Scott’s Circle Theory of Hiring

circles.gifIn my chosen field of technology startups, I am accustomed to working with diverse teams. These teams tend to work together over protracted periods of time (often measured in blocks of 18 hour stretches!). In order to assist in building team cohesiveness, I formulated what I call my circle theory of hiring.

Essentially, I liken the team to a circle. The circle is continuous, strong, and unbroken at any point. Everything inside the circle (the team members) is protected by the circle itself (the whole of the group). Each time we add a new team member, the circle expands. The circle, like a chain, is only as strong as its weakest link.

I extend the opportunity to all of our team members to interview each and every candidate that makes my second cut (my personal interview with them). This peer-level interview is done in a group, usually in a conference room. The candidate sits at the head of the table, and the most senior member of the current team present in the room serves as the moderator. I am not present. Team members all have a copy of the person’s resume, and are free to ask them questions. The candidate is warned ahead of time that anything goes – there is nothing sacred in this interview – anything and everything on their resume (and in our job description) is fair game.

The team has their marching orders ahead of time: don’t violate the integrity of this circle – do whatever due diligence you feel is appropriate, because if the integrity of this circle is broken, you have no one to blame but yourselves. If you wake up three months from now, and realize that the person working next to you is a hack, then we have all failed as a group. As such, during the interview, the team is free to ask the candidate anything they wish. The candidate is fully briefed on this interview ahead of time, so this shouldn’t come as a surprise to them.

I recall this one fellow who made some rather lofty claims on his resume. Specifically, he claimed a number of certifications and practical experience with Java/J2EE at the senior developer level. His paperwork and initial HR screen went well, so we brought him in for an interview. He seemed like a congenial enough fellow, and certainly talked the talk in his interview with me. However, once he entered the group interview, his “paper castle” imploded about as fast as it was constructed. When one of our senior developers handed him a whiteboard marker and asked him to solve even a simple J2EE logic problem or architecture issue, he was unable to do so. Hiring him would have clearly been a mistake.

Most candidates don’t have a problem with this sort of interview. Granted, a few of them have walked away, refusing to subject themselves to such a rigorous interview. However, just as many have relished the opportunity, and jumped in head first. But I should point out, my number one objective here is not to coddle the candidate, but to build an efficient, mobile, and agile team that is grounded in trust.

After the group interview, we hold a team AAR (After Action Review) to discuss the candidate’s standing. Any member on the team can voice their concerns, from the most junior level software developer to the most senior level sales type. Then, together, we come to a consensus on whether or not we wish to widen our circle, and introduce this person as a new link. We discuss the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses, and determine whether they will be a good technical, as well as cultural fit. There doesn’t have to be a unanimous decision to hire a person or not – after all, that is why I get paid the little bucks to make command decisions – however, it serves as a forum where everyone can participate, and be heard.

The key to this process working properly is to solidify what it is that you are hiring (the hiring profile), and ensure that all team members have a thorough understanding of what that entails. You wouldn’t want to apply “senior-level” standards to an “entry-level” position, and so forth.

The theory here is that by empowering the team to play their role in protecting the circle, we will reduce the number of ineffective hires (which has a direct dollar savings in terms of opportunity cost), as well as make the need for justifying new proposed job openings more pronounced. This process not only works, but serves as a powerful filter, not to mention a powerful team-building exercise. Candidates that pass this group interview are accepted as a member of our “family” from day one, and no one questions them. They are most always ready to hit the ground running, which means a better ROI against that hire for the company.

I will state quite candidly that this technique is not for everyone. I have been in organizations where this technique would not work if attempted. Company culture, team makeup, and tenure of staff play a large role in the success of this and other group interviewing techniques. Your mileage may vary. However, all things being equal, I’d rather spend $1,000 making sure I hire the right person, than $10,000 fixing their mistakes.


1 Comment

  1. In the valley we used to do the entire process right in front of the candidate. no time for all this stuff. make the decision and get on with it. The most important question I found during a group interview was “what did you want to be when you grew up?” then throw in some stupid linked list question.

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