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Let’s Put Some Dignity Back into Finding Software Work

Hiring in software is broken, the internet reminds us on an hourly basis.  Here’s an article, updated a few days ago, on the subject.  It quotes a tweet from a month ago:

I found that with precisely 3 seconds of hard-hitting, investigative googling.

Of course, I’m hardly a neutral bystander in this conversation, having weighed in with my own “hiring is broken” post.  And, I take it further than most, holding the opinion that the job interview itself is a highly questionable institution. (If you’re more interested in my rationale, check out this video segment).

But today I’d like to not only lay out the problem, but spend some serious time laying out my own stab at a grassroots solution.  To do that, I’ll walk through what I perceive to be the core, underlying problem with the hiring process, and talk about what we’re doing differently, and how we can scale that out to more of the software industry.

You’re an Incompetent Liar

Let’s take off the gloves and be completely honest about the undertones of a job interview.

Come on in and sit down, please, candidate.  Now, as you’re obviously aware, the majority of people who come through that door are incompetent liars, looking to trick us into hiring them so that they can goldbrick indefinitely.

Luckily, we’ve developed a series of riddles, questions, homework assignments, and snap judgments that will allow you the generous opportunity to prove that you aren’t human garbage, like the rest of the people in the lobby.  Can I get you a bottled water or a coffee before we get started, %&$#er?

At its core, the job interview assumes some combination of incompetence and deceit.

Don’t believe me?

Ask yourself why, then, so much interview question wisdom involves self-congratulatory rhetorical chess games.  Ask if they have any questions for you because, GOTCHA, the REAL purpose is not to answer their questions, but to see if they’ve prepared!  Or, maybe ask them about their basic math skills.  Not because you want to know, but because you want to trip them up and see if they’ll admit error.

This is, at its core, not really a dignified process.  It doesn’t treat the company and candidate as two professional adults assessing mutual fit.  Instead, it casts them as patient teacher and problem child, respectively.

So, let’s fix that, shall we?

Full Time Hires are Extremely Risky

To fix that, I want to be very clear about why companies do this.  And I’m speaking from a position of experience from every angle:

  • I’ve spent a lot of years applying for and working at corporate jobs.
  • These days, I own a business and understand the risks of hires, particularly of the full time variety (though we never conduct job interviews).
  • I’ve conducted far more interviews in my career than I can count.  (Ironically, it was the experience of conducting interviews that made me view the process as a farce — being the perpetrator felt way worse to me with time than being the victim ever did.)

So why do companies do this in the first place?  Well, there’s the obvious answer: they want to make the best hire (or avoid making a bad one, anyway).

The Multifaceted Expensiveness of a Bad Hire

But it really has more existential motivations, as far as the business is concerned.  Whiffing on a salaried hire is expensive.  Very, very expensive.

There are a lot of costs associated with making a hire, such as the time the staff spends looking for candidates, paying recruiters, etc.

And, beyond that, there’s a large and expensive risk surface area.  If you make a poor hire, you don’t just shrug and fire the person a few days later.  You generally put them on a performance improvement plan that lasts months or even years.

Considerations like fairness, litigation, employment laws, and insurance all creep into the mix as well.  Make a bad hire and let that hire go, and suddenly you might have an EEOC claim or a lawsuit on your hands.

In a sense, it’s no wonder that the interview process treats you like a goldbricking snake. It’s the same way that I’d probably treat everyone I met if the only way to meet new people was to hand them the keys to my house and say, “go on in and make yourself at home for a few hours, until I get home from work.”

Interviews Attempt (and Mostly Fail) to Reduce Risk

So because of employer vulnerability in the wake of a hire, it’s fair to say that hires are serious business.  And I think anyone would agree that employers should mitigate risk.

Enter the job interview.

The Long, Storied History of Job Interviews

It has an interesting history.  In 1921, Thomas Edison invented the job interview as a solution to a problem that didn’t exist, and it became a management fad.

And, that’s actually the entire history of the job interview, except now sometimes you do interviews over the phone or on a Zoom call.  Apologies if you assumed there would be an actual, sane history there.

Rewind 100 years, and you have a much different world.  Scion-based hiring was much more common, and you really didn’t have labor laws.

So, companies could:

  1. source work easily with friend/family/generational referrals and
  2. fire people quickly if they weren’t cutting it.

But then the job interview came along and offered the illusion that clever questions would allow you to predict the future performance of strangers.  With this cemented into the corporate consciousness, the risk escape valves above vanished.

The only problem?

It Turns Out that Humans Aren’t Great at Predicting Years of Future By Asking Random Questions for an Hour

The job interview doesn’t actually mitigate the risk of a bad hire.  Here’s a podcast transcript that’s about findings from Lazlo Bock’s time at Google, with some really interesting quotes.

Google’s finding, short and simple: interviews are a terrible predictor of [job] performance.

This came from an audit of the style of questions that Google asked once upon a time, back in the days of brain teasers and such.  Bock himself had this to say:

“Many managers, recruiters and HR staffers think they have a special ability to sniff out talent. They’re wrong. It is a complete random mess. We found a zero relationship.”

So why is the process so persistent?  Well, it all comes back to risk, both in terms of the actual risk equation, but also in terms of CYA.

  1. Nothing really works.
  2. Doing anything feels better and more productive than doing nothing.
  3. Doing what everyone else does feels better than doing just anything.

Think of it this way.  Let’s say that you stopped asking people why manhole covers are round and just picked at random from a stack of resumes.  If that hire works out, great!  You could maybe write a case study or something, but people would assume you were a lucky fool.

If it didn’t work out?  Someone would walk you out of the building.

The job interview is sort of the equivalent of IT policies that make you change your password every 30 days, or the wisdom, “no one ever got fired for buying IBM.” It’s both completely understandable and simultaneously risk mitigation Kabuki.

Giving Out the Keys to Your House

To drive the point home, let’s return to the example where the only way to meet new people was to give them the keys to your house and send them there alone.  Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that a brilliant inventor decided that this was the only way to make friends.  And let’s also say for argument’s sake that everyone in the world suddenly said, “yep, sounds right, let’s make that the only option for the next 100 years.”

How would you meet people?

Would you just give them your keys, no questions asked?  Of course not.  That’d be crazy — you couldn’t just, well, do nothing.  What if they were dishonest?

No, you’d need to come up with a system.  Maybe you could ask them if they were going to rob you.  Ugh, but wait.  They might lie…

Alright, I’ve got it!  Ask what they’d do if they were really hungry, broke, in a gas station, looking at a Snickers bar, and the only attendant announced he was going to the bathroom.  If they say they’d take the Snickers, don’t give them your keys!

Ooh, ooh, here’s another clever one.  Ask them why they’re meeting you, instead of hanging out with the last person they met.  If they start talking at length about ‘false’ theft accusations, that’s a red flag!

Or…

Maybe you’d wonder if there wasn’t a less risky way to make friends than to hand strangers the keys to your house.  Maybe you’d find a way to postpone risk and to share it, rather than assuming all of it and engaging in a ludicrous scheme to mitigate it.

And maybe, by doing that, you could stop treating everyone you met like a criminal and start having normal, adult interactions.

What If We Shared The Risk?

As a quick thought exercise, ask yourself this.  (And I’m not recommending it, by any stretch.)

What if you went to a company and offered to work full time for them, for free, for six months.  No strings attached, they could let you go at any time, you’d sign any NDA/non-compete and allow them to sue you into oblivion for breach, and, if they really liked you, it’d be nice if maybe they offered you a job at the end.

Setting aside any applicable labor laws, don’t you think you’d get a fair number of “yes” responses to that proposition?  And don’t you think the company would be more likely to skip asking you about your greatest weakness?

You’ve removed all of their risk.

So, why not meet in the middle?  Why not share the risk?

At this point, a lot of people think, “oh, you’re talking about contract to hire, which is worse than the interview process because of the lack of benefits.”  (For those of you outside of the US, you’ll never know the weird pain of a society that has needlessly entangled healthcare with wage employment).

But I’m not talking about contract to hire.  At least, not only.  That’s just one strategy for companies to externalize and share risk.  There are others:

  • Pay applicants for their work and make their take-home-tests actual, valuable stuff.
  • Companies pay moonlighters for bug fixes.
  • Organizations reach out to platform contributors or create venues for their staff to collaborate with outsiders on open source.

I’m really just spitballing here, but the idea is that there are a lot of ways for a company and a person to get to know one another, professionally.  And they don’t all have to involve sending someone to a whiteboard, asking a few silly questions, and then signing a blood-oath.  You can have coffee in a cafe without giving them your house keys.

But I’m not going to wax hypothetical or philsophical here anymore.  Instead, I’ll offer a concrete example in the form of a side hustle for Hit Subscribe.

Hit Subscribe and a Different Risk Equation

For those of you not familiar with my story or life these days, I’m now co-founder of a business called Hit Subscribe.  Hit Subscribe has a fairly straightforward model in that we create content for developer tools companies.  Or, put another way, we hire engineers to write content for engineers.

Here’s how our hiring process works, for authors.

If you’re interested in writing for us, we have a conversation.  Generally speaking, we’ll prioritize onboarding authors that have a public body of blogging work and/or authors with expertise in topics that we’re currently speaking about a lot.

But we’ll talk to everyone, and we’ll onboard anyone who is interested into our system.

From there, we look to see what posts are available.  I’m looking at one right now, titled “Using Puppet for Configuration Management.”

You can volunteer for it, or perhaps we’ll ask you about it.  Either way, our entire vetting process is to ask you if you can write about that, believe you, and work with you to deliver a post.  (And that’s not hypothetical — if you’d like to earn some money writing that post, email me.)

We Externalize Risk and Have Dignified Conversations by Reducing Initial Scope

How is this an example of shared risk?

Well, if you tell us you can write it and then you flake, you don’t make the money.  If you were to plagiarize a post or something, we’d similarly not pay you.

And, we have a great author community who is quite active in the broader development community, so you’d be sort of torching your own reputation for maybe squeezing a few hundred dollars out of us.

It’s not much of a risk for Hit Subscribe to trust you to self-assess your ability to write a blog post.  Unlike half a year at a $150K/year job, there’s just not much incentive to lie to us.

So we treat you like adults. We ask you to self-assess.  We believe your answer.

And we build a relationship with you, one post at a time, until we’re working with you on progressively higher and higher stakes engagements that benefit both parties.

So What? How Is This Grassroots?

Alright, having explained all of this — the lack of dignity in sourcing work, and the resumption of dignity through shared risk — you’re probably wondering how this constitutes anything other than Hit Subscribe sourcing blog posts.  Fair enough.

Well, in short, it’s because Hit Subscribe content opportunities aren’t the only ones that I share with the Hit Subscribe author community.

I still have an awful lot of contacts from my app dev and management consulting days, which means that I run across a lot of opportunities for work.  And I realize that I subconsciously screen these opportunities partially on the basis of how stupid (or not) the matchmaking process will be with the entity needing the work.

Combine this with the recent creation of an external, “Side Hustle Opportunities” email list that we’ve created, and here’s what I’m thinking.

The Side Hustle Digest

Every week, we send out an email to our internal author pool containing post opportunities.  Onboarded authors get first crack at everything.

But in the last few weeks, we’ve created an external mailing list.  This contains Hit Subscribe internal opportunities, but also other opportunities that float across my radar.  Here’s an example screenshot:

Now, obviously our primary purpose in creating a list like this is to expand our author pool.  We have a thriving community of tech side hustlers, and we’re always looking for more.

But I’ve laid down certain principles here that I intend to uphold:

  1. We’ll send out a weekly email listing all available internal opportunities.
  2. There’s absolutely no obligation in signing up for the list at all — anyone is welcome for no more reason than idle curiosity.
  3. If you’re interested in the work, we have a conversation.  If you think you can do it, we’ll get you onboarded, working and paid.  No interviews or games — just an adult conversation.
  4. The only things that will ever appear on this list are opportunities that follow this same principleYou’re a professional adult, and you shouldn’t have to forget that to get work, especially in a field as in-demand as ours.

So, basically, we’re creating a diverse list of side hustle opportunities and promising you that every opportunity on the list assumes by default that you’re honest, professional, and a decent human being.

The Cost of Sourcing Work, and Power in Numbers

If I’m being honest, we have other ways of sourcing work.  The email list is kind of a fun one, but it’s not really high up on our list of methods for scaling.  It was kind of an afterthought.

But then something occurred to me, from my years of staffing software positions, consulting, and the marketing space all rolled into one.

Companies pay thousands to run job ads for you all to see.  They pay recruiters tens of thousands of dollars each time they hire one of you.  And they’ll pay dollars per click for your attention.

It’s hard to find competent software talent.  So it seems insane that companies will collectively pay countless billions for your attention and then treat you like garbage once they have it.

And maybe, collectively, we can exert just a bit of leverage there.

I’m thinking of an email list of side hustle (or full hustle) opportunities that follows the principles that I just laid out.  With enough people receiving the side hustle digest, companies would love to be featured for their staffing needs.

And, with enough motivation/leverage, they might just start listening when I tell them that, to be featured, they have to come up with a way to hire you based only on a simple, honest conversation.

Sometimes, if I’m in a mood, I’ll try to make a tiny drop of difference by telling some recruiter on LinkedIn, “I don’t consider employers that use whiteboard interviews, but feel free to work on your process and try again in a year or two.”

But that’s as much childish as it is any kind of statement.  From any individual, it’s childish.  From a lot of us, it could be a statement.

What Can You Do?

Alright, now to the call(s) to action.  But, before I do that, I want to clarify something.

The purpose of this email list is to curate side hustle opportunities, most of which directly help my business, Hit Subscribe.  The purpose of this list is not to hawk merchandise or info products, nor is it to do anything else gimmicky.

I like to think I’ve earned enough cred over the years as an agitator for improvements in the life of engineers.  Most of my popular posts here are about developer empowerment.  Most of my Youtube videos answer your questions about how to improve your careers.  And I’ve written an entire book on how software developers can and should be in charge of the software development industry, instead of buried under 15 layers of management.

So if I’m putting together this developer empowerment email list with designs on later hawking how-to-blog info products or something, it’s got to be the longest con ever.  And, you should probably buy my cleaning products just as a tip of the cap for that.

But, anyway, here’s some things that would help this effort, starting with the things that don’t involve weekly emails.

Share this with Anyone You Think Would Like It

First of all, if you know any side hustlers, aspiring side hustlers, or anyone at all who might be interested in a curated “dignified side hustle” weekly, please share it with them.  All experience levels are welcome, from students and entry level folks looking to break in to long-tenured folks looking to get their name out there a bit.

And, of course, I would have no objection if you put this out there on various social media.  Or, even link share sites — go ahead and submit to Reddit or what-have-you, and I’ll ride the wave of hostile commenters and “well, technicallys” while remaining thankful for the views.

Send Me Dignified Hiring/Sourcing Stories and Companies

I want this list to grow and become a great resource in general.  And that means it needs to grow beyond being a list of mostly Hit Subscribe opportunities.

And that, in turn, means I need to become aware of those opportunities.

Do you know a company that has an unconventional, dignified hiring process?  Do you know other companies scaling through honest, sane interactions, offering side hustles or full time opportunities?  (As an example, I’d put Pluralsight authorship in this bucket).

Anything you’ve got, please share with me.  I find the standard job interview/sourcing process so thoroughly depressing that I’d love to become a connoisseur of non-standard success stories in my spare time.  Let me know about these companies, please, so that I can check them out, talk to them, and maybe add them to the list of hustle opportunities.

Here’s contact info if you’d like to use that. or you could sign up for the mailing list and email me there.

Sign up for the List

Speaking of signing up for the mailing list, you can sign up for the mailing list.  Here’s a link to do that.

I’ve already laid out the principles for it, but I can also offer some more pragmatic information.

  • Plan is to send out a weekly email, usually sometime on Thursday, with all currently available opportunities, including pay rate and brief description.
  • Examples of recent/current/possible opportunities involve lots of blog posts, some whitepapers, an eBook, webinars, course creation, onsite course delivery, development of an enterprise assessment, and a few limited scope consulting engagements.  That type of variety is par for the course.
  • I am absolutely not a polished email marketer and I am the one sending these things, so you’re welcome to reply with feedback.
  • If you’re interested in any of the work, err on the side of asking me.

And that’s it.  That’s what I’ve got here today.

I have no idea if this will grow or take off, or even prove to be a great way to scale opportunities.  But it’s thrilling to be running and expanding the experiment.  It’s a great feeling to do something more than take potshots at the broken software hiring process, regardless of the eventual outcome.

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Nick GoedeErik DietrichWilliam Gant Recent comment authors
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William Gant
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I like how you are approaching this. I just finished writing a book on preparing for (and surviving) developer whiteboard interviews, and the degree to which developer interviewing is completely broken just really sank in during the writing. I mean, I’ve been on both sides of the table and knew it was awful, but having to marinate in it all for several months really drove the point home. Between that and mentoring aspiring developers and seeing some of the things they go through, I’m often surprised that developer hiring works at all. People have asked when I’ve spoken about what… Read more »

Erik Dietrich
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Erik Dietrich

Thanks for weighing in and for the feedback. It’s especially interesting to hear from someone creating content around the existing interview process, since you actually have a stake in the status quo and dislike it anyway. And I think you’re raising a great point about how the broken process hurts developers beyond the interview itself and into the actual job. I think I once wrote a blog post where I talked about how you lose whether you’re accepted or rejected, since you’re effectively coming into the company as a low-status supplicant being sharp-shot by people who should be peers either… Read more »

Nick Goede
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Besides the fact that we all should agree not to accept them how would this handle people the signed all-encompassing IP assignment agreements(ignoring CA where all is good)? Convenient how much power employers have to “encourage” employees to stay put.