Tag Archives: Recruitment

In the jobmarket, everyone is a used car salesman!

While being in the jobmarket is hard for most, it also evokes romantic visions of getting a great career break at this fabulous company known for its excellent culture, cool products, bleeding edge technology and cut-above-the-rest compensation! Most of us use that as an opportunity to critically examine our strengths and weekenesses, our USP, our inner calling – and last but certainly not the least, our market value. In a freemarket economy, that’s a lot like selling your used car :).

Selling a used car is tough. I don’t know too many people who trust a used car salesman, but here’s the radical idea – we are all used car salesmen working extremely hard to outcompete other similar salesmen to eventually sell ourselves. Only we know the true strengths and hidden constraints of our ‘car’ – only we know what is our true mileage, how good is the transmission system, how strong is the engine, how good is the braking system, and so on. Still, try getting all those true facts out of a used car salesman! All you get is a deliberate attempt to gloss over the facts and present a used car that is promised to be even far better than its brand-new brethern! The buyer of a used card is almost always a value-shopper, and doesn’t want a car that becomes a black-hole very soon – however pretty much everyone in the market selling his/her used car is there for similar reasons – to dispose off the old guzzler. With the limited access to funds, that buyer is looking for an instant nirvana at a considerably lower price-point, and to a large extent, knows that a used car is, well, a used car after all! So, a mating game begins where the buyer must exhibit streetsmart commonsense and highlight the nicks, scratches, dents and flaws in the car that could be used to negotiate and bring down the asking price of the used car. The seller, in turn, will sugercoat the issues and try to sell its bugs as features (doesn’t it sound like real life even for brand new products!) so that even out of a piece of scrap metal, he can salvage some value.

Used car salesmanA jobmarket is not very different, except that no one here wants a brand-new employee! Imagine hiring a still-wet-behind-the-ears rookie when what you need is a battle-hardened veteran! As hiring managers, we all want highly experienced professionals – quite often asking for multiple years of experience in a similar job, without even bothering why will someone want to restart his/her new innings at a new job after having been in a similar job for years? So, out we go and don our gear of the quintessential salesman and start bullnosing our resume. Having gone through hundereds of resumes as hiring managers, we all realize the deliberate attempts to cover-up low grades, missing years in the career profile, and the reasons behind quick job hopping and so on. Diving deep further in the resume leads to further enlightment – the role claimed by the candidate turns out that to be nowhere near what has been claimed, the technical details or responsibilities are probably borrowed from the lead performer in that team, and professional references given, if any, are of the weekend beer buddies! In short, everyone is entering the job market with known blemishes, failures and disasters – just that others (especially in a different company, different town don’t know about them – or at least you hope so!). However, honesty is not a virtue always welcomed with a warm embrace in the job market – something that you very quickly learn from your own failures (imagine shouting in the job market from a megaphone that you are such an incompetant dud that no one wants to keep for more than a week and see how many people want to hire you) and perhaps learn a lot from others’ success, especially when they happen to be half as worthy of getting the new job as you. There was a time when people only wanted to hire consistent superstars – they were the guarantee to any future success. Obviously this can put considerable pressure on candidates who don’t have such impeccable record, and there aren’t too many people who have unblemished record. On the other hand, in the aftermath of dotcom bloodbath and the recent market lows, many companies actually want to hire the serial failures – people who have burnt a few million here and tanked a few companies there – in the anticipation that such experience is worth its weight in gold, and will hopefully help them in avoiding such costly errors. If only the formula for success was built on such simple premise!

On the other hand, seasoned hiring managers know it better than to take the resume and credentials at face value. Most of the time, a smooth-talking candidate might appear like god’s next greatest gift to mankind (or at least to that company), but there is still a sizeable gap between what you are sold and what you actually get! And in today’s world when so much depends on having the right person in the right place, there is no room for any error. Thus, the buyer must exhibit all due diligence to ensure that the ‘used’ candidate is actually what he/she claims to be. An overpromise of performance could not only be fatal for the hiring manager, it could also be a mini-disaster of sorts for the company. And hence, it is not easy to explain why companies go to great lengths to do background checks and reference check on candidates, or fund the employee referrals so that there is an element of being familiarity with the prior work. LinkedIn is a great example of how a highly transparent system of professional networks, relationships and references can be used to effectively assess a candidate’s real work – chances are very high that one can’t really inflate the resume in front of one’s own network who probably know it all :). 

Eventually, your reputation (and market value) is only as good as your last transaction. So, even if one does manage to inflate one’s resume and land with this to-die-for job, it is only a matter of time before his inadequacies will be exposed and the reporting manager is forced to bite the bullet.

I think there is an opportunity and a real need for all of us to be the honest salesman when we are in the job market and selling ourselves to prospective bidders. The stars and medals should be proudly displayed and so must be the scars and broken bones! Failures are the stepping stones to success, and the right mix of these could be a very potent and sellable combination. One needn’t feel embarassed about the failures and try to hide them, or lie about them. Every such interaction should be taken as a learning opportunity that only prepares you with the better pitch and an increased self-awareness about your own strengths and limitations. It is my strong conviction that good people eventually finish in the Top 3, so, there is no need to panic in the short-term and take short-cuts to success – all short-cuts are short-lived.

In the job market, everyone is a used car salesman – so be different and be the good salesman 🙂 

What kind of “Managers stick with poor performers rather than hire new faces” ?

I am sure you have heard it in all versions, subversions and perversions, but one simple universal workplace truth seems to be don’t tolerate poor performance, and if not outrightly eliminate poor performers, do ease them out over a reasonable but fast period of time. The yawning gap between a bottom performer and the top performer is perhaps nowhere more so prominent as in a human-skill based knowledge industry like software. Over the years, various productivity studies still continue to point a gap of anywhere between 1:10 to 1:20 or even more between the top programmer and the bottom one. The exact number doesn’t really matter.

What is important is to understand that success of a software endeavor howsomuch is dependent on very smart people, it finally needs a great team to deliver goods – no task is trivial enough to be single-handled performed by the star performer on a sustainable basis, nor is anyone smart enough to effectively comprehend every bit of information created by mankind. This doesn’t trivialize individual human talent, nor is meant to belittle those huge efforts that make a star performer a star performer. It only highlights the nature of the beast – to deliver a non-trivial piece of software with reasonable complexity and business criticality, one must have a team comprising of team members that complement each other’s skills.

We all know a great team that works like Swiss clockwork doesn’t happen by accident. Throwing a bunch of people together, howsoever individually competent, in a blender doesn’t ensure that the result is sweet juices of creativity, teamwork and performance. Instead, all one might get is a bloody mix of team dysfunctions, bruised egos, competing team members constantly on the prowl to backstab others…and so on.

So, how does one go about building a great team. Having the right intent, high bar (higher than what people believe that are capable of achieving) and zero-tolerance for poor performance is a good start. Often, it is easier said then done. There are also fair arguments that when you build a team six people, you can find the smartest people, but when your team needs sixty people, try doing the same. I have managed three fairly large teams: two of them were over 110+ people and one of them had some 190+ engineers working on really complex softwares such as core routers and SoftSwitch, and I can tell you the mindset one needs to manage such large endeavors of human creativity are radically different from what I would need when working on a six-people teams. For one, there is no way you are ever going to get all smart people with top talent – it is just impossible to hire people of equally hire calibre in such numbers on any team, any place on earth. People often don’t admit it, but I am going to hold on to my arguments. There is always a performance curve (“Bell Curve”) in any random distribution. My favorite quote here is from Mali, our HR Manager at Philips, “There is a Bell Curve even at Bell Labs”. Wider the bell curve, bigger is the gap between the top and a bottom performer that I talked about earlier. In a six-people team, it is possible to cherry-pick team members that leads to a very narrow bell curve. In a larger team, the curve starts to flatten out and widen at the ends. This is not by intent, but because of a combination of various factors:

  • difficulty in finding large number of experienced people with required skills in the given domain
  • you can’t always start with a flat staffing (meaning, achieve 100% staffing in the initial stages of the project) – there is not enough work in the beginning, and during the peak, everyone is stressed out and later in the project, there is overstaffing. A Rayleigh’s curve works reasonably well
  • the bad economics of having an all-star team – even Manchester United can’t get all the best players in the world to play for it – they might go bankcrupt before the kick-off itself !
  • inevitable dilution in hiring standards over time as hiring responsibilities get delegated, often to new managers who might not have the same level of organizational understanding as the original team
  • many smart people might not want to join a large team for the fear of becoming just another face in the crowd !
  • a large project is more like a marathon than a hunderd meter dash, and is often late, forcing people to forgo weekends and vacations for a prolonged period of time. Many people, irrespective of their talent, might not want to get stuck in such situations – so this already limits the gene pool to work on and work with

There are many more reasons, and even if you don’t agree with all of these reasons, it is incredibly difficult to build a large team. Coming to smaller teams, it is similar challenge, and many of the reasons mentioned above might very well apply there. However, when it comes to absolute numbers, I look at it this way: what is easier – raising a loan of $50,000 or $3million ? The fact is, everything else equal, you can almost always go a far better job of building a smaller team than a larger team. But even that doesn’t guarantee scintillating performance by our small team. The fundamentals don’t really change. If any, the stakes are even higher for there no safety nets – the team can’t handle inefficiencies, and probably everyone in the team is a multi-skilled multitasker (as opposed to an individual in a larger team where there is a higher level of ‘vertical differentiation’ and ‘horizontal differentiation’). If one person leaves the team, the impact is far bigger than a similar percentage attrition in a larger team that no HR metric on attrition can capture. And the same goes for low performance – poor performance is far more lethal in a smaller team than a comparable percentage of poor performers in a large team. You would expect a lower tolerance for poor performers in any team, more so in a small team.

And it is for this very reason, that I was surprised to read Managers stick with poor performers rather than hire new faces. It is unbelievable and very shocking that a good 70% among us would rather put up with an existing poor performer than risk a new hire ! I think most reasons there don’t make sense, and I think ‘denial’ as a reason is probably a bigger contributor than is generally credited for. Irrespective, I hope like hell this data is an anomaly. For if it is not, I see more serious challenges ahead. By not getting rid of the poor performers even in these tough economic situations, a clear message is being sent that not just condones, even promotes, that level of performance. The teams are as it is not performing to their potential. Everyone in the team knows who those poor performers are, but the fact that a lower performance is being tolerated clearly send mixed signals and confuses people, especially the committed, hard-working performers. Some among them might feel insulted and likely to leave, thus leaving the team in an even bigger mess. I think managers of those teams are doing the biggest disservice to their organizations: one one hand they are tolerating poor performance and on the other hand, their condoning behavior could be disenchanting higher performers.

With this attitude, I think it surely is going to be one long slowdown. For those companies, surely.