Geek Culture
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Geek Culture

The Game of Biasses

We can put a lot of effort into designing the best interview process in the world. We can spend an enormous amount of time finding people from diverse backgrounds. We can do our best to judge people fairly and ask insightful questions. But, in the end, it doesn’t matter what we do as the hiring process is a game of biasses, and we are part of it, whether we like it or not. So, if you feel offended by this summary and still believe you are different, unique and special, and it doesn’t apply to you, I suggest you stop lying to yourself.

The first step to getting out of the hamster wheel is to admit we are not perfect, and indeed, we have a preference for a particular type of candidate. And that’s OK, seriously.

“Awareness is the greatest agent of change.”

Do you know…?

  • We are more likely to hire a good looking person than a “not so good looking” one?
  • Are we more likely to hire a person of the same gender as we are?
  • We most certainly feel more positive towards people from the same country or culture?
  • We will be more drawn to people who share our values and attitude towards life and work?

If you are lucky enough to have been a part of the hiring process in the past, and maybe even more fortunate and kept notes from all your interviews, I strongly suggest reviewing them carefully. Read through all the feedback you gave and seek patterns. They will say a lot about candidates but reveal even more about you. Even if you have zero notes or your feedback was very short, it still says something, in that case, mostly about you.

We tend to believe that the personality traits and values we hold are more important than others. For example, if you are an introvert, you will be more likely to hire a person who is a bit quieter. If you value industriousness, you are naturally less likely to accept highly creative people who are often chaotic and might feel unpredictable. We all seek similarities and preferences towards what we understand and relate to.

“We don’t see the world as it is, we see it as we are” — Anais Nin

Biased process

It’s not uncommon to find a team where people behave similarly. But, if you dig a little bit, we will notice that it all started from this person who had the strongest impact on hiring decisions. That’s how dysfunctional teams form, grow out of proportion and spread. Of course, everybody is trying to fight it but rarely addressing the core issue.

I noticed companies that shout the most about diversity are the ones who really suck at it. The longer the paragraph in the job spec how they care about equality, diversity, pay gap, the bigger bullshit it is. Their attempts to attract a better mix and variety rarely feels genuine, and we can see it. I can’t shake the idea that “diversity” is just another trendy buzzword and simply a good marketing tool. Whilst there is a lot of proof that smaller companies understand the actual benefits and make a genuine effort towards hiring people who can provide different ways of thinking, big corporations, on the other hand, leave us sceptic about their real intents — is it all about the money again?

Gravity

Without understanding gravity and aerodynamics, humans would never fly. Without understanding our own emotions, values, personality, triggers and biases, we will never create a solid team. Unless we put effort to become more self-aware, individuals with conscious minds who understand thyselves, the hiring process will be skewed by forces that can’t be seen, understood or even named. We are all only humans, and we have our flaws.

Building inclusive environment

It’s pretty easy, yet it is so hard.

  • Start with the job spec.
    Think about how you phrase the role, set clear expectations and avoid writing the requirements like you already have a particular person in mind. Pay attention to all candidates and understand their motivation and why they apply for the role. What draws them to you?
  • Interview process.
    It should involve different people, including junior team members, who can contribute to the process. Don’t limit the conversations only to your team. Don’t be afraid to get feedback from people who do not belong to the same organisation as you.
  • Interview goals.
    Have tangible goals around what you want to learn during the interview process. One of the goals should be understanding a candidate’s personality profile without projecting your expectations. Asking random questions don’t help, nor having a rigid “by the book” process with no flexibility. Decide if you want to hire the candidate early in the process (within 5 minutes) and focus on challenging your decision and finding the truth.
  • Seek differences.
    Search for people with different experiences, skill levels, education, background, personality, hobbies. Diversity is much more than just gender and skin colour. What about extroversion, openness, or even things as simple as remote working preferences. You would be surprised how seemingly unimportant or irrelevant past experiences may make a difference in how your company will perform in the future. There is no real benefit in finding someone exactly like the rest of the team, so don’t hire for “culture fit”.
  • Everybody can speak up.
    And that means listening to all team members, not only the loudest or the bravest one. Encourage to challenge the status quo and trust people’s opinions. If you hired the right people, your role is to give them voice responsibilities and move out of their way. Listen to what people say and address challenges before they become problems.
  • Stop with Beer Fridays.
    Beer Fridays with free alcohol in the office is not an “inclusive and fun startup vibe” which will bring people together. Having Dougnuts Tuesdays is unhealthy and challenging for people struggling with weight, cravings or emotions. They will find it extremely hard to resist them. Pay your team well, and they can afford beer, sweets or whatever else THEY believe is important and relevant to them. Nobody needs “fake fun days”.
  • Holidays are not only Christmas.
    Especially when you are fully remote, consider how people in different countries spend their holidays. Not only that, many people actually don’t give a shit about Christmas, so why would you force them to take a break if they want to work? And if you still want to do that, shouldn’t you celebrate all occasions as a company?
  • Be transparent.
    People are afraid of the unknown, and they are masters in writing their own stories and justifications. Working together is a relationship that should be based on trust, which opens up an opportunity for transparency. Make salaries available to everyone, provide feedback and allow it to be accessed by anybody. There is no real reason not to unless you are in an organisation that spent decades building walls between departments and teams…
  • Genuinely care about the people you work with.
    Sounds like not a lot, but I’ve learnt that this is the hardest part for some companies. Empathy is the key to making progress and has to work both ways.

Fighting for the right thing

The only way to fight our bias is to understand ourselves first. It will allow us to make better decisions during the interview process and stop hiring based on cultural fit, which means “hiring people like us”, synonymous with “hiring safe”. Managers often don’t want team members with strong opinions who will challenge the status quo as they believe t’s just too much work and pain in the ass.

Hiring based on cultural contribution brings variety that can fuel critical thinking and new ideas to help the business grow. Going back to what I said earlier — we need to understand ourselves first. That knowledge will help us to understand our team better. These learnings will lead us to better hiring decisions and openness to different ways of thinking. Every new joiner can bring something new, add additional knowledge, different industry experience, or simply an unexpected view on the same topic. Use it.

The hiring “napkin test”

It’s not really The Napkin Test, but a few simple rules that help me identify suitable candidates to join my team and mitigate my biases as much as possible.

“I hired you because you have enough skill and enough will to have my job one day… Whether you want it or not” — Managing Humans

OCEAN —I put effort into learning who my candidate is by identifying and asking questions that will help me understand their Big Five personality traits, often called OCEAN. It’s an acronym for Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. I never look for a particular set or balance of these traits. No expectations. Instead, it helps me focus the interview process around specific ideas, rather than just going through technical skills only and asking tons of useless and unorganised questions which reveal nothing in the end. I know my team already, and I will always seek someone different.

Sharing my notes — It might sound weird, but one of the most crucial aspects of bringing a new person on board is answering myself a question “Would I share my interview notes with them?”. I’m looking for people who understand that genuine feedback sometimes hurts and contains things they might not want to hear. At the same time, they don’t have overgrown egos, want to learn and know that this is an opportunity for them and potentially the best thing that ever happened. When I’m convinced that the candidate is the right person, I should have no problem sharing all information in good faith and giving guidance and suggestions. Throughout this process, we will both learn something new about ourselves. When was the last time anybody shared with you genuine and honest feedback?

Bring something new —I want everyone to bring something new to the team. An engineering manager who has been a teacher. A junior developer who has shown excellent leadership skills. A web engineer who is a magician. An introverted data engineer girl will bring balance to an extroverted male team. A person who will try to convince me about the superiority of TypeScript over vanilla JavaScript… The list is long.

Actions, not words.

I can’t stress enough how important it is to understand a team’s current personalities and qualities before bringing new members. Do not hire for fit but for contribution, and be prepared for challenges that might come with it. When (if) they do, it will be a discovery moment for you that will reveal issues you were unaware of. It’s a learning opportunity and a chance to make things better. That’s how you build your leadership skills, gain the team’s trust and don’t have to ever speak about diversity. It’s about actions, not words.

Focus on hiring for fit and technical skills only, and you failed at your job as a leader, manager and human being.

Diversity is not only about skin colour, gender or religion. It’s about different thinking, experience and ideas. As long as you are genuinely open to them, your team will have the right, natural balance and a great mix of people from all backgrounds.

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Andrew Winnicki

Andrew Winnicki

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Software Engineering Changemaker. Driving digital transformation and sharing experiences and thoughts from my journey. 20 years and counting…