Saturday, January 16, 2010

Hiring For A Job You Don't Understand

At a certain point you'll have to hire someone to do a job you know nothing about. Early stage entrepreneurs have to do this all the time. It took me forever to figure out how to hire the right software developer, but in the process I learned a lot about how to hire someone with a skill I know nothing about.

First off, it's just hard to find someone you can get along with day in and day out. Period. No matter what position you are trying to fill, you must always spend a reasonable amount of time getting to know someone if you want a reasonable chance of that person working out. If you rush to hire, you'll likely find that the person you were "in love with" at first sight has 1+ drawbacks that drive you nuts. Maybe they clash with your personality, show up to work late, are a slow learner, or just don't bathe.

    So, here's some steps you can take:

  • Clearly and concisely define what you want someone to do. You don't want to just say something like, "marketing my product should be easy for an experienced marketing person, so I'll just find a experienced marketing person." Instead, clearly define the role, even if you have to guess - "I want someone to help me market to my customers on Facebook and through email." You can always adjust what you're looking for as you go.

    **Trust this: If you don't innately understand a job and you think an experienced professional will automatically get it, you are wrong. That job will ALWAYS take a lot of work to master, even for professional with experience.**

  • Consider getting help from a third party, especially when hiring for a critical role. A client of mine runs a financial startup, and he's not a technical guy. When he asked me to help him recruit a few software engineers, he hadn't yet hired a software manager. In order to see how qualified the software engineers we hired were, the company used a senior software executive at a local consulting firm to do a technical interview. When hiring an assistant, you can use a local temp agency that knows what assistants in your field need to know. If you're on a budget, just ask a few people who do the job you're hiring for what you need to look for in a potential employee.

  • Screen for appropriate skills. To reuse the example of hiring an experienced marketing person, look for people who have a track record of advertising via email and Facebook. If you can find enough of these people, hire the best one. If no one you interview has the skills you need, try to identify what skills and experience a successful person would need to know in order to learn on the job. If you can't identify what those skills are, don't hire anyone until you can.

  • Have three people to choose from. Towards the end of the hiring process, it's really nice to have three people to choose from. If you don't have the time to interview at least three people, make the time - it's worth it. You can assume at least one of your favorite three will not come work for you, whether they decline your offer or get another job before you can extend an offer. Once you are down to two, there's a good chance you'll be on the fence about at least one of them. If you only have one qualified applicant to choose from, you'll will probably doubt yourself before hiring that person, and the applicant will probably pick up on your insecurity and become at least a little insecure about working for you.

  • Listen to your gut. You'll never really know if someone will do the job until you let them try. That being said, don't hire someone to be nice. Hire someone because you are confident that person can do the job. If you believe in someone, they are more likely to succeed. If you have doubts about a person and you want to hire them anyway, give them a small task that would be hard to screw up. Seth Godin wrote a really good blog article about giving people small chunks of work to see how well they perform.

  • Consider hiring a consultant for a little while. When you spend time around a person who is really good at what they do, you tend to pick up a thing or two. It's like going to school AND getting your work done! Let the consultant know in advance you're hiring that person to train you to be a more informed hiring manager and that the consulting arrangement is only for a specified amount of time. Once your consultant teaches you a bit, you can probably use that person to help you hire a regular employee.


  1. I love the idea of getting a 3rd party to interview the candidate. We all know people who we've worked with before who we think do their job really well, even if we don't understand exactly what that takes.

  2. I'm a big fan of getting help from people more knowledgeable than I am :)