All You Have to Do Is Ask: How to Hire Smart People Everywhere

Many years ago, one of Redfin’s investors asked Sean Moriarty, former TicketMaster CEO, to take me to lunch. Sean asked only two questions: “Are you some kind of star-f****er?” (I’d breathlessly inquired, as if it wasn’t self-evident, what David Lee Roth was really like) and “Do you have an eye for talent?”

“Well,” I said, expecting the conversation to take a better turn, “I like to think I know a good egg when I see one.”

“That just means you have no idea what you’re looking for,” Sean said. “Nobody can tell just like that if someone’s going to be a good hire. You have to work at it.”

It’s a problem I think about all the time, since I interview someone almost every day of my life. Google is famous for systematically tracking which interviewers are better at predicting the candidates who will thrive but a friend there told me the company concluded no one is much better than anyone else.

This conundrum came to mind at a TechStars talk last week when an engineer asked me how she could hire good marketers without knowing much about marketing herself.

All of us start from one area of expertise, but our first challenge as an entrepreneur is to hire folks from the other areas. Engineers worry their hard work will be overlooked because a marketing guru can’t deliver the buzz. Business folks entrust overseas coders to bring their million-dollar idea to life.

It’s a crapshoot, but you can raise your odds if you treat everyone the same, using the interview to dig into her work. The problem is, most engineers and business people interview one another like the Europeans in “Barcelona.” As one American in the movie gleefully reports to another, it never occurs to a Spaniard that an American is just being an ass; instead they just assume “it’s some national characteristic.”

That kind of deference in an interview is your enemy. Once you hire someone, you have to defer to her expertise, which means that before you hire someone you can’t. Engineers who can’t explain ideas clearly in the interview usually don’t code clearly. Marketing folks who seem slick in the interview won’t represent what you stand for in a genuine way. Fortune-500 guys who only talk about the big picture won’t get nitty-gritty about the work you need done.

Be Stupid
I used to nod knowingly at candidates slinging the most outrageous baloney, just so I didn’t look stupid. Now, if I don’t know what Node.JS is, or why someone would buy Windows Live Mesh, or how ad re-targeting works, I say, “I’m sorry, can you explain that to me?” And then, rather than accepting an explanation I still don’t understand, I usually ask a follow-up question: “Can you explain it to me like I’m a four year-old?”

Being stupid gives the candidate a chance to be smart: the candidate has to understand an idea down to its bones to explain it in the simplest terms. My first manager, David Lichtblau, saw on my resume that I liked physics and so asked me in my interview to explain special relativity to him, handing me a marker as if I were going to jot out the math, or depict a Fitzgerald contraction graphically. He told me the last candidate had done general relativity.

Halfway through, I realized with a flood of relief that he himself hadn’t brushed up on relativity, so I could tell him anything. But he was too tenacious for that. By the end, I found myself trying to account for the shape of the universe using the new bogus law of physics I had concocted on his white board. It took a long time, and I tried to avoid it at all costs, but what that finally forced me to do was think.

Hire Smart People Everywhere
What’s most impressive about Dave’s tenacity is what he was using it for: to hire someone to document and test a programming interface no outsider ever had, or ever would, use. Someone at that first startup had a saying, “Hire smart people everywhere,” to which my new boss gleefully added, “even for your job.”

In reality, deference can be a form of hopelessness, based on the premise that someone in a role other than yours doesn’t need to be smart, or couldn’t possibly be smart. Wrong. You can expect a human resources professional, an accountant, a salesman, a publicist, an engineer to be brilliant, and brilliance in any field is self-evident. More important, you can always judge the quality of someone’s energy, whether she has soul, how she makes other people feel. If you’re not excited about someone, regardless of her role, pass.

But most hiring managers think they have to settle for the stereotypes: a pretty face for PR, an accountant who lost his sense of curiosity in a tragic medical accident, an HR bureaucrat. These are the atoms of your being as a company, and if they are mediocre, the company will be mediocre.

“Show Your Work, Please”
Deference also prevents you from seeing someone’s work. There’s a tendency for interviews to be about someone’s work: you talk about the passion rather than showing actual passion. The first lesson I learned in interviewing was to focus on specific examples rather than generalities. You can’t ask someone if she’ll work really hard, but you can ask her to tell you about a time she did: how long ago was it, how long did it last, what did she get done, how does she feel about it now?

But even more important is to ask the candidate to do the work, not just talk about it. Ask a publicist to write the first paragraph of a press release, or a product manager to develop a feature idea, an agent to write a contract, or a salesman to pitch you on his last product. Coding challenges are widely accepted in engineering interviews – we’ve had engineers turn us down because our coding challenges weren’t hard enough — but are often viewed as cruel and unusual elsewhere.

Our chairman, Paul Goodrich, asks would-be executives at Redfin to present their point of view to the entire board. I apologize to big-shot candidates when asking them to do this, but really I love it. You want an interview loop to be as close as possible to someone’s first four hours on the job.

For a candidate who loves her work, this request won’t be onerous or off-putting; it will be exhilarating. At one nadir of my professional life, I interviewed for a job as a bicycle messenger. I showed up in my good outfit. The hiring manager, a large 50-something with a gigantic ash-tray in front of her, was the dispatcher, routing messengers to pick up packages. To start the interview, she leaned back and looked me over with an appraising eye. Then she said, “Can you run in place?

“Here?” I said. “Now?” She nodded gravely. I began to run in place. She returned her attention to her black-and-white portable TV, looking up after two minutes to see that I was still enthusiastically hopping around. “You’ve got the job,” she said.

Best interview ever.

Discussion

  • Guest

    Love the last interview! How’s it going Glen?

  • http://www.facebook.com/jalenhe Jalen He

    So for the last interview, it’s just like if you hire a programmer, you ask him/her to write code on the white board. Same thing, right?
    BTW, how’s everything going, Glen? :)