Misaligned Requirements

I was taking out my laptop at a bar when i noticed the impeachment trial was playing on a nearby tv. A congressperson was on the senate floor giving an impassioned speech about the service of a young man. He then started talking about the Ukrainian city, "Keev".

You might wonder how a congressperson, reading a prewritten and rehearsed speech about Ukraine on the senate floor, could possibly pronounce Kiev, "Keev". You might also be wondering what on earth this has to do with startups or tech. Fair questions.

The issue lies in what i've come to refer to as misaligned requirements. These are instances where the requirements of entry for a position and the traits that would make someone successful in that position are disjointed. In the case of congresspeople, you have two relevant groups: people who are uniquely electable and people who would make excellent representatives. The nature of the position assures that all sitting members are electable. We are left to hope that this group has some overlap with people who would actually make excellent members.

It is unfortunate but this effect is hardly unique to elections. The more i pay attention to the issues caused by entry criteria diverting from success criteria, the more i notice the pattern playing out all over. It will come as little surprise that many software interviews create this very same effect. I've written before that whiteboard-based engineering interviews do more to measure a candidate's penmanship than coding ability. The underlying cause is of course the same as the election example above.

Solving the problem is a more complicated case. Because this pattern plays out in so many industries and positions i cant imagine there being some silver bullet to implement.

In smaller startups the good news is that we have the advantage of having the people leading the hiring process being the contributors themselves. Not having an HR department acting as a middle man more easily allows teams to develop interview processes that tightly align the entry requirements with the success requirements.

It is also important to understand that traits that lead to success are not strictly ability-based. Personality and work-style play a bit part in many positions success. Do you expect an engineer to work quietly and mindfully for hours on end? If so, having an interview process that includes a 7 hour onsite with lightning-round style questioning is probably biasing towards candidates who prefer that sort of environment.

Hiring, like elections, are too important to do poorly. After all it is the people who serve as an organization's lifeblood and identity. To rely on a process that selects for the wrong criteria is to set yourself up for failure... or success by accident.

tl;dr: We should strive to align the requirements positions with the traits that lead to success in it. That alignment is getting increasingly unusual, though.

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Written by Ben
Ben is the co-founder of Skyward. He has spent the last 10 years building products and working with startups.