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Posted on: Saturday, 17 April 2010 by Rajiv Popat

Finding competent programmers in a hay-stack of incompetent idiots is level-one of hiring that every startup needs to learn.  This post assumes that you have crossed level-one of the hiring game and that your organization, company or startup is hiring decently competent programmers who are getting things done.

Now that you know how to look for competent programmers and hire them, what next?

What if I told you that hiring just hugely competent programmers for your startup is not enough. What if I told you that besides competence, that there is one quality that you need to look out for in your programmers and what if I told you that this quality is hugely important.

You know that three second thin-slicing that Malcolm Gladwell talks about in his famous book Blink. What if you could use that to get deeper insights into characters of the candidates you are interviewing and if there is one quality of a candidate that you could  find out about what should that quality be?

What if I told you that the quality that you should be looking out for is straight-forwardness and integrity.

Now, that should be easy, shouldn't it be? After all you are hiring programmers from the best of backgrounds, the best of colleges and the best of upbringings; how hard can it be to find folks with straight-forwardness and integrity? Turns out, it is harder than most organizations think it is.

Anyone who has taken his high-school class in economics, read freaknomics or super-freaknomics will tell you that human beings are not good or bad. Human beings are just human beings and that they are driven by incentives. The point of hiring straight-forward individuals with a truck load of integrity is not that you hire programmers who are hugely loyal to your organization or sacrifice their careers for your organization.

In fact, if all you do it hire people who are working for the best interest of the organization both you and your organization are seriously screwed. You want incredibly smart, self-centered and selfish programmers. The point of looking out for straight-forwardness and integrity is not to keep seriously kick-ass smart, selfish guys out of your organization.

On the contrary, the point of it, is to hire people who are driven by deeply selfish incentives and who have the spine to be completely open about the incentives that move them. The whole point is to hire people who can take their selfish needs and incentives and align them with the best interest of the organization.

Flashback into the days of Multiplitaxion Inc when the company was about three weeks away from a huge bonus payout to all the employees. It was during this time that someone in the organization had an idea of talking to some of the best programmers we had and doing one-on-one discussions with the programmers. The idea was to get their feedback on what could be improved at the organizational level.

Three of the most competent programmers in the organization, were asked what they thought about the organization during these one-on-one discussions and all three of them reportedly mentioned that they thought the organization was an amazing work culture. That they loved coming to work each day and that they would love to continue being a part of the organization.

Three weeks after collecting the bonus payouts, all three of them quit, within a three days.

Turns out, that all three of these individuals were amazing guys and they were very competent at what they did. They were not bad human beings per-say. Like most kick-ass programmers they were driven by incentives and selfishness which was also fine.

What was hugely disappointing however, was their inability to express their opinions strongly and candidly. The lack of straight forwardness. The lack of openness and the fact that they lacked the courage to talk openly about what they felt was wrong within the organization or how their incentives were not aligning with the organizations incentives.

This lack of openness is what ultimately results in dual personalities where you say a thing and end up doing exactly the opposite thing. The cherry on the cake of this story however were the exit interviews of these programmers where they saw everything wrong the organization, their compensation package and even the work that they were doing.

As a young and budding managers, I watched opinions and personalities change over a period of three days and for lack of a better word, let us just say that it was amusing.

The dual personality problem to be honest, is actually bigger than just a hiring or a retention problem. I have also had the opportunity of working with programmers who would sit in a meeting telling you how amazing your ideas were. Then months after the meeting, you would learn that none of those ideas had been implemented because those same individuals thought that the ideas were shitty and they would not work.

No discussions. No disagreements. No arguments.

They would agree to everything that you had to say and then go out and decide to do just the opposite without even feeling the need to discuss.

Again, not bad human beings. Just individuals who lacked the courage to express their opinions in a bold, candid and civic way.

I have worked with hundreds of programmers during my career and if there is one thing I have learnt it is that human beings cannot be classified as 'good' or 'bad' and that shit happens anytime you are dealing with people.

Having said that, in the long run, as an organization, entrepreneur or as anyone responsible for hiring, you are generally way better off hiring and working with straight-forward, open, candid programmers compared to their confused, lost or scared counterparts.

You are way better off being told 'no' on your face rather than being given a truck load of encrypted messages sprinkled with mitigated speech all over it. A simple open personality is much better than a complicated dual one.

If you are a small startup, looking for some seriously kickass programmers, the next time interview people for your team, remember to look out for openness, a strong spine and a straight forward simple personality in the programmers you hire. Without these qualities, the kick-ass competence hardly matters.

I wish you good luck.