Shoving Square Engineers in Round Holes

When helping companies rapidly improve their teams, a common issue is understanding why some people are not performing as expected. These are usually great engineers with a solid track record and experience. You and your managers might be trying all sorts of things to motivate them or help them to no avail. And the most frustrating thing is when they eventually leave, and you find out later that they are starring wherever they ended up in. What are you doing wrong?

Tailoring your hiring strategy also means that you should adapt your interviewing process to evaluate what makes your different candidates tick. Every person is a universe of its own, and we are all special snowflakes. And yet, it is possible to tease out some aspects of interest and behavior that can help you make sure you get the right people in the right jobs.

Below I list out several such aspects that I have seen success in evaluating for. I do want to stress again that this is not about being stereotypical, but about trying to maximize your chances of success. With that, let’s dig in.

The Tech-Product Continuum

Some engineers are driven by using the shiniest, newest, sharpest bleeding-edge tech. Others care mostly about the specific product they’re working on, its customers, and its impact. Placed on this continuum, you can decide if someone is likely to be productive and happy in a specific role.

In my experience, most early employees at startups tend to be product-driven engineers. In deep tech endeavors, it helps to have people enamored with the vertical they’re working in and researching whatever is latest and greatest. That’s one reason why a person can be incredibly effective in one team and zoned-out in another.

Further, I find that for many engineers, their tech-product inclination is not constant. Sometimes, when not empowered enough or connected to the business, they tend to gravitate more towards the tech end of the spectrum because that’s where they have the freedom to act. Others, when the specific product is something they personally connect with, naturally focus on providing customers with value and impact.

Comfort-Zone vs. Growth Mindset

Some people have an insatiable appetite for learning new things, pushing themselves, and experimenting. They work well in environments of high uncertainty and volatility. For each individual growth means a different thing. Some would like to learn new tech. Others would like to take on more managerial responsibilities or work more closely with clients.

And on the other hand, you’ll find people who love the feeling of getting work done and flinging over tasks to the “done” pile. These tend to want to operate within their comfort zone so that they are always productive and helpful. I’ve often seen people frustrated in early-stage startups where things frequently change precisely due to their preference of always churning out code and not having to reassess the directions too regularly.

Work-Life Imbalance

In a perfect world, we would not need to care about work-life balance: everything would always take care of itself, and we could have anyone in any position. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Expectation setting about this is crucial for a good fit.

The prominent examples would be positions that require working a lot with people in different time zones or being available on-call after work hours. These are requirements set by the workplace and that clearing them up too late can cause a big mess.

The other side of the coin is that sometimes people are in stages in their lives where they need to focus on things other than work. I’ve seen great employees that were focused on writing their books, setting off a new career path, or taking care of loved ones. They were great not because they worked themselves around the clock, getting everything done. However, their success stemmed from the balance between their needs and the requirements of the position they held.

A common occurrence would be student positions. I believe companies that are growing should be more open to considering similar situations for getting talented people who are not going to be focused on your company 24/7.

The Permission Gauge

Alan Weiss’s permission gauge talks about how likely someone is to take the initiative by themselves. In some situations and cultures, what you need is someone that has an innate sense of autonomy and authority—people who make themselves empowered (emancipated?) rather than wait to be given the go-ahead. This might be a dealbreaker in some scenarios and less critical in others.

All in all, collecting these data points and incorporating them as part of your hiring process will help set up your new hires for success.