#86 - The benefits of process
Plus: Hiring & Interviewing; Values, Tenets, & Guardrails
Let me tell you about a mini-fiasco this week that was entirely my own doing.
In our team, we routinely hire students for semester-long co-op positions. It happens three times a year - I think we’ve taken part 12 times over the past five years. It generally works out pretty well, for us and the co-op student.
The process is pretty uneventful generally. Our tireless administrative staff, without whom the place would fall apart, lets me know that it’s time again; we post our usual job ad; we interview some students and submit a ranked list. We’ve lately been pretty good at having projects ready for them on day one.
We had a couple more potential student supervisors with projects this semester, which is good. In the past year we’ve been upping our game at hiring full time staff, and part of that is better job ads; so we wrote a much better job ad for the co-op position this year and that resulted in fewer candidates but who were overall much better matches for the team. Win-win!
And, my fellow managers and leads, I’m ashamed to tell you that that’s where it all fell apart.
Because we had fewer, better matches, and more potential supervisors, triaging the resumes - which was my job - was harder and I didn’t do it in time. Our admin, after an earlier prompt, let me know the last possible day to interview was the next day. I dumped a pile of resumes at end of day on our volunteer supervisors, who had hours to read them after hours and choose preferred candidates. Our interviews were ill-prepared, and we didn’t have as much communication with the candidates before and afterwards as we would have liked. A bunch of meetings had to be cancelled and rescheduled because there was only one window to interview the students. The remainder of the week was all messed up.
The outcome was ok, but not great - we found some really good candidates, but we shredded credibility with them because we were visibly unprepared. One has already been poached by someone in another team in our org, and if we had coordinated earlier we could have known about the shared interest. And it completely screwed up our week and stressed out volunteer supervisors - who don’t have to do this next time around.
So why are dates of something that happens on a schedule three times a year and has done so for the past five years coming as a surprise to me and the co-op interviewers? Why was I being a bottleneck for triaging resumes - why not have the supervisors do it? (Because that’s how I did it four years ago when I was the only supervisor). Why are we making our admin, who has other things to do, patiently shepherd us through an utterly routine occurrence that we should have down pat?
More fundamentally - the co-op student hiring process is both something we do all the time, and is the fastest feedback loop we have for improving our hiring process. Why, after 12 iterations, did I not have a runbook for doing this, with a systematic way of learning and improving both the co-op process and our interviewing process for hiring in general?
The answer of course is that it was going well enough, there were no flashing red lights, and there was always something else demanding attention.
But building a process for this at any time over the past four years would have been a very valuable activity for me. It would have helped me delegate tasks that I oughtn’t have been doing, improved our team’s interviewing and hiring skills, helped us find better matches for co-op students, and improved our co-ops experience throughout the process (which helps with referrals and full-time hires).
The situation is utterly goofy. Had I been talking to a peer and they told me they had this issue, I would have encouraged them to address it. And, in my own job - I just didn’t. Even when we know the right thing to do as managers to improve our processes and help our team, it’s really easy to be caught up in other priorities - “now’s just not the right time”.
Anyway: a learning opportunity. Next time through there will be a runbook, and it’ll go better. But this shouldn’t have happened in the first place.
Do you have processes in your current job that badly need updating - or have you improved one lately? How’s it going? Email me and let me know.
On to the roundup!
LifeLabs Sample Interviewing Playbook - Life Labs Learning
Life Labs Learning, a management/leadership training company, has a Google Doc template interviewing playbook for team members that can be a starting point for a given team and role. It’s short but gives good guidance on creating the process for the manager, and how to conduct the interview for novice interviewers.
No-bullshit tenets for faster decision-making - Jade Rubick
Breaking Through The Guard Rails - Roy Rapoport
These are about managing and decision-making generally, but they apply very much to hiring.
The key idea of both is that, while people often list the things they value in their team - “independence”, “delivers results”, “attention to detail” - listing them as standalone values is meaningless. Nobody thinks independence, delivering results, or attention to detail are bad things, so saying you value them communicates nothing and can’t inform decisions.
But these values have tradeoffs. They’re one end of a spectrum that has another end. For these to be principled choices rather than just feel-good assertions, you have to explicitly own that if you’re hiring for “independence” you’re also hiring for “chafes at detailed guidance”.
Rubick recommends specific “We value this, over this” structures to clarify team decision making, regardless of the context:
A good tenet should have a perfectly valid opposite tenet that would make sense in a different context.
They give some examples:
“We build things in a cost-conscious way, even if it takes longer to build”. Vs. “We are willing to throw money at problems if it speeds us up”
“We value clarity over moving quickly” Vs. “We value taking action over analysis”.
They doesn’t suggest these should be top-down, but should emerge from a forming team.
Rapoport’s article is more about personal failure modes. He describes an analogy where different people might prefer one side or another of a lane, along multiple dimensions:
Freedom vs guidance
Strategy vs tactics
Relationship orientation vs execution orientation
Changephilic vs changephobic
Caution vs speed
and knowing where you personally sit on those spectra mean you can be more prepared for your own personal failure modes. He leans heavily on the “freedom” side of freedom vs guidance as a manager, so he’s not worried about becoming a micromanager - he doesn’t prepare for that failure mode - but he’s learned to keep an eye on himself to make sure he’s providing enough guidance for team members who need it in a particular situation.
Again, note that the lane edges are not defined as “good vs bad” - freedom is good, but so is guidance. Caution and speed are both good. But there are trade-offs.
Are your hiring filters working? - Jonathan Hall
Once you are clear on the nature of candidates you’re trying to hire, it’s a lot easier to evaluate hiring processes - and once you have a documented repeatable process, you can evaluate and update iteratively.
As Hall points out, everything we do in the process - from the job ad to the application form questions and onward - is a hiring filter. But is it a good filter? Does it enrich for the candidates we actually want by filtering out the candidates that wouldn’t be a good match and preserving the candidates that would be a good match? Have you checked?
As we get closer to hallowe’en and the terrors that holds - the case for proportional fonts for programming. As if the thought isn’t horrifying enough, the author says that using proportional fonts meant switching from spaces to tabs. Truly, it is a season of damned souls.
The Insane Innovation of TI Calculator Hobbyists - what can be done with a 10MHz revamped 8080 CPU and 32K RAM.