Hiring Talent and the Second Order Harmonic

Over the last dozen years of my career I’ve had to spend significant time hiring talent building teams. I’m often asked how I make determinations about people and decide who to pursue. Obviously the answer is complex, as people are complex. But the second order harmonic is key to seeing through the complexity.

I tend to frame topics in analogy – this helps shed the lesser relevant details and focus on the essence of a situation. So it is with analogies and the second order harmonic.

We’re probably all familiar with the term, “pinging” or “engine knock” – when our automobile engine makes that funny noise and the car stutters just a bit. Modern cars do this less frequently in part because emissions regulations from the mid nineties have required engine manufacturers to sense “pinging” and retard the engine timing. (pinging occurs when hot gas is compressed to a point that it begins combustion in the cylinder prior to the spark plug igniting the gas charge). But unfortunately the engine is a noisy place. Sensors listening for that pinging sound incur many false readings. To solve this problem, engineers went to the second (and third) order harmonics of the pinging sound. It turns out that much less noise exists at the higher harmonic frequencies. The sensors can determine engine knocking with much greater accuracy.

Interviewing has much that same issue of signal to noise. There is too much information in too short a period of time. Let’s face it – you’re going to make a decision to hire someone that you will spend 5 days / week with and rely on for many things. That decision is made with a scant hour or two of exposure. We often take years to know someone before we marry, but living with team mates is a interview time flash in the pan. In that short time we look for the experience needed for a role on the team. Have they coded XYZ types of systems, do they know, have they led small teams, … . These are all the first order criteria. One should discern these core issues, but that is not where most of the time should be spent.

The second order harmonic is about really understanding the interviewee. What is their nature? How are they going to fit in? How are they going to contribute? What is going to be problematic for them? These answers are not right under one’s nose. Not only that, it is the job of the interviewee to put their best foot forward – if you attempt to figure out these topics head on, you’ll be challenged by separating the best foot from the other foot. The key to the second order harmonic is to get into discussions that don’t necessarily relate to work, or address worked related topics indirectly. After all it is not just what they know that matters – how they think will really impact the workplace.

Where are these places? Discuss hobbies. Find out what makes them excited. Ask questions that tell you more about their values than their knowledge – “If you had a group of people working for you and 1/3 of their salary was based on performance of two criteria which you set, what two criteria would you bonus on?” – there is no right answer. Those are the best questions … it’s an analog world. Let them explain what they’d choose and find out why.

Let me end with a story on an interview I performed some time ago. We were looking for a VP of Software Development. I met with a possible candidate, someone who had been in the business for twenty years. Good degree background, worked in a few prestigious organizations. We discussed fundamentals about software engineering, teams, people, architecture, et cetera. His answers were reasonable. Toward the end of the interview I tell the individual that I’d like to discuss their technical background from when they were hands on (writing code), prior to becoming a technical manager. I let him know I was aware his hands on experience was some time back – I’d be gentle. He explains his last coding position was in the mid nineties, spending 18 months writing C code ingesting data on UNIX servers. I ask, “Did you consider other ways to code and ingest data, other than using C?” He looks at me quizzically. Assuming my question was unclear, I elaborate, “Well you mentioned you were on UNIX; there are other tools for manipulating data, for example.” His answers immediately, “Oh I was not a UNIX admin.”

There is the second order harmonic. Why do I say that? Any serious developer on a UNIX platform knows UNIX like the back of their hand, especially doing back end work. No self respecting UNIX geek would ever say they weren’t an admin. They not only want root access to the dev boxes, they probably run some UNIX equipment at the house. His answer told me he was not a deep geek but a task oriented programmer. As a VP of Development one is going to have to discern very fundamental technical issues without having one’s fingers dirty. Not to mention knowing how to successfully create and maintain teams with people that know how to build software projects successfully. Deep knowledge in software is required for such a role. To make the right calls on the direction of work, and to know on whom to rely and why, one needs the deep technical experience. The trajectory of this person’s career was typical – several years of light development work followed by a career managing people. Undoubtedly he did the latter well, but I was not going to trust his judgement when it came to the software jewels for which he and his teams would be responsible.

For a few more detailed examples, see Questions in the Second Order Harmonic.

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