Hiring for Potential vs. Experience

I’m a people optimist.

When it comes to building and managing a team, this optimism manifests itself in trusting people on the team to do ultimately do the right thing. It may take them a while to meander their way over there, but my job is to provide encouragement, support, and coaching along the way.

Enabling this kind of responsibility is the concept of providing space. I was bequeathed this concept during my first months into management at Square; a lesson is much more powerful if intuited by the learner, and that achievement is worth the investment in energy and time. Another senior executive put this another way: delegation is not abdication, and one of the arts of management is to take responsibility from afar even as the managed takes on unfamiliar work themselves. Heeding this piece of advice and honing my own judgement has been immensely challenging, and occasionally rewarding.

Translate this mindset to hiring, and the philosophy becomes much more focused around looking for folks with a propensity to learn and adapt. That’s not to say that experience is unimportant, but for me it’s also critical to ensure that a candidate has what I term intellectual curiosity. I’m much more interested in people who show an interest to learn something new, who can take advantage of space to improve themselves intrinsically.

Of course, a “desire to learn” is near the top of the cliche list of things you’re supposed demonstrate as a desirable candidate, and you can argue that those discontinued puzzle questions tests the trait to some degree. I don’t like to approach it as an interview stress test, however; I prefer to have someone show what they’ve learned, either at work or in personal life, and see how passionate they are about that area and what they chose to further explore on their own. From an interview standpoint, it allows candidates to put their best foot forward, one of their own selection that we as interviewers can gauge as to whether it is impressive enough.

This is one of the reasons why I really dislike having to study for algorithm interviews or reciting domain factoids. In both those cases, a hire is judged less on their potential to learn, but more on supposed experience that a quick learner can pick up on the job anyway. Furthermore, I find that those who show potential—but not a ton of experience—tend to be more enthusiastic, self-aware of their own gaps of knowledge, and are worth the time invested into their careers. Those who come onto a team reliant on prior experience may be able to contribute immediately, but may eventually find themselves disinterested in the work or insist on leveraging only what they know.

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