Stop Trying to Hire Just “A” Players

Posted in Hiring, Startups

Interviewing and hiring sure has become a hot topic recently in the tech. space, from startups to big companies. From problems with technical interviews to major companies acqu-hiring startups for their engineers to analyzing talent who’d thrive in a startup environment, the recent surge of employment activity at least has everybody talking.

And really, all this noise comes down to one simple objective: to hire “A”-level talent. The tedious phone screening, multiple technical interviewing, company pitching and offering negotiating are all just steps designed to optimize the problem of getting the best players onboard.

But why?

On a practical level, very few companies have can actually afford a payroll of A players; “A” guys either know how much they’re worth, or they’ll quickly figure it out. If your compensation is way above market level[1], chances are either your investors or stockholders are unhappy with the capital spent.

Then there’s the work itself. “A” players may drive the company out of a ditch of desperation into profitability and respect, but that hot project will inevitably generate a ton of work which run the gamut from “unglamorous” to “completely dirty”. Someone will have to pick up the slack and maintain the systems, fix the plumbing, and actually address the bugs, and “A” players will either be disinterested or glossly overpaid to do this kind of work.

There’s an interesting case study here with Facebook, as news got out that they try to keep developers happy by rotating them onto different projects. Actual developer happiness aside, this scheme results in projects which are neglected for long periods of time; off the top of my head, I can think of products like the FB photo gallery and the iOS FB app as important projects which had development stall while trying to muster internal engineering interest.

It just may be that your company doesn’t really have “A”-level work to begin with. This is a painful admission, but in an open entrepreneurial market, companies’ visions and executions aren’t equal, and there’s a disconnect between how candidates perceive a company (e.g., “I’d be joining a ‘B’ firm”) and how the company is trying to hire (e.g., “The best employees in the world!”). Sure, it’d be great to hire a few 10x engineers, designers and PM’s to build out your local shopping + photo sharing + SEO content farm web app, but you’d spend a ton of money paying them, a ton of time convincing them to join, and even more effort replacing them when they resign after two months.

Netflix has a policy of hiring stars, and their philosophy resembles that of a sports team. I think they actually do have the right metaphor, but they themselves are misapplying the lessons learned from sports; good sports teams rarely just load their roster up with expensive stars[2], but instead look for a combination of superstars and role players. A good sports team requires players with complimentary skill sets, which means that the “A” players have to play alongside the “B” and “C” players, and talent takes a backseat to team chemistry and cohesion.

Just ask the USA Men’s Basketball team circa 2004.

Footnotes    (↑ returns to text)

  1. Where “C” players are considered to be at market level.
  2. Yankees aside.