Everything is predicated on the quality of the people

I’ve started companies from scratch, sat atop large mature ones, and helped a few struggling to move from one phase to the other. I have worked with ancient monoliths and bleeding edge tech, in dingy vomit-whiffed basements and sparkly glass towers in the sky. Through all of it I have been intimately involved in the process of finding, choosing and maintaining teams of people.

All these experiences shared a single thread; they were good or bad based entirely on the people who were there. Enough has been written about how people are a company’s only real asset, so I won’t repeat that. Instead, I’d like to share some practical learning about how you choose people in the first place.

I first created this at a small software company doing really interesting work in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada. Mississauga is nice enough (I choose to live nearby), but it suffers from what it is not, rather than benefits from what it is. What it is not, is Toronto or Waterloo — the former 15 km East is the beating commercial heart of Canada and one of the world’s best tech hubs — the latter 50km West, the home of Waterloo University and the cradle of creativity that attracts the world’s biggest tech companies.

Mississauga sits in a recruiting well between the two, and we sat in Mississauga unable to hire tech talent because they either lived in, or commuted to the surrounding cities. That led us to really think hard about what we wanted out of people and we came up with the following list. The order matters:

The list

Integrity
Motivation
Fit
Curiosity
Capacity
Dexterity
Knowledge
Experience

In the intervening 15 years I have moved from company to company, around and within Toronto, and have taken the list with me. I have hired hundreds of people using the list above as my guiding criteria.

Along the way I have learned a few things about the magic of this framework.

The first is that the top item, Integrity, is the hardest to define, but the single largest predictor of getting a good outcome from recruiting. Define what it means to you and how you are going to discern whether someone has integrity or not.

For me personally it is the negative relief that I look for. I assume high integrity and try and sniff out any indicators that it may not be 100%. Often the boundaries between things on a CV contain a rich seam of information that normally goes un-mined. I like to know why people’s lives had the discontinuity of a change.

The following four, Motivation, Fit, Curiosity, Capacity, are all innate characteristics and as such cannot really be taught. People for whom you have a question mark on these things are unlikely to change over time, and generally incur a huge management expense trying to strengthen. Conversely, hiring someone rich in these innate characteristics will make your working life together much easier.

Dexterity needs some explaining and it is in the list because it’s a characteristic of really great developers. They see programming as a craft, but also as a way of solving problems. Because of that they will pick up any technology, language, framework that suits the problem at hand. This is what high dexterity means. The reverse is someone who is incredibly deep on a single technology and uses it to solve all problems and refuses to move. These folks tend, at best, to be very useful in a narrow class of problems and at worse can be intellectually brittle.

Finally Knowledge and Experience. These are deliberately at the bottom of the list. They can be taught. Especially to people who are strong at the top of the list. It helps open the door to people who are young, or just young in their tech careers. Some of my best hires have been people who I have given their first tech job, even though they were some way down the path of their life. Concentrating on the top of the list helped me see them for the great people they were, and the potential they represented, rather than disqualifying them because of earlier career choices.

I have added and removed items, but this list seems to be stable through changes in company and culture.

How do you use it?

Everyone who meets a candidate during the recruitment process scores the person out of 5 on each of the characteristics in the list. It is their subjective view of the person at that moment in time, based on their interaction.

It’s important to calibrate across candidates at different points in their life and careers, so 3 — the mid-point in the scale — is “where you would expect that person to be at this point in their career”.

The best way I have found to do this is immediately following an interview. Gather the people who just met the candidate, jot the list on a whiteboard, make a grid next to it with a 5 point scale and get everyone to put their scores on the grid (make a note of the candidate, date and interviewers just below it).

Resist the urge for groupthink. If you’re concerned about it, get people to put their scores on a piece of paper first and then someone else transmit them to the whiteboard and let the discussion unfold. With a bit of practice the loudest voices can be put in perspective and, like any communication, make sure there’s as much listening as talking.

If you are thinking this all sounds subjective, you’re right. It is. But then so is all recruiting, so this is at least an attempt to place a framework over the top of the subjectivity.

Then what?

The single most valuable outcome from using this list emerges immediately; it causes a conversation between the recruiters. If you all agree on a score, you talk about what your score meant to you and what you saw in the candidate. If you all disagree on a score — even better — you have exactly the right conversation about the person, and what just happened.

This dialogue can happen even if you have all seen the person at different times, and independently. So long as you jot down your score, you can come together to evaluate someone later and have a coherent conversation.

I have seen ranges, question marks, 1s, 5s and everything on the continuous range between. In all cases they have caused the right conversations about the candidate.

I have seen this radically improve the recruiting competency of hiring managers as they start to think objectively about their subjective choices, and expose invisible biases. Furthermore it drives alignment between recruiters on the qualities that are being sought from prospective employees.

I tend to take pictures of the whiteboard for posterity, and as an aide memoire if I need to recall either a candidate or a conversation about them.

Conclusion

Choosing people is the single most important moment in cultivating and maintaining company culture — you can win and lose based on your choices of people. The right people make everything else easy. The wrong people make everything else hard. Choose wisely.

For me personally as a serial CTO, recruiting is the single most important thing I do, and the legacy I have left companies is not in the tech or products I have built, but the teams and culture we have created together along the way.

Everything is predicated on the quality of the people.