Home > rant > Tech firm mindset to avoid like the plague

Tech firm mindset to avoid like the plague

May 15, 2012

There was recently an article entitled “Silicon Valley Avoids ‘B Players’ Like the Plague” which got my attention. Go ahead and read it, it’s pretty short. Here’s the heart of the story:

And not only are companies able to achieve more with less people, they’re also wary of hiring anyone but the best engineers. This is sometimes called the “bozo factor.” The late Steve Jobs often talked about the importance of hiring nothing but “A players.”

The former Apple chief executive said to an interviewer in 1998: “You’re well advised to go after the cream of the cream. That’s what we’ve done. You can then build a team that pursues the A+ players. A small team of A+ players can run circles around a giant team of B and C players.”

To avoid hiring less than A players, companies can go to extremes. At Violin Memory, managers can spend up to half of their time on screening and interviewing candidates. Reference checking alone can eat up large portions of the day. Candidates typically provide three references, but hiring managers will then tap their own networks to make contact with up to five people who have worked with the person. “Your reputation follows you,” said Vice President of Marketing Matt Barletta.

First, you know it’s going to be dripping with compassion and thoughtfulness if it’s a Steve Job’s quote. Second, I’m sure those managers who spend half their day stalking candidates think they’re super productive, when all it says to me is that the more time you spend spinning your creative genius in an environment like this the better – not a good incentive in an industry that probably needs less spin and more skepticism.

Okay, so they have some nutty ideas about hiring people. You might want to consider how they go about firing people as well. From the article:

Jay Fulcher, chief executive of online video technology start-up Ooyala, says he’s “never fired someone fast enough. By the time you know that it’s time for them to go, it’s already too late.”

Ummm… okay, but maybe the work is amazing? From the article:

“It sucks people in, and it takes away from your family life,” says Vice President of Engineering Kevin Rowett. “We have to figure out, can people tolerate that level of intensity?”

Ummm… sure, okay. But maybe this is some kind of super creative environment where you’re expected to be quirky and spontaneous, and you’re not expected to follow rules? From the article (emphasis mine):

Landing a position at Kaggle, a San Francisco-based start-up that crowdsources data analysis problems, is considered such a score that the company is able to have potential candidates move to San Francisco for one to two weeks and audition for a job.

People, people. What the fuck? Are we still wondering why there aren’t enough women engineers in Silicon Valley?

Caveats: 1) the comments on that article are scathing and worth reading, and 2) this toxic mindset is also apparent in New York.

Categories: rant
  1. Simon Thornington
    May 15, 2012 at 10:25 am



  2. May 15, 2012 at 10:37 am

    This really just plays in to the “foreign labor is superior domestic labor” meme that is used to justify laws and policies that facilitate cheap labor.


    • May 15, 2012 at 10:39 am

      Woops – a t and an o must have fallen off my desk.


  3. May 15, 2012 at 11:43 am

    Don’t the hedge funds and Wall Street use the same hiring mindset when recruiting problem solvers? DE Shaw and Jane Street aren’t terribly interested in bozos. What amazes me is how effectively this mindset has attracted top problem solving talent to debt and click industries, some elite military/surveillance units, and away from virtually all other sectors of society.

    The pitch to these college interns and grads is always the same – we’re a place where smart and accomplished people work, we can get whomever we want, there’s a line of smart kids beating down our doors. We have a rigorous interview and recruitment process to ensure we get only A players. Don’t worry too much about what we do – lots of elite people work here so it must be ok.

    The sad truth is that if you don’t adopt this mindset, you’ll not be able to recruit much if any “A” talent from universities regardless of the salary and benefits on offer. That talent is increasingly coagulating around a relatively small set of “elite” employers. Females may not buy into the mindset as much as males but it still seems to attract an overwhelming majority of top college problem solvers.


  4. Cynicism
    May 15, 2012 at 12:02 pm

    Call me crazy, but if I were a manager I’d think this was an awful market inefficiency. If the typical hire at your company works for less than 2-3 months and gets 1 month severance pay then an awful lot of money is going out the door with no work done in return.


    • May 15, 2012 at 12:07 pm

      Who said anything about severance pay? Maybe these are people doing unpaid job “auditions”.


  5. isomorphismes
    May 15, 2012 at 12:53 pm

    I believe the “A Players Only” derives from a widely-believed claim that top programmers are [20 < insane multiple < 150] times more productive than n00bs. In a talk called "What We Actually Know About Software Engineering And Why We Believe It's True", Greg Wilson burns the floor out from under that claim, and shames the culture that designs company practices on "sounds right" theories without asking for evidence. (And they read XKCD! /irony)

    According to Wilson, the "X times more productive rockstar" claim is stated with X=20,50,80, a wide range of values. And when he looked for the empirical support, there was one 20-minute study in the 1950's with n<20 and another ~hour-long study in the 1980's with n&ll;100.

    Meanwhile, {# bugs} correlates strongly to {lines of code} and {distance between brogrammers _in the organisational hierarchy_, not geographical distance}. That doesn't sound like increasing returns to genius to me. Oops, did I say brogrammer?


  6. Bobito
    May 16, 2012 at 4:43 am

    Why do you expect any other sort of behavior from people whose ambitions include making as much money as possible and considering themselves “A players”?

    The fundamental support of classism and elitism is the notion that I am good and rich because I work harder than everybody else and I am smarter and more talented than everybody else.

    One has to be on the bottom, mired in mediocrity, surrounded by bozos and C players like oneself to see that it is not so.


  7. Ben
    May 16, 2012 at 5:18 pm

    Cathy, that is good. Meanwhile, will you please blog comments about the story that recently appeared about Mitt Romney torturing a class-mate in high school and cutting off his offending hair. I really want people to focus on the details of that. The approx 16 year old is screaming and crying for hel and held down by Mitt and 4 or 5 others. And Mitt – not the sheepish hanger on, but Mitt the ring leader – does not say wtf and let him go, instead he completes the act. I wonder if he felt good afterwards. We all know people who were like this in high school, some of us spent a fair amount of time stopping crap like this. In no way is this a boys will be boys prank. Its is absolutely disgusting and I cannot believe it got dropped as simply a hi-jinks story. If I had been there I would have kicked Mitts ass.


  8. May 18, 2012 at 12:02 pm

    I fucking love you. As a woman in the thick of it, you are 10,000% correct. A girlfriend and I were just having this discussion, you nailed it. *bows*


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