Hiring in Horsetown


Hiring good people is tough. Hiring great people, even harder. 

Aside from the first step of finding strong candidates for open positions there is the challenge of figuring out whether the person being interviewed can do the job and is the right fit for the company culture. My own history of evaluating candidates at the interview table has been hit and miss over my career. Some candidates we hired did not live up to expectations on the job. Some candidates who were questionable in the interview process turned out to be some of the best people I have worked with. I continue to ask myself how I can get better and saying YES to the good people and NO to the bad fits. 

Years ago there was a puzzler on the popular NPR radio show, Car Talk. The puzzler, basically a brain teaser, was called "A Haircut in Horsetown" and described a scenario of finding yourself in a small desert town named Horsetown and in urgent need of a haircut. Horsetown had two barbers with their own barbershops. The first barbershop was a mess. Hair was all over the floor. The barber was disheveled with a wrinkled shirt, dirty apron, and had an incredibly bad haircut. The second barbershop across the street was pristine. The barber poll glistened, the floor was clean, the barber impeccably neat, and his haircut perfect. So, the puzzler asked, which barber do you choose? Who is the better hire for the job of cutting your hair? The solution, the radio hosts stated, was to pick the barber with the messy shop and bad haircut. The logic goes that since there are only two barbers in town they each get their hair cut by the other barber. The neat barber got his perfect coif from the messy barber and the messy got his bad one from the neat. The reason the better barber had hair all over was that everyone in town goes to him for a cut, leaving the other time to clean the shop. 

I thought about this puzzler during a recent interview for an open position at our company. Each interview can be a puzzler. What are the clues that someone can do the job we need doing? What are the impressive, but often irrelevant, characteristics that can lead us to a bad decision? Over time I've boiled it down to four key checks:

  1. Look at their work. In the puzzler, the logical way to determine the better barber is to look at their work, the haircut of the other barber. Identifying a candidate's work is not always easy. Accomplishments on resumes are not the work itself. Oftentimes a candidate's achievements are part of a group effort. How much did they contribute and is that the part we need? If we are hiring a web developer we can usually see a site they have worked on. We can then ask specific questions about how they built it. For a system administrator position it is much harder to view someone's previous work which may literally be behind a firewall. For those situations, I fall back to an interviewing strategy I heard from Elon Musk. Ask candidates how they did what their resume says they did. Get specifics. People who have done things can usually explain at length how they did them. People who played a small roll in a big project often cannot. People who achieve things remember the problems along the way--there are always problems--and can explain what they did to resolve them. Ask them about the problems. In lieu of being able to inspect their work this is often the best case. 
  2. Judge by the most important criteria for the job. In the puzzler, the messiness of the first barbershop and the cleanliness of the second were red herrings and not the best determination of a good haircut. Where a candidate went to school, their college major, certifications they hold, how long they have been in their career, and how well they speak may all distract from more important factors. Most simply, we want to hire people who can do the job and are pleasant to work with. But what goes into "doing the job"? In an interview at the 92nd Street Y, the author Malcolm Gladwell discussed how he was horrible at finding a good apartment. He has moved frequently and always thinks he'll be happy with the apartment close to the dry cleaners or with a lot of windows for sunlight yet he is eventually not satisfied. The problem, Gladwell explained, was weighting. There are 10 things he may want in an apartment and none has all 10. The trick becomes weighing how important location is versus the noise level of the neighbors, if a first floor flat is better than one on the 29th floor. Similarly, it is rare for a job candidate to be a perfect match for the job posting we have to fill. Often the job description is based on what the last person in the job did or what the dream candidate would be able to do to make her bosses job easier. A job task for a systems engineer, for example Wide Area Network (WAN) troubleshooting, may only be a twice-a-year occurrence but could cause expensive downtime if not met. How then to weight the skills of a candidate who fully meets all the other requirements but not that one? Can this task be trained, out sourced, or handled by another team member?  In the end, strong candidates have different expertise, skill sets, and abilities to learn and it is important to know what combination will be the best for the position and the team.
  3. Hire to the urgency of the project. In the puzzler, you need a haircut now. No time to try another town and its barbers. To get a haircut today you have two candidates. Pick the better one. Sometimes we need to fill a position right away. A team member is leaving or has left. A project has gotten more complex or is getting close to the deadline and more help is required to finish it. The resource pool of people who can help is not infinite. A haircut can be a one-time shot if we don't like the barbers work. Great barbers may have long waits that do not fit with our schedule. Sometimes we must move forward with the best candidate in front of us even if we have doubts about their fit for the position or long-term tenure.
  4. Rely on your experience and judgment. Most of us have gotten a lot of haircuts in our lives. How did we choose our long-term barber or stylist? Does even the best barber have a day where they disappoint us with their work? Many of us have interviewed job candidates and gone on to work with them. Which candidates went on to exceed expectations? Who didn't work out? Few people have perfect scores in hiring great team members. Most important is to learn from our experience and remember how we found the best people and where we made the wrong decision. Years ago, I sat in on a group interview for a web developer. He ended up being one of the smartest, most creative, and best people I have ever worked with. I had my doubts in the interview though. He didn't dress up even slightly which, at the time, I thought showed little effort to make a good first impression. He seemed a little aloof, as if he needed a job soon but this was not his first choice, making me wonder how he would work with the team and how long he would stay. But he wasn't rude or unfriendly. He was in a band that traveled and it wasn't clear if he'd be available if weekend work when needed. He did say he was going to quit the band if he got this job (which he did not do but, in the end, didn't really matter). We did see he was whip smart. He had done a lot of different work where he was the sole developer. It appeared he learned new platforms fast and quickly made major contributions. We had seen about 4 other candidates and so far, he was the most qualified. The positive qualities so outweighed the negatives that the hiring manager offered him the position and he turned out to be a great fit for our team. As a mental test when looking at candidates I try to compare them to the best and worst people I have worked with. If any of my best people were in front of me in an interview, what would I ask them to bring out their best qualities? What characteristics should I ignore? If every person who was let go from their position were also being interviewed, what questions would make it clear they were not right for the job?

The reality is that hiring is not a puzzler. There is no "correct" answer. We have more options and actions available to us than a single choice of A or B. We actually can ask the barber who cut their hair and other questions about their work. We can seek out and talk to the barber's customers. And look at their hair.