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The Cargo Cult of Business » Getting It Right At Fog Creek Software

Getting It Right At Fog Creek Software

Published on 12 Sep 2005 at 1:33 pm | No Comments | Trackback
Filed under The Cargo Cults of Business, Manifest Masquerade, Total Quality Madness, Principal Acronyms Only, Winners and Losers, Business and Corporation Related, Information Technology, Branding and Values.

It’s all too rare that you see a company with its act together in the hiring department. Human Resources is second only to marketing as a bastion of appearance-over-reality in most corporations, large and small. The 75% of all positions that are filled by personal networking attest to the inherent emphasis on "it’s not what you know, it’s who you know". This dependence on solid interpersonal skills and a vast network of industry contacts haunts the technical disciplines, where engineers and scientists habitually immerse themselves in the technologies they are paid to manipulate. Assessing candidates on the basis of the firmness of their handshake, the whiteness of their teeth, and the cut of their suits is (or, at least, seems) all well and good if you’re filling a position in sales or executive management, where people skills and not problem solving form the basis of success.

But in a technical discipline, taking such a course is frequently disastrous. As a consultant, I have to cultivate both my interpersonal and technical skillsets, but I’ve been witness to some real disasters where slick talkers were favored by management over people who could actually get the job done. This problem is so pervasive throughout every industry that Bill Whittle addressed it at length in a recent post over at Eject! Eject! Eject! (note that his article is expansive, and the relevant bit about Pink and Grey tribes is a fair way in). And yet, even though emphasis on appearance is recognized as a real issue for technical hires, the ways and means to obviate it seem far from clear, even within the high tech industries where making the wrong call on a senior employee can cost weeks or months of delays and generate rancor in engineering teams. Few groups are more demanding in terms of being able to deliver on claims of technical ability than engineers.

So it comes as a delightful suprise to see that the folks over at Fog Creek Software appear to have their act together.  First we have to give them credit for recognizing that great developer talent requires decent care and feeding. Of course, I’d like to see that extended to the entire IT organization (without which modern businesses would slowly but surely grind to a halt), but recognition of the importance of gaining and retaining top technical talent in terms of a good working environment and robust compensation is a step forward at any level.

Second, let’s give credit where it’s due to Joel Spolsky, Fog Creek’s Fearless Leader, for his innovations in the Joel Test. What Joel has done here isn’t simply assemble a set of hints for companies to consider in producing better software. He’s addressed the issue holistically, from hiring process through working environment (having been subjected to the dull roar of cubicle farms when trying to disentangle network management scripts, I was particularly warmed by his comments on a quiet working environment). Any company who takes his comments to heart will, I am certain, reap significant and immediate benefits.

But third, and most importantly, Joel and Fog Creek seem to understand the need to move past appearances in an interview, and focus in on (as Joel puts it) whether a candidate is smart, and whether a candidate can get things done. Joel’s Guerrilla Guide to Interviewing goes into all this, so I won’t belabor it here. What I will concentrate on is the fact that Fog Creek is working– diligently– to "get past" the smarmy superficiality that candidates are conditioned from college to adopt as a requisite for serious consideration for technical positions.

There are, to be sure, some snags in Fog Creek’s approach; some of their tactics, which are designed to reject excessively appearance-based candidates, will (like an errant spam filter) generate false negatives because the candidates are trying, in good faith, to "play the game" as they’ve historically been taught. Hit the candidate with an assessment environment based (for once) on technical reality and not on relational style, and you risk bouncing someone simply because they didn’t realize that, for perhaps the first time in their careers, they were being presented with an open and forthright interview environment, not a manipulative one. It seems to me that the candidates most likely to twig to the climactic shift will be the very appearance-oriented players you want to screen out. Given the inherent dichotomy between the technical and relational personality types, I see the potential for a lot of excellent people falling through the cracks.

I was also suprised at the simplistic nature of the development questions Joel recommends posing, but that just goes to show what I know. One of my friends, who is a powerhouse developer par excellance (it took me a week to learn the C programming language; it took him a weekend), indicated that actually Fog Creek’s gauntlet is robust, since the simplicity makes the excercises do-able, but subtleties in the implementation are revelatory about a particular developer’s style and abilities.

The construction of technical interview questions has a long and storied history; I’ve been on both sides of the query during my time in Silicon Valley. There are a plethora of attempts at creative assessment over at techinterview.com, with more being added, and William Poundstone has a book out on the subject centered around Microsoft’s now famous approach to this process. It think it’s fair to say that it’s as much a matter of style as of incisiveness as to which questions "work the best" for any given organization and employee role. Nonetheless, there is an ever-increasing consensus is that, for identifying the best and brightest in knowledge workers, the traditional interview questions (strengths and weaknesses, etc.) just don’t cut it. Assessment of the candidate’s mental agility is paramount, with relational style a secondary issue– just the opposite of what all the "traditional" methods yield. Fog Creek’s approach won’t help the candidates who simply don’t interview well, however competent their actual on-the-job performance may be (although, at least in theory, that’s what the resume is supposed to address). But by focussing on technical ability, rather than relational style, they have gone to the head of the class in terms of seeking out excellence in their employees.

However, I don’t like Joel’s "impossible question"; that’s just dirty pool. Because however much you may not want an interview environment to be on a power gradient, the fact of the matter is that it is. If you’re an elite outfit like Fog Creek, that’s only going to make stakes– and the tension– that much higher for the candidate. Again, such a question allows a forthright candidate to trip themselves up; they may feel that they must try to answer the question, however outrageous they may know it to be, lest they forfeit their prospects. (Joel would probably say that that is the test, but I think playing mind games starts off any relationship on the wrong foot. And the more honest and sincere the candidate is, the more that is going to be true).

Something else that I would do is test pilot the candidate in a "development simulator"; an environment identical to the one they would be working with. That would allow me to assess the candidate’s comfort level with that environment, as well as their ability to dynamically adapt to a potentialy unfamiliar situation. It would also give them the ability to actually run their code for the excercises, a chafe point with me since I myself am one of those people who, it seems, always manages to include at least one control flow error in my first draft of any program. (Here again, though, since I rather doubt I’m "Fog Creek material", this is probably the very sort of coding ham-handedness they want to select against). 

But these are all quibbles; Fog Creek has recognized the great hurdle of appearance-based interviewing for what it is: a stumbling block to be overcome when interviewing knowledge workers. Combined with their other management practices, they sound like excactly the sort of company that, if I were a kick-ass developer and if I wanted to live in New York, I’d be pounding down their doors to go work for. (Maybe someday they’ll adopt Sun’s practice of letting their developers telecommute, which would at least let my friends go pounding on their door. ;-) So kudos all around to Joel and his team. In a corporate world dominated by schmooze and excessive emphasis on relational style, it’s great to see a company who understands that at the end of the day, it’s the smartest team will be the happiest team. And the most successful.


Disclaimer: I don’t usually do disclaimers, but in this case I wanted to note that Cargo Cult has no affiliations with Fog Creek Software, and we’ve never used their products. We just think they’re great based on their stated ethos; whether that ethos pans out in reality is a question you’ll have to ask their employees.

-- Paul
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