Ownership — the secret ingredient

Eric Rabinovich
Jul 14, 2018 · 9 min read

Recruiting is a process that we take very seriously at our company. We strive to hire the best engineers, the best product managers, and the best designers, and guess what; almost every other company out there does too.

Last week I re-read a blog post by Joel Spolsky in which he discusses his take on recruiting. In the post, The Guerrilla Guide to Interviewing, he talks about how to interview and hire new engineers to your development teams and what you should look for while you hire. I believe that this is a must-read for every recruiter. In his post, he mentions only two things that he looks for in an interviewee:

  • Is he smart?
  • Can he get things done?

Simple right? Although I totally agree with these two key attributes, I will add one more; ownership. In this blog post I will try to explain why ownership is so important and how to spot it while recruiting.

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So, why is ownership so important?

If you own, you care

Ownership is about accountability

  • Improving performance a little more, just because you don’t want your users waiting an extra half a second.
  • Fixing that annoying bug that never seems to get priority but bothers you so much.
  • Making the user experience awesome even if something breaks by being extra careful about resiliency and fallback.

Ownership tends to extend boundaries

Ownership makes great leaders

Just as the owner of the domain should feel accountable for the domain’s success and make it the best it can be, a leader should feel the same about his team members and make them the best they can be. In a nutshell, this is what leadership is really all about.

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How to spot ownership in a candidate?

Care about what you left behind

People leave for many good reasons. I will not get into that now, maybe in a future post, but if you care and you have that sense of ownership, leaving your company should hurt in almost all cases. Leaving your company is not something you do easily if you care strongly about it. If you feel proud of the work you did and are proud of the people around you, yet you still decide to leave it all behind and look for new opportunities, it should definitely hurt. That does not mean it is not the right decision to leave, however, it should not feel like a trivial thing to do. Leaving for a higher salary, to learn something new, or just because you moved to a new city are all valid reasons to leave. Being nonchalant about leaving your company makes me believe that you saw your last work place only as a place that pays your salary every month.

While recruiting, seek the engineers that shows they care about the parts and people they left behind or what will happen to the rest of the company after they leave.

Work to change the reality

If you were not there, (in the last company) what wouldn’t have happened?

I ask candidates with over 10 years of experience and junior candidates with only 2 years of experience this same question. The amount of time in their role is almost irrelevant, and the answers can vary from, “Our testing framework sucked big time and I came with an idea to replace it and did it,” or it can be something like, “I wanted to make our meeting room names more attractive so I asked the other employees to suggest new names and I changed them.” If a candidate does not give me even one case where he/she changed the reality in his/her last position, it automatically raises a red flag for me. Did he/she simply not care that testing takes so long to complete? Did everything work so perfectly that nothing, really nothing, needed to change? But let’s say, in a different situation, that the candidate did change many things and he did care, then this is the time for me to pull out the big guns and I ask:

Give me an example where you asked to change something and your manager\colleagues told you this is not a good idea or will take too long to execute. What did you do about it?

This creates a great discussion. If someone tells you, “I accepted the manager’s opinion and forgot about it,” then again, this is a red flag. If after 2–3 times he continues to get rejected, and he stops suggesting ideas rather than pursing them, becomes passive, and his passion fades, then he is not going to develop strong ownership skills. You want to see the passion in the eyes of the candidate. Good answers vary between, “I pushed my ideas again and again until my manager approved them,” to, “After hearing what my manager explained to me I realized my solution was not optimal, so I went back to the drawing board and fixed my solution,” or even, “I pushed anyway, and I showed my manager that he was wrong.” Those are all reasonable answers that can lead to interesting follow up questions.

Terminology does matter

The boy scout rule

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What truly shows ownership among a strong candidate is having compassion towards the people you work with, caring about projects that are not only your own, and being passionate about the product you’re working on. Having people that care is so fundamental, and I believe it is one of the key building blocks for creating a healthy and successful engineering culture.

I believe that having colleagues who care about their company and are passionate about what they do can help create a great engineering culture. Working among people with the characteristics I described throughout this post is what will make coming to the office every morning so much greater.

Think otherwise? Have more examples or other ways to look for ownership in an interview? Let me know in the comments below.

And thanks to talented bnaya eshet for the great images.

Sears Israel

Engineering, Product, Culture and more

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