The Very Broken Silicon Valley Hiring Process And How To Fix It

I have lived and worked in the Silicon Valley for over 20 years, and I am fed up. I’m angry and frustrated and burnt. The hiring practices that I have experienced are completely broken. In some respects the crazy success of technology companies here in the valley masks this enormous problem. Technology companies could all multiply that success by fixing the hiring process.

From lack of business management perspective to the dysfunctional job description to the confused interview process, there is a ton of room for improvement.

Problems Start With Management

Business Insider reports that “more than one-quarter (26 percent) of managers said they weren’t ready to become a leader when they started managing others. Fifty-eight percent said they didn’t receive any management training” (and that is the general population, not focused on high tech).

As we have all seen with the growing issue of diversity inequity in the workforce, a key concern is that it is human nature for someone to wish to work with and hire a person that looks and acts like them.

..companies miss the mark on high managerial talent in 82% of their hiring decisions.. Why Good Managers Are So Rare, Harvard Business Review

Promotion to a management role here in the valley is much more about technical prowess and technical aptitude than management experience. One cause is that as the tech worker gains more and more experience and becomes more valuable and skilled, there are fewer and fewer promotions into higher purely technical ranks available. Hence tons of people are promoted into management who have never been trained in the art of management. Worse, no one asks managers to do any kind of professional growth.

..a survey by Progressive Business Publications shows that only 52% of companies trained their managers once a year or less. This lack of training is reflected in the Conference Board Report which found that less than 1/3 of all supervisors or managers were perceived to be strong leaders … The same report found that 2/3 of employees are not motivated to drive their employer’s business goals, leaving a quarter who are simply showing up to collect a check. Obviously, a lack of managerial leadership has a direct correlation to high turnover and low productivity. HR Professionals Magazine

So the problem of diversity and broken hiring in general is partly due to this high concentration of technologists in power. A tech heavy manager looks for a tech heavy candidate that matches their own real or perceived tech know how — when that might be far from what the manager really needs.

Even if managers have deep experience and training on hiring best practices, the other people involved in the process may not. If only 50% of managers are getting training once per year, it is easy to assume the statistics for staff employees receiving interview skills training is miniscule.

Yet less than one-fourth of the managers interviewed had a clear roadmap for how they could develop themselves, and more than half didn’t even know who in their organization was responsible for the development of leaders — Tech Industry Managers: Little Men in Big Shoes, Techcrunch

Job Descriptions Don’t Describe Real Jobs

Below is a summary of an opening for a Junior Level IT Support Technician posting from indeed.

  • Must be both Windows and Mac savvy — where the vast majority of businesses employ one or the other, but not both. Hence the JD immediately rules out highly capable candidates that know how to learn
  • Support Microsoft and Adobe applications on both Windows and Mac
  • Manage three distinct types of servers plus desktops plus Cisco networking equipment plus SonicWall plus iOS and Android

Remember, the description above is for a junior IT position. The job description goes on saying the role requires certifications and skills in Active Directory, Exchange, and VMware (misspelled on the job description itself). The candidate seeking company may never find the person described in the job description because the person they describe does not exist or if that person does exist, they are not junior level.

I recently read a job description that had the wrong position title, half of the text described a position that did not match the position in the rest of the document. It contained misspellings as well as bad grammar and word usage. And to top it off, this mess of a document suggested candidates should be good communicators and have a solid command of English.

The evidence shows that most managers are not trained as managers. Along with supporting staff they produce job descriptions that do not describe real jobs. And it is a surprise we have a diversity issue and shortage of candidates to fill jobs? It’s hard to fill insanely defined job roles written by those who mostly do not have the skill set to actually define a job role.

The Interview Hall Of Mirrors

I can’t count the number of times I have been asked a version of the question

“Are you comfortable with TECHNOLOGY X”

This has to be one of the most bone head interview questions. First because it opens the door to “Yes” or “No”, and second — what does “being comfortable” mean and how the hell does my answer help you determine my fit with the job?

I can say that approximately 3 people ever asked me behavioral interview questions. Three! Ever!

Looking in All the Wrong Places

Us white collar techies are called “Knowledge Workers”. And this is just dumb. It leads to the idea that we have crammed our heads full of facts and trivia. It would be great if we can get away from the concept of “Knowledge Worker” and towards the idea of “Technical Problem Solver”

“Each problem that I solved became a rule, which served afterwards to solve other problems.” — Rene Descartes

I have been asked to explain the architecture of a product I worked on 5 years ago, and in great detail.

I have been asked to solve complex Regular Expression problems — although no job has ever required me to apply such skill

I have been asked about all sorts of trivial nonsense.

In my job, I would have colleagues. A computer with access to Google. Messaging resources. None of these real world tools are available in an interview — and this makes the interview almost worthless as it does not reflect real life!

Interview Like it Matters

Jeff Haden of Inc Magazine provides bullet points for Conducting the Perfect Job Interview in Twelve Easy Steps

  1. Truly understand what you need — Anyone reading job descriptions knows this is not happening
  2. Determine how you will find the person to fill that need — even if you have a game plan, such as using internal or external recruiting, if those resources are running off of a bad script they cannot produce the expected results. I’m sure there are many out there who can tell stories of companies who shift gears mid-recruitment cycle. They throw curveball requirements into the mix or are shocked when they are trying to seal the deal and find the position has been scrapped by higher management.
  3. Thoroughly explain the process to every interviewee — most interviews I wince through are conducted by people who just that day, a half an hour before, were handed my resume. I have little to no evidence that suggests many outfits think through their hiring process and even less experience where I’m told how the hiring effort will progress or when a decision might be made.
  4. Spend twice the time on homework as you do on the interview — did I mention that most people across the table from me in an interview did not read my resume and only 30 minutes before were told to sit down with me?
  5. Make the interview a conversation, not an interrogation — I’ll admit that this has not been a problem I have seen lately. But there is a related issue where questions are either far too generic “Are you comfortable with computer networking” or too specific “Tell me how solid state storage wear leveling affects performance of SQL Server clusters”. How many articles have to be written about Active Listening and Behavioral Interviewing for things to change?
  6. Always ask follow up questions — When an interviewer is ill prepared and does not have the skill of Behavioral Interviewing or Active Listening, it is hard to imagine good follow up questions. The original questions weren’t good, so follow up will not be
  7. Spend as much time answering questions as you do asking — Most of the interview training I have received says the rule is to leave about 10–15 minutes at the end of the interview for questions. I agree here that helping the candidate understand the company and position requirements is critically important and often completely overlooked. I find that the interviewer is not keeping an eye on the clock and they find they have spent far too much time asking questions or telling stories or whatever, and end up rushing through the segment of the interview that allows the candidate time to ask questions.
  8. Describe next steps — As with #3 above, there is little to no planning evident in the hiring processes I have been party to, so describing next steps is either not possible or again is very often overlooked
  9. Provide closure, every time — I have gone through dozens and dozens of interviews where I am the one who must follow up and discover the results of the decision making. It is a highly rare manager who calls or emails and says “we went with another candidate”. Most simply go radio silent.
  10. Sense check with bystanders — I can’t comment here other than the general observation that so much hiring is so poorly planned that I doubt the thought to do this is much entertained
  11. Contact references — I have worked for maybe 7 different companies, and only once did I get a call from a reference telling me they had been contacted by a potential employer
  12. Conduct one more interview — Fantastic idea that I am learning for the first time, and I have been through hiring trainings

Toward a Science Based Hiring Model

Dozens of articles have been written about the lesson Google learned when management decided to scientifically examine hiring practices.

Google (along with management consulting firms) has long been famous for random questions like, ‘how many golf balls can you fit in an airplane?’. Advocates of this approach argue it’s a test of problem solving process, rather than a correct ‘answer’. But they’re shown to be a complete waste of time. — 7 Surprising Lessons on Hiring from Google’s Big Data Research, RecruitLoop

My hypothesis is that in order to improve the hiring outcomes of the Silicon Valley (or really anyplace), we must have clear and actionable science based processes that are shown to lead to positive outcomes. I believe that an evidenced based playbook of tools and approaches could be the basis of a revolution that leads to greater diversity in the workplace as well as a much more productive and happier workforce.

Blinding the Process

One of science’s strongest practices in reducing bias is the double blind study. In order for the Food and Drug Administration to approve a new medication, both the scientists conducting the studies and the participants receiving the experimental medication or placebo are blinded. No party knows who is getting the real doses and who is getting the control.

Let’s strip the interviewing process of as much bias as possible! Remove all names from resumes, and replace them with unique identifiers that only the HR team can turn back into names. And remove addresses, so to prevent bias against certain parts of town. And remove detailed school information so as to reduce the chances of bias against certain schools. I bet this can be done while still retaining the important information about a candidate's experience and abilities and education.

Or perhaps let’s go even crazier and ask the important question, does the resume function well as a tool of discovery? Is the accepted hiring process effective at any point? Does the data show that radical change including never using a resume might produce better outcomes? Are we all doing this job hunt dance without really good evidence that shows the dance to yield success?

Research by the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford revealed that orchestras increased their number of women musicians from 5% to 25% since the 1970s because of one simple change. Judges began auditioning musicians behind screens so that they could not see them. Simply knowing a candidate was a man had automatically upped that man’s chances of being selected.
15% increase in the number of community college graduates who got to the in-person audition round by starting with a blind audition, compared to the number of community college graduates who land interviews by applying for jobs the traditional way — Why companies are using ‘blind auditions’ to hire top talent, Business Insider

Give Candidates Real World Problems

Three interview experiences stand out in my mind as great exemplars of what I think evidence will show to be good hiring practice.

I was looking for a Software Quality Assurance Automation Engineer senior position with a start-up. The first half day of an all day interview process consisted of nothing but a questionnaire. It asked a wide range of questions about Software Quality Assurance. There was a scenario where there is a description and photos showing a computer problem and a request for you to write a bug description detailing the error (something QA engineers do every day). Another question asked me to design a bug tracking system from scratch. Here, this is focusing on deep understanding of how QA and software development manage the development process.

The Wall Street Journal reports that an advertising firm “asked candidates to create an Instagram campaign for a Texas vodka brand. Out of some 50 applicants, the company found Kendall Madden, a recent college graduate who had neither studied marketing nor interned at major ad agencies. Her campaign, which featured hands stretched out toward drinks and took some 12 to 16 hours to create, stood out.”

In another instance, I was handed diagnostic output from different software systems and asked to describe the root cause of the problem and possible resolution or further diagnostics required to get at the root cause and cure.

During a phone interview, a participant played the role of an angry customer having a serious problem that needed to be resolved with my help.

Now that is real world interviewing!

Behave Like Hiring Matters

There is a treasure trove of research available and simple methods of implementing science based hiring practices. Organizations simply must have the willingness and leadership to execute.

There is no good excuse. The Silicon Valley may be famous for moving fast and breaking things, however sometimes things are too broken to ignore and just move past. Hiring is beyond broken in the valley.

I hope the technorati rise up and publicly discuss solutions. I will scream and cry if I sit through one more interview where I’m across the table from someone who is ill prepared, where I have to drive the process and ask the next step questions, where I am not asked to show my skills but instead asked to talk about how comfortable I am with various technologies, where I get 10 minutes to ask my questions, and where follow up consists of … well no follow up.

Move Fast And Break Things

Technology companies succeed because of a passion for risk taking, learning important evidence based lessons, and making adjustments quickly. I call on Silicon Valley leaders to apply that same zeal for disruption to one area that is long in the tooth and needs some serious re-thinking.

Blow up the established hiring ceremonies. And experiment and move fast and learn lessons about what actually — really — is shown through rigorous study — to work.