Discovery is the Problem

Discovery is the Solution

Hiring One of Us: The Startup 'Cult of Personality'

In the first two months of this year I was interviewing for a new job, focusing on that exruciatingly narrow sliver of the world known as “NY tech startups.” I was in fact coming off two years at a NY tech startup, and while the experience was often stressful and occasionally harrowing, it was also consistently engaging, often fascinating and occasionally exhilirating. For sure I had decided I couldn’t go back to a regular old company.

I had just spent two years as a sporadically coding VP of Engineering, and three years before that as a sporadically coding architect. Now I had decided to pursue more hands-on engineering roles, I was getting coding questions, and I was rusty. I also had to tell a story about why I wanted to back away from the VP level, without sounding like I didn’t like hard work or wasn’t ambitious. In addition, I have a mortgage and two kids and I am the only income for my family, so taking a major step back in salary solely for my own fulfillment wasn’t an option.

To recap:

  • I was looking for a job
  • The particulars of my situation filtered out many of the more straighforward possibilities
  • I was changing roles back into something I had done previously, which meant I was rusty and that I had a tricky story to tell

So I was realistic. I expected some rejection and disappointment.

As it turned out, my expectations were met – I went deep into the process and was rejected three times in the first weeks of my search. All of the rejections were on the grounds of “poor fit.” Which got me thinking about what “fit” means, how it’s used as tool of judgment in the interview process, and what, if anything “fit” should mean to a startup.

In the case of the first rejection, the on-site interview was long, varied, somewhat challenging technically and mostly interesting. I did well overall. But I also told the CTO an ill-advised story about using a temporary dose of harshness and fear to teach a junior engineer a lesson about hosing production data. This was a touchy-feely place where extremely enthusiastic collegiality was professed by everyone I met. I knew I hurt myself with the story as soon as I told it and said so. So I wasn’t surprised to not be the right fit. It was a fair and true assessment. I am as collegial as the next person, but I am not euphoric enough for these folks.

The second rejection was more mysterious. The on-site was technically more challenging and the engineers were smart and odd in a way I’m comfortable with and fond of. I wanted the job and they were interested. The courtship went on a week or so, and included an evening visit to their offices for an event and a meeting with their CEO. I liked the people I met. I thought they liked me. But again the “fit was not right.” “There was something off in my communication style.” I was puzzled and disappointed, but the process had been thorough, intelligent and subtle. I respected their decision even if I couldn’t figure it out.

The third rejection was moderately infuriating – the impetus for this post. This time the on-site was short and shallow. The tech questions were weak tools for guaging engineering ability or experience. The last half-hour of the interview was explicitly about “cultural fit.” What internet sites do I like? What social media do I use? What would my friends say is my best quality? My worst? What do I think is most exciting about the mission of the company? This section of the interview also featured several exuberant statements about the important culture Company X was building and how excited everyone was to be part of it. I again received word that the fit was not right. I was “not someone the engineers could get excited to work with.”

At which point I called bullshit.

The first thing that had been striking about the company behind Door # 3 is that everyone looked the same. Twenties, great clothes, thin, attractive at the very least. Shiny. White or Asian almost to a one, in a large, open, former-sweatshop SOHO room with perhaps 75 employees in it. I connected this observation to the section of the interview about the great culture they were building, how excited everyone was to be part of it, and the series of questions that seemed to me could only help an interviewer diagnose how close I was to their desired Internet norm. How much I was like them?

At which point I called ironic bullshit.

Because an interview process that professes reverence and enthusiasm for a “great” company culture should not be designed to eliminate every person not exactly like every person already working at the company. A hiring process that selects from a very narrow band around a norm based on superficial similarity reinforces a weak culture. If you need everyone at your company to confirm rather than challenge your worldview, then you are fearful and you are building a fearful culture.

A team working in a strong culture finds strength in their individual differences. People of different ages, different life, work and educational experiences, who grew up in different places. They don’t all think the exact same thing about the Internet this week, and that doesn’t matter.

What matters is what really matters in a company culture. Each person cares about helping every other person do their job better. Each person cares about the customer, always. Each person tries to learn all the time what the company is trying to accomplish and how they can contribute more to that success. Everyone learning to be better every day, together. Values matter. Taste does not.

It is very hard to figure out whether someone you are interviewing for a few hours over perhaps a few days has the right values. I’m explicitly punting here on a process that will help you find those people. But what I am asserting is that if your company uses “fit” as a weapon to eliminate people beyond an epsilon of difference from you and yours, that your process is a failure. In a NY tech startup market where talent is so tight, turning away capable people for superficial reasons does your startup, your investors and all the millions of your future customers whom you may never reach a disservice.

It’s not about you.