Hunting Unicorns: Why Technology Leaders Must Learn To Grow Horns

Interviews, in all formats, are a compromise: the only true way to assess if someone can do a job is to let them do it for at least a week but, of course, this approach is completely impractical.

An interview allows us to ask applicants if they can perform a role and add in a few little exercises that help them prove it. But what if they have an off day? What if they are the sort of person who can’t relax or be themselves outside their day to day comfort zone? What if they have a poor memory but a superbly analytical brain? What if they are better at talking theory over reality or – more commonly – very much the other way round? What if the topics we test them on are things they’ve not done for years but could pick up in minutes if we gave them the right book?

More seriously, what if our own idea of how to screen people isn’t all that well developed? How about if we’ve been measuring our culture wrong all this time? What if the people we’re looking for won’t like the culture we are so keen on projecting? What if the way we interview is actually at complete odds with our cultural projection and we alienate most of the people we meet?

Everything above is real. At one time or another all of these reasons and hundreds of others make the process from job spec to hire completely and utterly fallible. It is critical we accept that even a successful interview is only 50-70% likely to reveal whether someone can perform a role. The other 50-30% is a punt. And no matter how thorough, how clinical, how obsessive the screening criteria it will always be a punt. It will always represent risk.

Let’s examine where this risk sits. The driving force behind most interviews lies in not hiring the “wrong person”. Think of the impact on the team when they leave or – worse – when they’re incumbent and underperforming. Think of the potential damage to culture from seeing management fail to screen unsuitable applicants, the blurring of lines around what is and isn’t acceptable for a member of the team, and the demotivation of knowing your employer doesn’t hold high standards. Then there’s the stress of having to let someone go. All this is why interviews need to be thorough.

What, though, is the impact of making them obsessively thorough around a requirement that only a tiny, high-demand percentage of the employment market could possibly navigate? For those reading this thinking, “of course I’m only going for a tiny percentage of the market, my team are the best and we have extremely high standards”, let’s put this in context. We are not talking about “good” JavaScript Engineers being a tiny percentage of the market. Rather than bright, technically-minded individuals with some personality who can code JavaScript for one or more frameworks (still fairly tough to find) we’re talking about full stack, Node.JS and React Engineers who religiously code from tests and can get stuck into the automation of deployment pipelines as required, attend meetups at a rate that implies all meetups will cease to exist in a month and they’ve really got to pack them in, dabble in functional languages because, hey, that’s just what ambitious technical people do, and has a magical way with stakeholders and colleagues that suggests they are in fact a CTO simply pretending to be a JavaScript Engineer.

This is real, by the way. There are numerous start-ups and tech-businesses in London currently hiring for this exact person. Or at least, according to their interview process they are.  

Consider a start-up with three coders in the engineering team. The first step in growing this team – once applicants have been collected – is to send out a test that takes applicants three hours to complete. 20% of these tests are returned and must be reviewed by one of the engineers, a process that takes about 30 minutes. Should the test be acceptable (around half are) an interview that lasts 3 hours is booked with two of the engineering team who have never been trained to interview and will spend that time mainly asking applicants to describe things on their CV. The rest of the interview is reserved for a discussion of that 3-hour test and some theory-based technical questions. After three months, of the 50% of people invited who actually showed up, only one person has got through the screening process. That lucky individual (they’re not lucky – this team will never grow) goes on to meet the CEO who rejects them for not being a “bright, technically-minded individual”. So that’s 40 tests, 10 interviews and 80 hours of engineering time invested in absolutely nothing.

Don’t think for a minute, though, that this is a recruitment problem. What we’re dealing with here is a potentially crippling business problem that should be at the top of the CEO’s agenda. Let’s assume this three-engineer-sized start-up plans on securing multiple rounds of funding. How is that going to happen when hiring a single operational member of staff has proven impossible after 3 months? This is true risk and pales against the impact of hiring the “wrong person”.

Why the inverted commas? Because – just like a perfect interview process – the “wrong person” is in no way absolute. Most businesses are fallible enough to turn a “right person” into a “wrong person” after interview. How was an offer placed and for how much? When were the contracts sent? Did anyone discuss them? How was the new starter inducted? What support do they have in the role? What does their development plan look like? Do they know the business’ standards and expectations? What role have they been designated in the team and who is in charge of managing this? Can their manager relate to them and get on with them? Is their manager capable, not just of technical guidance, but also of motivating and developing their team in other ways? Does all this tie in to the role described at interview and the culture in which it exists?

Far from a disaster, hiring the “wrong person” is an absolutely sure-fire way for teams to get better at creating the “right person”. They’ll see that they are more competent than the majority, and the team manager gets to encounter the sort of situations that will make them a better manager. The role can be refined and re-planned based on the learning curve of someone failing to achieve it, and exit interviews can give valuable insight into what went wrong. This can lead to greater maturity in induction, monitoring and management standards, something 90% of start-ups desperately need help with.

The only way technology start-ups can scale teams ahead of the competition is by creating their own unicorns and learning from the experience of failing to do so. Obsessive interview processes around an impossible to fill requirement will either kill most technology start-ups dead or at least ensure they fail to compete for talent. It is also worth noting that any business hiring in such a way has no part in any conversation concerning “tech communities” when they are acting as a leech on shared talent pools, lazily expecting other firms to do the good work of creating knowledge and talent while they just swoop in and scoop it up.

For any tech-led business to succeed its hiring must be as immediately scalable as its product and business model. If it doesn’t have a bank of positions that come with a guarantee of hiring success within one month of hitting the employment market, the business isn’t truly scalable. Scalable hiring requires a short-term compromise - perhaps around skills, probably around screening - but NEVER on culture fit and an ability and passion to progress. It also requires passionate, talented and hands-on leadership that is capable of supporting enthused staff members to grow as professionals. And here, in a nut shell, is the real reason behind obsessive interviewing: leadership that lacks either the ability or time to nurture and develop the technical and business-facing skills needed by its employer. Which, funnily enough, is why the best CTOs don’t employ convoluted interview processes that screen for disinterested unicorns: given they already know how to grow horns they can have their pick of 10,000 brilliant horses.

From vacancy design through to interview skills and employee development, Talent Point help technology-led businesses create sustainable hiring processes for growth.


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