Hazards of Hiring

Hazards of HiringSummary: Eric offers guidelines for handling tough hiring decisions in a small ISV.Several months ago, I wrote an MSDN column entitled Make More Mistakes. This column was one of the most popular things I have ever written. People seemed to really enjoy reading about my screw-ups. As human beings, we are fascinated by the failures of others.In the many e-mails I received about that column, one of the most common questions was why didn’t I list any hiring mistakes. “Eric, is it possible that you have simply never made a mistake in a hiring decision?”Au contraire, I’ve made plenty. But those are stories I would rather not tell. It is one thing for me to air my own idiocy in public, but quite another thing for me to recount tales that might hurt someone else.Nonetheless, hiring decisions are tricky, and I think I’ve learned enough to say a few worthwhile things on this topic.I’ll start with four general guidelines for how to proceed with a hiring decision.After that, I’ll finish the article by saying a few things about the specific challenges of hiring software developers.1. Hire After the Need, Not BeforeThe first step in hiring is to make sure that you actually need to be hiring. For small independent software vendors (ISVs), my rule is: Don’t fill a position until after the need for that position is painfully clear.In other contexts, it often makes sense to “staff up” in anticipation of growth. Many venture-capital-funded companies work this way. Your investors didn’t give you millions of dollars because they want their cash sitting in your bank instead of their own. They expect you to grow your company aggressively, and that often means hiring more staff.But in a small company that is funded by its own revenues, it is almost always a mistake to hire for a position before it is absolutely clear that hiring is the right thing to do.This is an easy mistake to make. Version 7.0 of your product is going to ship in 8 weeks. You are expecting lots of new orders, so you decide to hire another customer service person to be ready for the deluge of phone calls.Better idea: Have one of your existing staff take those calls, or take them yourself. Don’t increase your payroll until you are 100% certain that you have a permanent need for one more person than you have now.Several years ago, I decided to get very aggressive about growing SourceGear “to the next level”. We made several new hires, including a human resource (HR) person. We convinced ourselves that the company was going to be growing so fast that we needed an HR person to help coordinate policies and benefits. We hired a top-notch individual for that job. Let’s call her Wilma.Wilma was a dear friend of mine and still is. She did a fine job for us here at SourceGear.But the fact remains that our company was not really big enough to have a real need for a full-time person in HR. We knew this, but we were “staffing up for growth”. And then the dotcom bubble burst, and SourceGear never did get that big.2. Realize That Hiring Is All About ProbabilitiesHiring is all about probabilities. When we evaluate a candidate, we are basically just trying to predict whether that candidate will be a success in the position being filled. We’re trying to know the future, but we have no prophets and no Oracle.So, we use various indicators that we believe will be correlated with future success. We look at past experience. We look at educational background. We call references.But there are no certainties. Sometimes all our indicators are positive, but the employee just doesn’t work out. Last year I helped a charitable organization hire a new staff member. We found a candidate with an incredibly solid résumé. Let’s call him Wilbur.We interviewed Wilbur at considerable length. We checked his references. There was no question he had the necessary experience to handle the job. The decision seemed clear, so we did the hire.Shortly after Wilbur started on the job, things turned surreal. Was this the same guy we hired? The chemistry between him and the team was a nightmare. Wilbur is clearly a sharp guy with solid abilities, but this situation simply didn’t work out at all.On the other side of the coin, sometimes we miss out on a great employee because our indicators steered us away. Most of the time, we never know about these situations. We turn down a candidate, and we don’t hear where that person ends up. Some of them go on to be a big success.3. Know the LawIn the United States (and probably elsewhere as well), there are laws that you need to know before you even start the process of trying to hire someone. There are federal statutes and there may be state and local regulations as well. I am not an attorney, so I will not even attempt to explain these laws, but it is very important that you understand them.The various materials from Nolo Press are usually a good starting point for beginning to understand legal matters. Nolo Press has a Web page on employment law that ha

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