I’ve received a lot of support and encouragement on my piece on hiring—much more than I expected! Thank you; it helps a lot; I will be writing more.
I realize that all this talk about looking for the right fit may sound naive, or irrelevant, or not applicable to large companies. It does come from my experience on small teams (from both sides of the table), and my sincere quest to build teams that are productive, respectful and maybe even somewhat happy (again, from both sides of the table).
One could argue that this approach can’t possibly apply to industrial programming, where hundreds of people sit in unending rows of cubicles and produce some Java code according to a carefully written spec. I would then argue back that in this case the right fit is of paramount importance! I know quite a few people who would promptly go bananas if forced into this setting. Employees going bananas is generally bad both for them and for their employer; it is yet another reminder that the right fit is equally important for both parties.
There is really nothing special about the right fit. The company is looking for specific technical skills (knows Java) and certain “cultural values” (likes sitting in a cubicle doing what he is told). And if it is important for you to exercise your knowledge of Java, sit in a cubicle all day, and implement the spec, then this is the kind of a company you should be looking for. When you find each other, it is love from first sight. You know you were meant for each other. You will make each other happy. That is all there is to it.
Looking for the right fit is not a pipe dream; it’s just common sense. My only message to employees and employers is to be mindful that this mythical beast—the right fit—is what we are actually looking for, and to build the approaches and the processes that try to uncover it explicitly and forcefully. It is not necessarily something that fits cleanly into a standard resume; and most definitely not something that fits into a hiring page designed by PR people and lawyers. I went through quite a few, looking for an inspiration when I was hiring at my last place. As a job seeker, I don’t want to read that you “work hard and play hard”. I know that it doesn’t mean anything; all I hear is that you either can’t articulate what is actually happening on your team, or gave up control to professional copywriters.
To me, the right approach is to do some deep introspection, to figure out what is really important to you (as a person or as a company), and also what sets you apart from the others. It could be technical things or “cultural”; in practice, almost certainly a mix of the two. After you figure it out, first, explicitly look for it; second, communicate clearly and proactively; third, use it to drive whatever written materials you create: resumes, cover letters, company’s hiring pages.
It was important for me to build a team with a straight-shooting, no-bullshit culture. That was the kind of people I wanted to attract and to work with, so I just put it in the website copy that the team had a “No-bullshit policy”. (Sadly, my CEO used his veto power and struck that particular line down; this is how my cherished no-bullshit policy developed a small crack.)
The fundamental problem with all this fit business is that it is often tricky to assess quickly, particularly during a 45-minute interview with somebody you’ve never seen before. Learning about people requires time, effort, and building meaningful relationships. This is exactly the dating analogy I talked about elsewhere. In my book, a 45-minute interview falls short of dating.
Fit assessment is also hard to do against a hard deadline, or in a competitive situation. For example, I am just emerging from an intensive 2+ months job search. I managed to get offers from six great companies, and I do feel that both I and them were somewhat short-changed by my inability to focus on one great company at a time. It is like dating six nice girls at once with an explicit intent to compare, contrast, and choose just one of them. I know I am quite old-fashioned, but this doesn’t feel quite right to me.
Given that we need to look for the right fit deliberately, with no deadlines and no aggressive competitors, there is only one logical solution, and it sounds quite counter-intuitive.
The best time to look for a job is when you are happily employed (and thus are under no great pressure to make a move quickly). The best potential hires are the ones that are employed now. And the best time to start courting them is a few months before you actually and desperately need them.
Looking for the right fit is clearly a lot of work on both sides! Why do we bother? Pragmatically, well placed and well motivated employees are more productive and stay with the company much longer.
And on the personal level, we all spend a fair amount of our life at work. Wouldn’t it be nice to spend it being more fulfilled, going with the grain and not against it,—perhaps even somewhat happier? If that is not worth the extra effort, I am not sure what is.