itself
  2. Hire great people and get out of their way
  3. An engineering team isn’t an assembly line — and shouldn’t be run like one
  4. Success is the quality of one’s effort
  5. The only time I’ll get mad at you is when you don’t try
  6. Look for humility and faith — without those, you have nothing to work with
  7. Know where people want to go and help them get there
  8. Push power to the edges, and find a way to have decisions happen where information is
  9. Work is like improv
  10. No assholes!
  11. Does this have to be said by me? Does it have to be said now? Does it have to be said at all? (Mike Shaver/Mike Beltzner/Canada)
  12. Listen like you’re wrong, fight like you’re right (John Lilly)
  13. Don’t whine, don’t complain, don’t make excuses (John Wooden)

No, you won’t find this stuff in textbooks

Being asked about management and leadership so many times last summer made me realize my answers seem obvious. Five minutes into spewing statements like the above and it sounds “textbook”. I actually got this feedback once after an interview. To that, I ask: what textbook? I’d like to read it.

The truth is you won’t find the answers in just one book. They are all over the place. Many of these concepts are relatively simple or common sense, but most books, blogs or articles work hard at uncovering an undeniable truth:

Simple is really, really hard.

iPhones, web search, airplanes, TCP, cars, 4GLTE — if you look around we are surrounded by amazing, complex things we take for granted. Do you realize how amazing it is that we can fit 40,000 vinyl records into our pocket for less than the cost of a television? Is it easy to give people access to data anywhere they are? Hell no. Simple concepts, impossible delivery.

Management and leadership both have many simple concepts that are difficult to handle. They can be harder than deterministic systems because people are difficult. John Taffer (from Bar Rescue – love this show) always says, “I can fix bars, but I can’t fix people.”

tl;dr

If all else fails, watch this:

And this:

Inspiring people sounds easy but it’s damn near impossible to do unless you believe in what you’re saying. The hardest part of being a leader is putting yourself out there — to be humble, vulnerable but confident all at once. While you do that, you have to constantly fight your urge to take over, take full control. Because leadership is not about power or control, it’s about creating an environment. That is what makes you a vehicle for your mission or idea. That is what makes you a force people are inspired by. Simple, right? Right.

Simple, but really, really hard.

Change is Good

Standard

Having a child sure changes things. So does leaving your job after about 10 years of service. Naturally, I decided to make life interesting and tackle both at the same time.

Tomorrow I’ll be joining the engineering team at Box. Box is aiming to change the way people work and communicate — I’m excited about joining a great team and culture. It’s going to be awesome; even Ella is excited:

Ella in her new gear

So how have I spent the last two months? Well:

  • Watching Ella grow up way too fast
  • Traveling to Oregon, Yosemite and Mammoth
  • Riding my bike
  • Turned 35
  • Took time to reflect on my time at Mozilla, including replying to all of the emails I got when I left (I will miss you folks!)
  • Playing basketball and softball
  • Catching up with old friends
  • Finally getting around to finishing Torchlight (I & II)
  • Reading up on some tech and playing with some koans

It’s been a great summer. Living in the moment, being able to focus on just being a dad, cherishing this rare time in Ella’s life with Jaime by my side has been a blessing.

Now it’s time to get to work, which will be about building things and having fun doing it.

Change is good.

Thirty-five

Standard

H1 at night

I distinctly remember sitting on the yellow fire hydrant outside my house in Mililani. It had a flat top — kind of an odd hydrant, really — but it was cool to the touch, even on hotter days. I used to sit on it and daydream while my father worked on cars in the garage.

I thought about life, why I was here or who I’d be where I’d grow up. I was eight, but something inside of me has always been older. I wondered who I’d marry — if I would ever be? — and what kind of adult I’d be. Would I be a scientist? An astronaut? A basketball player? A doctor? I’d think of these things as I tossed tiny red lava rocks over the retaining wall.

The thinking continued through high school, where I developed a fondness for writing. Creative writing, American literature and advanced writing taught me to see the meaning behind things. A scarlet letter, the eyes of a child, a handful of dust or a rye field — to some they are mundane, nondescript, uninteresting things. To the right person they are heavier than the world or brighter than the sun.

The last few weeks have been important for me. At thirty-five I’ve found space to appreciate the meaning of time, love, patience, loyalty, humility, family and friendship. I’ve the time to daydream again and I’m excited about what’s to come.

Last but not least: Thank you. To my colleagues, friends, family and all of you who have helped me along the way — my eight-year-old self could not have imagined a better life filled with better people. I am definitely lucky. Also, 7-11 serves free Slurpees on my birthday. What?!

Here’s to the next thirty-five.