Stories about Software


A Players Don’t Hire A Players — They Partner with A Players

There have been a few strands of thought dangling lazily in my mind for a while now.  Over the last year or two, they’ve threatened, on occasion, to become blog posts, but it never quite worked out.  But today enough of them came together to make the resultant rant semi-coherent, as opposed to incoherent.  So, as they say, there’s no time like the present.

Tonight, someone on social media linked to this post about hiring.  It started off by saying that a record is being set for the increase in hiring software developer in the coming six months.  It then went on to describe variance in the assembly line hiring processes of tech titans such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and, quizzically, Yahoo, among others.  I was hard pressed to divine a thesis from the piece, but it talked about the hoops through which one must jump to work for these places, how long the interview process takes, and how people feel about the interview process.  If I had to summarize the byline, it’d be, “tech companies, more desperate than ever to hire, still pretending to be in a position of strength.”  Let’s put a pin in that, though.

Last night, someone on social media linked to something that led me to this bit of corporate boilerplate masquerading as an enthusiastic blog post on medium.  If I had to give this one a byline, it’d be, “we’re like totally awesome and we like, love people that are, like totally awesome, and like 10x productivity and like Steve Jobs, and like awesomely awesome awesomeness!”  I mean, for God’s sake, it says “great over good” in the first 25 words, as if it were penned by Bill Lumbergh himself.  “Umm. yeah… one of our corporate values is greatness… so, if you could just go ahead and come in on Sunday, that’d be greeeeeaaaaat.”


“A Players” and Who They Hire

It then goes on to reference the 10x developer canard and says that to be an order of magnitude more productive than others requires having standards, being curious, and realizing that anything is possible with the introduction of caveats.  (As an aside, the first two things merit an eye-roll, but the last one is pretty insightful, in my opinion).  It’s a standard snoozefest from some mediocre company’s “careers” page, lacking only the highly ethnically diverse stock photos.  And then, there’s the Steve Jobs quote.

A players hire A players, but B players hire C players and C players hire D players. It doesn’t take long to get to Z players. The trickle down effect causes bozo explosions in companies.

Steve Jobs might have been a titan as a designer and an entrepreneur, but neither of those things provides a particularly unobstructed window into the realities of mundane office politics, which is what governs hiring.  The implication (especially when you see this quote tossed around in corporate-istan) is that “B players” hire less talented people in order to avoid eventual turf-threats while “A players” are so awesome and zen that they just want to be surrounded by other awesome and zen people.  This folds nicely into a narrative with another Steve Jobs quote: “it doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”

It dangles in front of us the halcyon image of corporations undergoing an accretion process of supreme talent.  2 unicorns will magically become 4, then 8, then 16, then Apple/Google/Microsoft/whatever.  It’s classic proof by induction.  All you have to do to be awesome is make sure that you have awesome people.  They’ll implement an awesome hiring process that will attract awesome people that will implement an even-larger awesome hiring process that will attract… ugh, you get it.

But here’s the reality.

A, B, C, D… Z players hire people more or less randomly, but operate under the willful delusion that almost everyone they hire is an A player (or else, clearly, they wouldn’t have hired that person).  They then write posts on medium congratulating themselves for their hiring philosophy.

Don’t believe me?  Laszlo Bock, who directs Google’s “People Operations” (read: HR) has written a book and talked extensively about how the interview process is fundamentally broken.  The best predictor of a candidate’s eventual performance in the job (explaining 29% of performance) was a simulated performance of that job.  The second best?  A general cognitive test (26%).  What this means is that you could save a lot of time and money by just asking people for their SAT scores and hiring them accordingly.  If you only hired people that lit it up to the tune of 1500 out of 1600, three quarters of their eventual performance would still be left to chance, but there’d at least be a much better “A player” paper trail.

Participating in the Process

I’d like to return now to the tech giants and their hiring processes.  Sometime last spring, I had an odd convergence of circumstances that allowed me to tell recruiters from Google, Facebook, and Amazon, “thanks, but no thanks,” all in the span of a week.  Make no mistake, hearing from these companies in no way makes me special — they cast a pretty wide net.  Them all reaching out at once was just an unusual coincidence.  Also, in the interests of full disclosure, it’s not as if the interest was only ever one way.  While I’ve never interviewed with Facebook, I have before interviewed with both Google and Amazon, only not to make the cut.  With Google, I was encouraged to brush up on my algorithms knowledge and try again.  With Amazon, I honestly don’t remember where I missed the mark.  Ships passing in the night, I suppose. I do know now that it wound up working out better for me — I work for myself, largely remotely, and turn away more business than I take on.  And I also wouldn’t trade my current arrangement for salaried, exempt employment anywhere, even at destination employers like Google, Amazon, or Facebook, which is why I said, “thanks but no thanks.”

But it isn’t as though I was rejected out of hand, per se.  Google and Amazon (and I’m sure, any of the others, had the circumstances been the same) didn’t say, “well, Erik’s just not an ‘A player’ and so we don’t want him.”  Rather, their take appears to be, “we like the way you ran the obstacle course, but you clipped a cone last time, so why don’t you just try again?”  The marketing is, “we hire A players,” but the real messaging is, “we hire anyone that prepares for and runs our obstacle course successfully, and define A player via that running.”

Of course that’s the marketing.

Why?  Because companies needing software developers are about to set a record in 2016 for the sharpest increase in demand for software developers ever.  And market demand isn’t cowed by brand name cachet — it responds to dollars and cents.  Market demand for labor doesn’t care how many movies have been made about your founder.  It doesn’t care how strenuous your interview process is and it doesn’t even care how warm and fuzzy people feel afterward, rejected or not.  Market demand isn’t sentient — it just flows to the whims of a chaotic system.  And, frankly, it flows these days toward the advantage of the software developer and not the tech titan.  We as software developers just need to figure this out.

Years back, when I wasn’t sharp enough on my sorting algorithms to move onto the next phase of Google interviewing, I would have gone to work there, had the offer been extended.  I thought to myself at the time, “man, if I went to work at Google, I’d be working with some of the top minds in the world, I’d be able to move around the globe if I wanted, and I’d be able to write my own ticket to work anywhere when I was done.”  But, life is kind of funny.

I later realized that any organization that employs 50K or more people is not, ispo facto, going to consist of only the best and brightest.  I later developed, all on my own, the ability to go anywhere around the globe that I wanted.  And, because I work in an industry with demand that is absolutely through the roof, I have the ability to write my own ticket anywhere that I want.  Including, according that recruiter that reached out to me, Google, in 2015.  So if just by being a free agent software developer, I can get everything that working at one of these companies would have provided, why bother with the interview obstacle course or the company?

I’ve posted before about how salaried, exempt employment is a bad economic deal for software developers.  It’d be easy to assume that this is just true for nameless provincial employers, but the math works out for the big guys too.  Maybe they pay you a bit more and the $50 per hour in that post is $60 (or, maybe not, if positions at those types of orgs are in high enough demand to put downward pressure on salary).  It’s still not $150, and you’re still not going to make as much as employee number 57,348 as you would with even a modest freelance practice.

It doesn’t matter if you go work for Initech, Initrode, or Google/Facebook/Amazon/Yahoo/etc.  You still come in as a Pragmatist.  The difference is that at the Initechs and Initrodes, you’ve got a better chance at battling your way up the ladder.  At gigantic companies… not so much.  If you want clout at those companies, you need a better entry than the one afforded by the hiring assembly line.

You Don’t Need This

And that brings me to the main point of this multi-threaded rant.  If you want to demonstrate that you’re an “A player” you don’t do it with your SAT score.  You don’t do it by explaining to some self-satisfied interviewer why manhole covers are round.  And you don’t do it by acing Algorithms 401 at a tech titan’s local campus.  You do it by building a thing, fanning the flames of that thing, and then letting a company like that buy you out or scoop you up.

When I look around on Twitter or in the blogosphere or wherever, the people that impress me and that also work for tech titans either helped found them, or were explicitly sought out by them and hired not as “part of the process” but on the strength of their reputations.  They build awesome open source products and are bought out or they do many rounds on the conference circuit and are hired on for that reason.  Whatever their backgrounds, they have/had their own brands and agreed to partner with those companies rather than having processional careers defined only by who they work for.

The demand for labor is too great and the economics of your position too good for you to feel the need to impress anyone to get a foot in the door, no matter the name on the marquis.  Sooner or later, the masses and the titans will figure this out, but I encourage you to get ahead of the curve.  “Studying up” or “prepping” for an interview is a waste of time if you’re doing it because you view it as a career stepping stone (if, on the other hand, you really want to work on the Nest or the next generation of Windows or whatever, then have at it).  No company will build your career as fast as you can do it on your own, and no company can offer you anything you can’t provide for yourself.  If they’re not savvy enough to make you an offer when you’d cost $50 per hour, that’s their mistake.  Build your career, your portfolio, and your brand, start something impressive, and then make your entry at a much, much higher price point, when they’re buying you out for your open source project or your key knowledge in an in-demand niche.

The world doesn’t need “10X” this or “A player” that — it’s already got more than enough marketing and gloss.  The world needs people that know how to write software.  And if you get good at that, sooner or later, they’ll realize it and they’ll find you.  And when they do, tell them that you’ll consider coming to work for them if they can have someone whiteboard the pseudo-code for Quicksort for you.

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Great post, Erik. Shared.

Erik Dietrich

Thanks! For the kind words and for the share.

Andrei Dragotoniu

interesting point of view. So the morale of the story is to go and build something for yourself, then let the titans come to you, if you’re good enough.

Erik Dietrich
I wouldn’t back away from that message, necessarily, but that’s not exactly what I’m going for. I think what I’d say, in the end, is that those companies need developers more than developers need them, and more than they realize. Not so much that I’d say, “don’t try to work there” but rather that I’d say, “working there is not a big enough deal to jump through a bunch of hoops if you don’t want to jump through those hoops.” For instance, I remember a Google recruiter called me a couple of years ago and we chatted for a while… Read more »
Great post. The one comment I’d make is that, while the Googles of the world offer a poor economic trade, and the startups offer a far worse one, the commodity they supply is *respectability* of the American middle-class sort. We’re still an original-sin society, and unless you have inherited wealth (which, in the US, automatically begets prestige) you need not only the monthly income, but the respectability that makes the monthly income easy to get (and replace, when a job is lost). The corporate overlords know that they’ve got a lock on the titles and fancy names and that, when… Read more »
Erik Dietrich
One of the things that I’ve been trying to wrap my head around for a while, and that I’m planning to start acting on going forward, is how to obtain more agency for programmers in general. And weird as it sounds, the thing that I keep coming back to is that I don’t think software development can (or should) scale particularly well, organizationally. The way I keep bumping up against that seemingly oblique point is through a series of imperfect pieces of advice. Staying will often entrench you and sap your marketability… so, job hop. Job hopping is great, but… Read more »
I tend to think that the enemy isn’t scale but rapid growth and the risk that’s necessary to achieve “unicorn” status. Most of these companies have horrible cultures because there’s a perception of a “risk budget”, and 100% of the risk (and founders’ investment of time, attention, and emotional energy) is supposed to go into the product and into rapid growth itself: not fixing the culture and certainly not paying down technical debt or making the workers happy. (Startup perks are more centered on making them *dependent*, which is different.) You can probably keep a decent culture while growing 30%… Read more »

Could you explain what does it mean to build something on your own?
If I read between the lines, you mean that developers should build some web page/blog and post and maybe brand themselves? so other companies will check out this guy John Smith and his blog instead of his boring resume?

Erik Dietrich
I’d say that’s a start, but more what I’m talking about is building an open source tool/project (or, closed source, I suppose). In other words, I think a lot of people have historically viewed going to work for a company like Google as nice in and of itself, but also as professional cred, as Michael alludes to. In this regard, working at Google is like, say, having a CS degree from MIT or another top 5 CS school. The point I’m generally interested in making is that I think this perspective has become outdated. In the first place, I think… Read more »

I like that thought, but how many developers can do that? I agree that top developers can do that and I think some smaller companies hire the way you describe (hey this guy “John Doe has done some cool stuff, let’s hire him”).
But 98% of the developers are not like that.
For example, I would love to write something but I have no idea what I should write. It seems everything I want is out there already 😉

Erik Dietrich
I think there are incremental steps that can be taken toward prominence, so to speak. It doesn’t happen all at once, and it doesn’t always need to be the same thing. When it comes to building something, I’d say the key thing is to scratch an itch that you have, and then to see where it goes. And, it may not be building a large product that one of them wants to buy up. It may be something like becoming an expert on some mocking utility or language feature. Maybe it’s writing a book. Maybe it’s starting a youtube channel… Read more »
Noah Sherrill
I really enjoyed reading this both for its content and the tone. It hits home for me, as I have interviewed with one of the tech giants twice. On the second go-around, I took a week off of work and studied for dozens of hours to prepare because I knew how challenging the interviews were. They still rejected me in the end even though the majority of the interviewers reviewed me positively. It worked out in the end though, as I was hired by a smaller company with a much friendlier interview process that is much happier to have me… Read more »