Monday, March 12, 2007

Hiring at Startups

Let's take a break and enter the echo chamber for a moment... I was reading TSS and saw this blog on hiring at startups. It was somewhat interesting, though kind of "duh"-ish. Then I read a response from Don MacAskill, the CEO of SmugMug. There was one thing in here I had to completely disagreewith:

Hire for passion first, talent second.

Now I'm certainly no CEO, but I have been at my share of startups. I've also done a lot of interviewing and helped hire (and not hire) many people at said startups. There is no way I could agree with this statement. It reminds me of when sports broadcasters talk about "chemistry" people. It's a bunch of garbage.There is no substitute for talent.

I have worked with enthusiastic people who everybody loved. These were people willing to do whatever you asked them to do, work ridiculous hours, you name it. But they weren't good programmers. You know what happens? They struggle and it puts a drain on everybody else. Everybody else tries to help them out and cover for them, because they like the person and the person needs help.

I've also worked with very aloof, but brilliant people. These are the kind of people who you can go weeks without saying more than a few words to them. But they always deliver, and always deliver on-time. Often they over-deliver, i.e. they provide extra features that weren't asked for, but are immediately useful to everyone. But they keep to themselves, they don't run their mouths at company meetings, etc. Give me one of those people over two or three "passion first, talent second" sorts.

It's funny, just earlier I had been talking to a friend of mine about "geek syndrome" a.k.a. Asperger's Syndrome. This "syndrome" often suggests a correlation between highly logical intelligence and social "shortcomings." I would guess that such people would often fail the "passion" test.

Now I do have to give props to Mr. MacAskill for following up the bubbly-over-brains point with a much better one:

Passion for the job, not passion for the company.

He stole this from Google's Kathy Sierra, but at least he gives her credit. This is definitely true, and in some ways qualifies his previous false proposition. I'm still not sure if he would hire somebody who didn't care at all about SmugMug's business, but loved to code and was extremely good at it.


Chris said...

> I'm still not sure if he would hire
> somebody who didn't care at all
> about SmugMug's business, but loved
> to code and was extremely good at it.

Hi Michael,

Very interesting post. I'm Don's business partner and it will be interesting to see if he weighs in, but I'm pretty sure it would take an extraordinary circumstance for him to hire someone who wasn't passionate about photo sharing.

He and I are big fans of Steve Jobs' commencement address at Stanford, where he said, "the only way to do great work is to love what you do."

I worked for Steve in his down-and-out years at NeXT when it didn't appear to very many people that he was very talented. I'd come home and tell my family, "he may not be a good business man, but he just loves computers." Funny how that passion turned into what looks like a lot of talent today.

Don doesn't want to compromise on talent, but I've seen him give the nod to people with great passion for photo sharing over people with a more impressive resume, and it's really worked for us.

Chris MacAskill

Michael said...

Thanks for the response Chris. I would agree with the Jobs quote. I think that often "what you do" for programmers is misunderstood though. Programmers love to ... program! If you find people who love to program, chances are they will be very good at it. If there are other (job-related) things that they love more, they might still be good programmers but it's much more of a crap-shoot. Thus a programmer who loves photo sharing might still be a good programmer, but they might not.

I'm just speaking from my personal experience. Software engineering is a very messy flavor of engineering. It's easy to get started in, but it's very hard to be good at it. Finding those rare people who are good at it is even harder. Maybe you guys have done a good job of finding those people, or maybe you've been lucky.

Don MacAskill said...

Hi Michael,

Thanks for the comments about my post - I'm glad to see someone's listening. :)

I certainly didn't mean to make the point that I'd hire someone without talent over someone with. That's not what I meant at all, and I thought I made that clear by saying "there has to be a foundation there".

There are some problems with hiring purely on talent, though:

- Gauging talent in an interview or two is extremely difficult. I've blown it more times than I've gotten it right.

- Comparing one talented person to another is even more difficult. Often there's more than one applicant, how to choose?

I suppose my point really was more along the lines of "if you've got talent, but no passion, don't bother." Almost no-one lists (or considers, as far as I can tell) passion, only talent, and my main point is that's a mistake.

We try to only hire superstars at SmugMug, and you can't be a superstar without both.