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If The Shoe Fits: Plato’s Soft Success

Friday, August 4th, 2017

A Friday series exploring Startups and the people who make them go. Read all If the Shoe Fits posts here.

5726760809_bf0bf0f558_mEngineers constantly channel Wernher von Braun, “One good test is worth a thousand expert opinions,” preferring AB tests and data points to anecdotal evidence or everyday been there/done that experience.

This is a serious problem for most founders who are

  • engineers, and
  • inexperienced (AKA, young).

Tests, no matter how good, and data points fail miserably when it comes to hiring people, let alone managing them.

Proof of this comes from no less a data embracer than Google, which scrapped an algorithm that was supposed to predict successful hires, its famed brain teaser questions and rigid responses to recruiter questions.

Such was the experience of Quang Hoang and his two partners when they started Birdly, which pivoted three times before finding a solid product/market fit.

…the tumult alienated most of Birdly’s employees, who quit. Hoang attributes the turnover to his own inexperience as a manager.

We, along the way, made many mistakes in management,” Hoang tells Business Insider. “We lost many great developers.” 

Enter Plato, a new name and a new team, focused on providing techies with soft skill mentoring.

The idea, says, Hoang is that an engineer’s education is focused heavily on “hard skills” around programming and systems design. The rest has to be learned. And for programmers-turned-leaders, it’s often the “soft skills,” like management and leadership, that need the most attention.

To people such as myself, who for decades have been involved in teaching and honing those skills in managers across all fields, not just tech, it’s more of a ‘duh’ factor.

But that’s OK; just don’t call it “thought leadership.”

Most great management concepts and skills aren’t decades old, they’re centuries old, constantly updated using language that will resonate with the current target audience.

Probably one of the best pieces of leadership/management advice comes from Lao Tzu and dates to the fourth or fifth century BC; I’ve quoted it multiple times over the last ten plus years.

As for the best leaders,
the people do not notice their existence.
The next best,
the people honor and praise.
The next,
the people fear;
and the next,
the people hate…
When the best leader’s work is done,
the people say, “We did it ourselves!”
To lead the people, walk behind them.

Difficult advice to follow in a world of personal brands and excessively large egos.

Image credit: HikingArtist

How to be Dumb as Google

Wednesday, October 26th, 2016


When it comes to hiring, as Forrest Gump would say, “stupid is as stupid does.”

And stupid is using recruiters who think the only “right” answer to a technical question is the one written on a sheet of paper. (Note that “technical” can refer to the specifics of any field, although in this case it was software.)

No knowledge or understanding of the subject; just the blind focus on the written words — kind of like talking to customer service when the rep keeps repeating their script no matter how you phrase the question — and no recognition that they may wrong.

The call started off well but as the interview progressed, Guathier got an increasing number of questions wrong. His frustration grew as he tried to discuss the answers with the Google recruiter only to find that the recruiter wanted the exact answer in the test book even if alternative solutions were better.

The company is Google and it should be noted that they approached the candidate, as opposed to his applying.

Way back in 2007 Google announce that they had developed an algorithm to screen candidates.

It didn’t work.

Google was also famous for its brain-teaser questions.

Only, according to Lazlo Block, SVP of People Operations, they are a lousy predictor of success.

“Part of the reason is that those are tests of a finite skill, rather than flexible intelligence which is what you actually want to hire for.”

The value of elite colleges and high grades was publically debunked in a 2013 story about the prevalence of grade inflation.

Not all Google’s efforts fall in the stupid category; block’s efforts to educate both management and workers about bias is definitely a smart move.

But locking technically ignorant recruiters into accepting only set responses to tech question rates right up there with algorithms and brain-teasers. And I say this as someone who was a tech recruiter for more than 12 years.

Of course, managers’ interviewing skills won’t matter, since  the best, most knowledgeable, most creative candidates will be screened out before they ever see them.

Image credit: Chris Pond

Ducks in a Row: SAP’s Smart Hiring

Tuesday, July 19th, 2016


Some companies look spend millions in recruiter fees and poaching candidates from their competitors; others are more creative.

Those in the second category are open to staffing solutions far outside the box — even the standard race/creed/color/gender/national origin diversity box.

It’s called neurodiversity — those with some kind of cognitive disabilities, such as people with  Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

What do you do when you have highly repetitious work that also requires a high degree of intelligence — like software testing?

That is actually a viable description of people with ASD.

Of course, that means hiring people who, for most people, aren’t the most comfortable to be around.

Roughly 60 percent of people with ASD have average or above average intelligence, yet 85 percent are unemployed.

For smart companies, such as SAP, that group is a goldmine of talent and five years ago it set a goal to have 1% of their workforce comprised of individuals with ASD.

Hiring people with ASD isn’t about charity or financial exploitation; it’s about gaining a competitive advantage and partnering with Specialisterne goes a long way to providing the right program.

So far (as of 2013) about 100 people have been hired [by SAP] for jobs including software developer or tester, business analyst, and graphic designer, and pay is commensurate to what others in those jobs earn.

SAP use an analogy that individuals are like puzzle pieces with irregular shapes.

“One of the things that we’ve done historically in human resource management is, we’ve asked people to trim away the parts of themselves that are irregularly shaped, and then we ask them to plug themselves into standard roles,” says Robert Austin, Professor of Information Systems, Ivey Business School. “SAP is asking itself whether that might be the wrong way to do things in an innovation economy. Instead, maybe managers have to do the hard work of putting the puzzle pieces together and inviting people to bring their entire selves to work.”

That approach can benefit other forms of diversity like race, gender, and sexual orientation.

“Innovation is about finding ideas that are outside the normal parameters, and you don’t do that by slicing away everything that’s outside the normal parameters. Maybe it’s the parts of people we ask them to leave at home that are the most likely to produce the big innovations.”

Read the article and then decide what’s best for your organization.

Good bosses won’t have a problem with the approach; the rest will whine and resist.

Flickr image credit: Jim Champion

The Long Tail of Arnnon Geshuri

Wednesday, January 27th, 2016


Some bad actions seem to have a much longer tail than others and are more personal.

The length of the tail also seems related to how much the breach affects “people like me.”

The proof of this is happening right now and playing out in social media. It started with the addition of a Wikipedia board member.

Nearly 200 Wikipedia editors have taken the unprecedented step of calling for a member of the Wikimedia Foundation board of directors to be tossed out. (…)  “In the best interests of the Wikimedia Foundation, Arnnon Geshuri must be removed from his appointment as a trustee of the Wikimedia Foundation Board.”

Geshuri played a central role in the “no poach” scandal (where a number of top companies, like Apple and Google, agreed not to recruit from each other) that has had lasting effects on countless careers.

Although I’ve said many times that past performance does not predict the future and I firmly believe in second chances there are caveats.

One is that the the person agrees it was wrong, takes responsibility for their share of the action and accepts some kind of punishment — whether a monetary fine, jail time or just a public statement.

When it’s an ethical lapse, as in this case, I consider if the person should have known better — which Geshuri should have.

However, this wasn’t just an ethical lapse; both the scheme and his actions were illegal.

And there is no question that as a high ranking HR professional he did know it was both illegal and unethical and was in an excellent position to assess the long-term damage it would do.

Geshuri was actively involved along with facilitating others.

Therefore, I tend to agree with the editors that he doesn’t belong in an organization that runs of pure trust.

But I am just as sure he still has a great career path in most of corporate America, where they would understand (and in some cases even condone) what he did, as well as in politics, where both the criminal and civil breaches would just be business as usual.

Image credit: Myleen Hollero / Wikimedia Foundation

Entrepreneurs: the Chief Hustler

Thursday, June 26th, 2014


As the CEO of a startup, I’m really nothing more than the Chief Hustler. 

I hustle to attract team members, capital, advisors, etc.  I also hustle to ensure that we’re moving along quickly enough to be ahead of the market, though resource constraints and ambiguous choices always want to slow us down. 

The ability to attract resources (team, capital, etc.) is probably the most important job that I have – most people who write about the startup CEOs job mention the visionary, cultural or managerial aspects of the job.  For me it’s the constant hustling.

My hustle starts as soon as I wake up in the morning – pick up my iPhone and start reading and replying to emails at around 04:30.  Then I move on to reading articles from news sources, keeping an ever vigilant eye out for potential competitors (especially ones with abundant funding or interesting technologies).  There is an element of a negative flutter in the stomach whenever I come up on one of these – how will they affect the market, will they try to poach my carefully developed team, what is their technology basis, how do I find out more about them…

As a hustler, I’m basically a sales person. 

I’m selling investors, potential team members and anyone who wants to listen or who can potentially affect the development of what we’re building in a positive manner.  And as a hustler, there has to be a little of the “confidence man” in me – providing security where none can be had.  Making people believe that the impossible is possible, not because I’m trying to cheat someone out of hard earned cash or time, but because I truly believe it myself, and with their help it will come closer to being reality.  Hustling to create something out of nothing.

This hustler is very grateful for the people he’s getting the pleasure to work with to create something that is slated to be industry changing.  I just got a sneak peak of the UI/UX and I’m really happy with the initial cut.  Of course, it will have to be completely redone after our beta trials, but it’s so revolutionary that I’m now getting positive flutters in my belly – the kind of excitement that makes me want to shout from the roof-tops, “We’re coming!” 

But I have to temper my excitement – we still have a long way to go.  Months of hard work with the team, more delays and disappointments, and more insecurity about whether we’ll succeed or not.  Every day, however, is a joy because of the people I have around me; my woman, my friends, my family, my team.   To say “my” doesn’t clearly denote how I feel – not ownership, but privilege in being able to be part of their lives and have them in mine.

This is the essence of entrepreneurship at its best – good people, good goals, good development and good prospects.  It’s a pity that it isn’t always like this.  It does, however, make me appreciate the good times when they are here.

Thank you all.

Ducks in a Row: Once Again Old is New

Tuesday, March 18th, 2014


I find it amusing how frequently I read something that is presented as totally new when, in fact, it was done decade(s) previously.

In this case, it was the agreement not to poach each others engineers, supposedly masterminded by Steve Jobs.

Just how far Silicon Valley will go to remove such risks is at the heart of a class-action lawsuit that accuses industry executives of agreeing between 2005 and 2009 not to poach one another’s employees.

The last time I remember this happening was in the late Seventies/early Eighties by the HR organizations in a group of semiconductor firms, including National Semiconductor, AMD and Intel, among others I can’t remember.

The story was broken by a gossipy semiconductor-focused newsletter to which everyone in the Valley subscribed, shared and denied reading. (Sadly, I can’t remember the name, although it was published by an individual who lived near Santa Cruz.)

Word was that being caught reading the newsletter could get you fired.

When the information surfaced it was the EEOC that fined the companies involved.

It was a stupid corporate move then and just as stupid now, but back then the workers affected didn’t do anything; how times have changed.

Flickr image credit: Harold Heindell Tejada


Wednesday, August 1st, 2012

http://www.flickr.com/photos/bdpacharlotte/5536075322/Recruiters are some of the most loved/hated/annoying people that candidates interact with whether looking for a job or an opportunity—a job pays the bills, while an opportunity moves your career—it’s nice when they are one-in-the-same.

What candidates need to keep front and center is that helping someone, no matter how good, is not recruiters’ primary focus.

Their focus is getting paid.

Recruiters get paid by filling a company’s open req.

Marketing a candidate is done with the primary goal of getting access to that company’s/manager’s open reqs and a contractual obligation to pay the recruiter.

A marketable candidate is not necessarily the best candidate available, but the candidate most likely to be “sold” successfully.

That judgment is based on the current needs of the marketplace and the number of similar positions in the target companies.

To actively market people who hold senior positions, have esoteric skills, are in large supply, or do not fit the general parameters of the recruiter’s normal market is not a good recipe for success.

Therefore, the decision to market or not to market has very little to do with candidate skills and everything to do with recruiters’ desire/need to spend their time productively.

The problem is that most recruiters are reluctant to explain.

Like most folks they are uncomfortable saying no, they don’t want to hurt the candidate’s feelings or they just can’t be bothered (this goes for hiring managers, too).

I have always contended that it is far worse for a candidate to think something is happening when it’s not than to be told the truth.

Disclaimer: Other than helping clients make staffing a core competency I’m long out of active recruiting, but it seems ridiculous to me that in these days of networking and DIY-everything trusting your future to a stranger when you are on the lowest rung of their priority ladder (after self and client) isn’t the smartest thing to do—and it never was.

Flickr image credit: BDPA Charlotte – IT Thought Leaders

Ducks in a Row: Resume Stupidity

Tuesday, July 31st, 2012

http://www.flickr.com/photos/triplezero/2617657041/Today is about resume stupidity by recruiters and management and the resulting lies.

It is about the stupidity of a required set of buzz words that recruiters use to screen candidates.

It is about the stupidity of managers providing that list.

It is about the stupidity of lying—even when the lie is a recommended action.

Recruiters like screening lists because it eliminates the need for a lot of up-front work on their part, i.e., they don’t have to talk to anyone who doesn’t use those words.

Forget the fact that there are many ways to describe something and most people describe their work using the words of their current management.

Way back in the late 1970s I worked with companies that built communications equipment (DTS, ROLM, etc.) and most software managers required experience designing real-time switches for telecom.

I had a fabulous engineer who designed real-time switches for a process equipment maker.

The software manager was furious; ranting on that it wasn’t telecom.

That made no sense to me; it seemed logical that real-time was real-time whether a switch was flipped or a valve was closed.

So I asked him to please explain the difference, so I could understand.

He started to talk and then stopped. There was a long silence and finally he told me to have my guy there for an interview the next day—he was hired on the spot.

It’s not that I was technically knowledgeable, but real-time is real-time made sense and the other didn’t.

The same goes for many “absolute requirements”—degrees, industry, etc.

As to the lies, I guarantee that sooner or later any lie you put on your resume will come back and bite you—even when it is a recruiter who recommends it.

Flickr image credit:  Frank Jania

Expand Your Mind: Hodgepodge II

Saturday, May 12th, 2012

Maybe because it is finally spring where I live, but my mind is skipping around topics like a butterfly (although I haven’t seen any yet).

Everywhere you go the tech world, especially startups, are scrambling to hire and moaning over the perceived lack of candidates. But finding talented engineers is a snap in comparison to finding women willing to commit to a convent. Being that it’s 2012, both groups have turned to social media to solve the problem.

Rather than leave the future of the convents to prayer and chance, Sister Elaine Lachance has turned to the Internet. She’s using social media and blogging to attract women who feel the calling to serve God and their community. “But I knew I had to go there, that I had to do it,” said Lachance, who turned 70 on Sunday. “You have to go where the young people are. And that’s where they are.”

Bend, Oregon is the backdrop of an encouraging story on jobs thanks to Gary Fish, who founded Deschutes Brewery in 1988.

With 80,000 people surrounded by not much of anything — with no Interstate, no university, and the closest major city 160 miles away across steep and snowy mountains — beer has had room to make a difference. (…) “You have to thank Gary Fish for kind of creating that culture,” said Larry Sidor, a former brew master at Deschutes who left last year to open a brewery of his own this summer, CRUX Fermentation Project. “It’s been kind of a training ground, a spawning ground for the craft movement.”

I have to admit I don’t understand the willingness of people to hire strangers to do both everyday and more exotic “life stuff” for them, but doing so is more tsunami than trend.

We’ve put a self-perpetuating cycle in motion. The more anxious, isolated and time-deprived we are, the more likely we are to turn to paid personal services. To finance these extra services, we work longer hours. This leaves less time to spend with family, friends and neighbors; we become less likely to call on them for help, and they on us.

Finally, I was reminded that short-term thinking always comes back to bite when I read in January that teens were “showing their love” by sharing everything, including passwords; actions guaranteed to create mayhem as teen feelings shift.

Young couples have long signaled their devotion to each other by various means — the gift of a letterman jacket, or an exchange of class rings or ID bracelets. (…) It has become fashionable for young people to express their affection for each other by sharing their passwords to e-mail, Facebook and other accounts.

Fast forward to adulthood and that tell-the-world social sharing is still creating mayhem, although not because of changing affections.

After a few relationship-testing episodes, some spouses have started insisting that their partners ask for approval before posting comments and photographs that include them. Couples also are talking through rules as early as the first date (a kind of social media prenup) about what is O.K. to share. Even tweeting about something as seemingly innocent as a house repair can become a lesson in boundary-setting.

Enjoy today and have a memorable Mother’s Day tomorrow.

Flickr image credit: pedroelcarvalho

The Value of a Degree

Wednesday, May 9th, 2012

The controversy over Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson’s education as described by Rocky Agrawal in Venture Beat made me laugh. (For those interested, the reason for the firing demand says a lot more about the lengths an investor will go to get what he wants than about Thompson.)

The good thing is that things are changing. Even mighty Google that once hired only 3.7+ GPAs has changed how they recruit using puzzles to identify talent that might fall through the cracks—assuming it even got that far.

Probably the greatest value of higher education—all education, actually—is learning how to learn.

It’s knowing where to find information and how to assimilate, tweak and synthesize it

so it becomes useful in both the short and long terms; more value comes from learning how to focus and think critically.

Skill in the actual major has value for two to four years—less in technical fields that change with radical speed.

From that point on the value of actual degree content goes down 20% or more each year, whereas real experience goes up.

That means in five years specific degrees become meaningless, while specific experience holds all the value.

Moreover, those with the ability to successfully move from industry to industry, field to field, department to department, position to position sans ego and hype truly have a price above rubies—although they rarely think so.

stock.xchng image credit: GlennPeb

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