Hiring People is Hard Work

Yesterday, I attended a panel discussion on hiring in the tech-scene in Portland as part of Portland Startup Week.

The panel was moderated by Mark Schacter (Manager, Direct-Hire Services, EdgeLink) and paneled by Claire Hernandez (Director of Customer Support, Puppet Labs), Mike Portwood (Vice President or Engineering, Eid Passport), and Christian Casebeer (SVP of Technology, InComm Digital Solutions).

Panels can be difficult to run but this one went smoothly. I wanted to capture some of my thoughts about the discussion because I feel conflicted about the themes I heard and what was said about them.

“We can’t hire fast enough.”

This is a problem. Lots of work to get done. Growing companies. Plenty of money funneling in to Portland tech. Too many empty chairs. Hiring people can take time, even if you have plenty of qualified applicants.

What I heard is there aren’t enough qualified applicants. This is tough. Portland’s tech scene is relatively new, at least in the sense of how much is going on and how many changes seem to be happening on a monthly basis. Big growth. And, seemingly, the people who live in Portland just don’t have the up-to-date skills these startups and tech companies are looking for.

That all makes a ton of sense. Sorta.

“I want people who want to be a hero.”

There was a fair bit about culture. This goes beyond having a keg of beer tapped in the office. It’s how employees are treated, how they are relied upon, what role they play as individuals and as teams. Culture is everything.

And the sense I got is that the companies represented (and from what I’ve seen elsewhere) in general do actively curate Culture. This can be because the founder(s) feel like they want to run their startup with like-minded people, or the hiring manager knows how their team runs best within the mid-sized organization.

That all makes a ton of sense. Sorta.

“We value diversity.”

This part of the talk started out as “How do we attract more women to tech?” I find this question tiring. I also think it needs to be talked about a lot more often. The common theme across the panel was that diversity is important and it’s important to do things that increase diversity.

That all makes a ton of sense. Sorta.

What’s This “Sorta” Stuff?

I’m part of a Slack room called Friends. There’s 7 of us. We talk about a lot of things. Lately we’ve been talking about work and life and the balance between.

I don’t want to get into the whole work/life balance debate. Suffice to say, I get that some people look at their work as their life and some people don’t. Good enough, let’s keep going.

One of our recent discussions prompted a blog post by Susan, which is worth reading. Now’s fine.

We got to wondering, What about Part-time work? (That’s what Susan’s post is about in case you didn’t go read it.) Should that be considered? You’ve got to figure there are plenty of people who have tech backgrounds and have 15 to 25 hours a week they can devote to helping you ship that new feature, faster.

There are a lot of people who aren’t working right now because they can’t or don’t want to take a Full-time job. Some of them may have even worked at your company but had to leave (for any number of reasons). Instead of adapting (Agile!), you let them go. Taking all that process and organizational knowledge they built up with them.

But it applies to people who didn’t leave your company for other pursuits. It applies to people you’ve never met who might be a good fit culturally.

And this is where all the Sorta comes in to play…

10 Home

20 Can’t hire fast enough

30 Need more heroes

40 Value diversity

50 goto 10

That’s how the discussion of the panel played out. They need more people, they are curating a specific culture, they value diversity, but they don’t seem to be willing to do anything except “what you usually do” to hire people.

There was a somewhat decent point made by Mike Portwood about the maturity level of the organization. And I think it’s somewhat valid.

A company that’s been around a while, has customers, maybe has 100 to 500 employees, typically has more confidence that the business they are in is working. Not so much with a startup that’s bootstrapping their way to success. Or failure.

Christian Casebeer agreed with Mike, but came at it from the startup perspective. He used the word afraid a few times. Like, and I am paraquoting here, “I’m afraid it wouldn’t work out. Collaboration is important and I want to see people.”

I get that. I also don’t agree with it. I’ve managed building startup products with 20 people, all of whom were remote and some of whom were part-time. It can be done. You just have to let go of needing to see everyone.

There’s no guarantee it will work. But it meant I could get the right people, at a salary my budget could handle, and it didn’t matter they weren’t sitting 30-feet from me. It’s didn’t work out with 2 of the people I hired (for very different reasons) and I dealt with it the same way I would have if we were co-located.

About a year ago, I wrote a post for the company I worked at about how we hired people. It remains my approach. We all work in an at-will environment. Meaning I can fire you for pretty much any reason I want. You can also quit any time you like. There are exceptions to this, but in the end, if you really want it, you can end the relationship.

Because you can do this, I don’t understand the reluctance to try Part-time. To try Remote. To try Job Sharing.

I get there’s a cost associated with ramping up a new employee. I get there’s a risk the person won’t work out. Both of those are factors for your Full-time, “I can see where you sit” employees. If it blows up on you, well, it’s the same outcome no matter the employment status.

My question is: what if it works out? What if you find a great dev who is Remote AND shares a job with another Remote worker? Who cares! because the only question that matters is:

Are you shipping desired features with quality code, quickly?

Because, I heard you’ve been having trouble hiring for all those open positions. So I suspect the answer is no. Or, if the answer is Yes, then that quickly likely isn’t quickly enough.

If you want to fill those open positions, you need to find qualified candidates. If you want to curate a particular culture, you need to find like-minded people.

If you want diversity, you need to go out looking for it (it doesn’t just appear because you want it).

It’s that “curating culture” part that really is the sticking point. It gets in the way. It’s fine to offer certain benefits like free food and drink. But that isn’t culture. Neither is a foosball table. Neither is working 70-hour weeks.

Culture is a byproduct of all the people, activities, and work that goes on at your company. It should change over time. If you’re hiring for your culture, you’re doing it wrong. You should be asking yourself,

  1. Can this person do the job?
  2. Do I want to work with them for the next 5 years?

If the answer to both is Yes, you just enhanced and changed your company’s culture by one person. And you’re potentially that much closer to getting to market before that other startup does.

I Know, I Know…

It’s very complex. There are real and good reasons why it’s harder than it should be.

Big companies like Facebook are gobbling up the talent. It’s difficult to pay people competitively, because Silicon Valley. Portland is “where young people go to retire.”

But if you aren’t willing to take a different perspective on who you bring on, you’re going to be stuck with this problem for a while. Even if you’re hovering near the exit of Treehouse and Portland Code School, so is everyone else. And you’re likely still going to have to train the people you hire from there.

There isn’t a single answer to solve this. Hiring people is hard work. What’s worked for me, may not work for you. But maybe it’s time to start experimenting? Maybe if enough of us are working this problem here in Portland, we can generate solutions/processes/best-practices that work on a regular basis. And then show everyone that Portland is a model of how work can work.

Because we say we don’t want to be the next Silicon Valley, but then we go and follow in their footsteps? Maybe it is the only way to make a vibrant tech-scene work. But I’m reasonably sure there’s never just one way to get something done.