Friday 18 October 2019

Adrian Weckler: 'Nine interviews to get just one job'

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Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

A FRIEND of mine just got a job in a mid-sized multinational tech firm. It took her nine interviews over eight weeks.

Some of these were online, some were in person: all took place on separate occasions.

The job is not an executive role, but a mid-level position. At first, I was shocked: what could justify nine different interviews?

But then I asked around. It seems that multiple interviews — by which I mean more than three or four — is becoming fairly common in tech companies.

A candidate is meant to meet as many different managers as possible to get a sense of the company’s set-up. More importantly, though, it also works the other way around.

More than one company I’ve spoken to operates a veto system: if one of the four or five (or nine) managers doesn’t quite feel the candidate is the right fit, they can pull the cord.

I recently hosted a discussion online on this topic, to try to understand a bit more why companies are starting to operate in this way. A few themes started to emerge.

First, companies are trying to control much more in the hiring process than they used to.

This extends to the usual things, like overall impression and ‘culture fit’. The latter issue is one of the most contentious issues in the tech industry and is a well-aired topic. Company seniors usually have a bias toward hiring the same type of people, from the same type of background, as themselves.

If you happen to be a different colour, age or gender, or come from outside the same education background, it helps if you like kite-surfing or Star Wars. (I once interviewed a venture capitalist who told me he was significantly more inclined to invest in someone who shows an interest in kite-surfing.)

Companies are starting to look deep into your background for clues into your ‘character’.

Many I have spoken to say they were asked whether, and to what degree, they participated in university societies or sports clubs at a committee or leadership position. They’re also frequently probed on things like whether they have some other notable skill or passion such as playing sport or music at a high level, or some other deep knowledge outside of their work area.

One company even went as far as to differentiate, from a suitability perspective, achievement in an individual sport as opposed to a team-based sport. (They ranked the individual sport higher. Completely unrelatedly, tennis is my sport.)

In itself, none of these may constitute a reason to draw out a single, non-executive interview over such a protracted period. But what is also clear is that for founders and company executives the stakes are now considered much higher when it comes to the recruitment act.

And this leads to more and more intricate processes. This is not always understood. Of the hundreds of responses to the discussion I initiated on this topic, around half couldn’t understand why a company needs to have more than one or two interviews, unless it’s a seminal position within the organisation.

But it’s a very different story when you talk to some of the people doing the hiring. The tech industry, they say, is basically an unending battle to get and keep the best people.

This is far more so than the banking industry, pharmaceutical industry, retail industry, hospitality industry or agriculture industry (the other main business sectors in Ireland). One reason is that other cornerstones are relatively minor.

Things like capital, distribution (if it’s an online service) and infrastructure are way more easily available than in other businesses.

Even in Ireland, it really doesn’t take that much to raise hundreds of thousands — or even millions — in funding compared to a decade ago. Utilities from outfits such as AWS and Stripe put professional-grade operations within the reach of all.

This leaves individual hires with a much bigger premium differential quotient than in more traditionally structured industries.

This is certainly a view held by most of the founders I’ve spoken to in the last year, from those behind high-growth mid-tier outfits such as Zendesk and Qualtrics to juggernauts like Facebook.

But are they completely correct? Or is it possible that these founders may err on the side of being a little too neurotic and control-freakish about the whole thing? This is certainly possible. A major internal study by Google some years ago found that elaborate hiring processes and scoring mechanisms proved to be next to useless when measuring the performance of the people hired.

“We looked at tens of thousands of interviews, and everyone who had done the interviews and what they scored the candidate, and how that person ultimately performed in their job,” said Laszlo Bock, Google’s former senior vice-president of people operations in a previous interview with The New York Times. “We found zero relationship. It’s a complete random mess.”

That’s just one view, though. The nature of tech company founders is that a high percentage view themselves as engineers or problem-solvers.

Many of them suspect that challenges, even ones as inchoate as hiring the right person, have ‘solutions’ that can be better approached through quasi-algorithmic approaches.

Whatever the truth of it, the system of so many interviews can leave a sour taste. My friend stuck with it and got the job. But she did start to get sick of it. Not sick enough to walk away from the process. But sufficiently irritated to complain about it to me and others.

It wasn’t a question of insecurity or nerves at not getting the job, as there are quite a few of them going in the tech sector around Dublin. It was a feeling that her time was being wasted.

But this may be here to stay.

Online Editors

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