On the utter folly of the “Rock Star” hiring model, or “You think you want to hire Mozart, but you should be looking for Bruckner”

Herein I present a critique of hiring practices in the tech industries, together with an awkward admission that the compose-it-now model actually worked, howbeit in a completely different business sector.

Well over a year ago, having been unemployed for long enough to have been forced into foreclosure (thanks, Wells Fargo!) and Chapter 13 bankruptcy, three Large Technology Corporations, thanks to the efforts of friends, invited me to interview for various sorts of techie positions.

Admittedly I am not your average newcomer, having written my first program in 1962 on a Control Data CDC160-A, and having a bunch of other accomplishments on my copybook in subsequent years.  Looking back on the variety of high-performance software I have created, delivered and maintained over the past few decades, including notable contributions to the performance of engine control systems in automobiles manufactured by a major manufacturer, I have reason to consider myself a significant asset to an organization needing a software designer/implementer with a nifty track record.

In 100% of these job interview cases, the No Sale red flag came up in the register.  In two out of the three, in fact, we didn’t make it past the lunch break before I was invited to turn in my visitor badge and leave the building.

What happened?  In each case, setting aside the Google-repudiated practice of submitting the candidate to “brain teaser / logic puzzle” ordeals (epic fail at Akamai and Netflix), there was the “step up to the whiteboard and write a C function that does the following…” problem (epic fail at Akamai, Netflix and Amazon).

I’m sure that lots of people can do that sort of thing.  My response to this sort of demand is “I’ll have to think about that.”

When I compose software, there is a preliminary “thinking about it” period that lasts anywhere from minutes to weeks.  My first draft is almost never correct, for anything more complex than a subroutine that properly increments the H and L registers.  That’s just the way my brain operates, but it has profited a number of corporations mightily when it has been allowed to operate that way.

So, where is the model fault?  It is in looking for the Rock Star (someone who can improvise in one beautiful moment of performance) rather than a Composer (someone who creates and perfects a work that can be performed an unlimited number of times).  One must note that the Rock Star does the improvisation in the midst of a previously composed, rehearsed and perfected work.  (Perhaps one might snarkishly add that the Rock Star is often noted for trashing hotel rooms and being incarcerated for possession of controlled substances, but that is an entirely different discussion).

My current employer, blessings be upon him/her/it/them, required none of the above (although I was required to recite from memory the entire sequence of events in an SMTP mail delivery transaction — a reasonable request, given the job description), and “I’ll have to think about that” is an entirely acceptable answer to many workday queries.

So, to come belately to the point:  do you want a gifted improviser —  someone who can, if need be, play the piano whilst upside-down?  Or, perhaps, do you need someone who can create a large, cohesive work that can be performed more-or-less mechanically for the next several hundred years without fault or folly?  YMMV.

And now, the awkward bit:

As a professional actor (I get paid, but not necessarily enough to live without having a day job), I audition.  An audition is in essence a job interview, but one in which you are required to do the job in part, in order to demonstrate that you will be able to do it in full.

In three cases in the last 25 years, I have auditioned for a role where, reading the sides (script excerpts) it said something along the lines of “Sings: <song lyrics>”.  When I asked for the music score for the song, none was to be had.  “It’s up to you” was the rejoinder.  So, in each case, I composed the music on the spot, and performed it for the audition.  In each case, I got the role, and in each case the on-the-spot composition ended up, with minor refinements, in the produced show.

Some days, the magic works…

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One Response to On the utter folly of the “Rock Star” hiring model, or “You think you want to hire Mozart, but you should be looking for Bruckner”

  1. P.R. Rathbun says:

    Why do interviewers who are supposedly used to solving problems & who probably have never had to do what they are requiring interviewees to do think that asking people to display skills that have nothing to do with the job position will help them find someone who can do the job?

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