Highs and Lows

I was talking with an engineering manager the other day who told me one key technique he uses for his teams. I thought it was one of those simple-yet-powerful techniques that I love so much.

The simplicity is this — when he does his weekly checkin with his reports, he asks them “in the past week, not just at work but in your life as a whole, what was your high and what was your low?”

I think this is a great approach to management. It’s highly touchy-feely, but I think that’s an important part of managing others. If someone is having a good time in their personal life, it can and will have an effect on their work performance. Likewise, if someone is having a bad time in their personal life, it can and will affect their work.

I think it’s worth being mindful that the effect might not be what we intuitively expect. Someone who is having bad things happen in their personal life might react by being distracted at work, or they might use work as a means to distract themselves from the unpleasantness and focus on it strongly. Or, perhaps there might be another reaction. There’s no way to know without discussing it and paying attention.

(To be clear, I’m not suggesting that people should use a dark pattern to drive their employees by offering work as a distraction from things that might be difficult at home, only saying that the connection between personal and work does exist, and is unique for each person.)

By understanding the person as a unique individual, and as a whole, a great manager can work with the natural rhythms of the lives that their team members live. I think this maximizes happiness and results, and minimizes mistakes and turnover, which are all desirable.

Keeping standards high when hiring engineers

My last post on hiring engineers got a lot of attention, and I wanted to do a followup with a technique that you can use to keep hiring standards high.

Typically engineering hires happen in a situation where there’s a serious need of another set of hands to do some work. I say this in contrast to the idea that sometimes gets mentioned in the tech industry of “if you find someone really good, just hire them and then figure out what to do with them”.

This idea matters because when there is a serious need, the people closest to the situation are the ones who know what skills are needed, and these are the people who are brought in to handle the interview. This is entirely reasonable, but it also means that the people tasked with the hiring decision all have an incentive for a hire to occur — they want the position to be filled so someone can take over the work. When incentives are strong enough, it sometimes leads people to make decisions that they otherwise might not — hiring a candidate who isn’t as good as they should be to avoid some short term pain.

If a team is really committed to hiring very good candidates, there is a straightforward way of minimizing this type of mistake. When the interview team is put together, you should include one person who isn’t directly impacted by the hire. This person won’t have the same time pressure as the people who are directly impacted. Their role is to be a detached observer and help keep standards high in the face of the (relatively) short term pressure to make any hiring decision.


How to hire engineers

From IRC:


There’s a saying that you are the average of the 5 people you surround yourself with. If we apply that logic to hiring, it means that hiring is really important (but we knew that already).

My friend’s question was an interesting one. As an engineer, I know about writing code,  and engineering fit. If I put my bizdev/marketing hat on, I start to think about the process of interviewing, and how to best allocate my resources (time) in order to qualify a target and convert them (hiring).

There’s one concept that I think is important to share with my engineering friends is the idea of a conversion funnel. The gist is that in a lot of business situations, you have a group of people, you have an action you want some percentage of those people to do, and you have a series of steps that they go through (the stages of the funnel).

A (hilariously simple) conversion funnel for Apple might be

  1. Find out about new iPhone (begin funnel)
  2. Read about new iPhone on internet
  3. Try new iPhone in store
  4. Purchase iPhone (end of funnel)

Hiring engineers (or any role) can be thought of in this way. For example:

  1. Create awareness of your company/the job. This could be through blogging, buying ads, or posting on Craigslist.
  2. Create enough desire to get the person to submit an application. This could be talking up perks, describing the work environment and technologies used, or having a really great application process. Anything that makes your company attractive to work at goes in here.
  3. Review applications/resumes. This is early in the funnel, so you want to spend very little time on. Are they worth any time at all or are they totally not a fit? I recommend having a non-interviewer conceal the person’s name from the reviewers. There is strong evidence that people with good intentions can have something as simple as a name affect their judgement.
  4. Send them a screener problem, and review answers to it. Ideally you should be able to decide to move to the next step (or reply with “no thanks”) with about 15-20 minutes of effort. Again, do this with names concealed, the goal is to focus totally on the code.
  5. 1-2 hour interview. Be sure to talk about their screener problem and understand their engineering sense. Also, you should start getting a sense of what the person might be like to work with, but try and stay open minded about this one until the next step. I like to start the discussion by asking the person how they feel about interviewing — if someone is nervous about being on-the-spot, spending a minute or two to talk about that feeling of nervousness can help them get rid of the feeling so they can focus, and this means you will get a better picture of what they are really like. Also, I typically do this interview via Skype, and ask them to screenshare with me and write a blog using whatever tools or resources they normally would. You can quickly learn a lot about an engineer by spending 15 minutes watching them code in their own comfortable environment.
  6. 4-8 hour pairing session. This should be in-person, unless you’re hiring a remote engineer. The best way to find out what someone is like to work with is to work with them under the most realistic circumstances possible. If possible, ensure that you’ll encounter specific scenarios so that you can gauge skills consistently from one candidate to another. The more objective you can be here, the better your results will be.

Notice that the intent is to minimize effort at the beginning of the process, and do the more intense quality screening at the end.

Above all — customize your funnel in a way that makes sense for you and your situation. There’s not necessarily a right or wrong answer. Some people prefer take-home interviews, and I can see the merit of that as well. If you document your process for this, you can experiment with it over time and end up with a formula that gets engineers who are a great fit for what you need.

Uber drivers are employees, doesn’t matter


Uber drivers are employees, not contractors -Calif. Labor Commission


There’s a difference between an Uber driver who drives 10-15 hours a week and an Uber driver who drives 40-50 hours a week.

Uber will make that case on appeal, then push hard for the limit to be set around 25-30.

6 months from now, Uber’s data scientists will find a statistical relationship that shows drivers who work less hours provide better customer service. 

Uber will say that in the interests of providing the best experience, its engineers have changed the algorithm that selects drivers to prefer drivers who are under the legally agreed “cap” that divides part-time from full-time drivers.

5 years from now, Uber will launch it’s fleet of self-driving cars, and the whole discussion will be irrelevant.

An innate understanding of ROI

I think humans have an innate concept of many business concepts. For example, “return on investment”. Business schools will complicate the idea of ROI in any number of creative ways, as they do many concepts. I once saw an accounting professor confuse an entire room of college students on the topic of averaging numbers with an overly complicated formula and greek symbols.

Let’s imagine that you are dropped into a fictional time in the past, in a Rousseau-ish land of humans who lie around all day, plucking fruit from trees when they are hungry. Rousseau calls your fellow humans “noble savages”.

You look to your left, and see a savage MBA sitting, calculating how many calories they use per day, how many calories are contained in a piece of fruit, and how many calories they can allocate to climbing a particular tree to allow them to meet their caloric needs with a certain number of minutes spent gathering fruit each day…

…then you look right and see a tree whose branches have sunk low to the ground, heavy with fruit, and you walk over, and (savagely) grab a piece, because you don’t feel like climbing up and down the same tree all day. Return on investment.

Technology, by age

A discussion of payment apps turned into a revelation on a line in the sand on social. The editors at QZ noticed a pattern at the over-and-under-30 age line — over 30 didn’t understand why Venmo would have a public timeline of payments; under 30 liked it.

Pando expanded on the subject a bit, and it got me thinking.

If the “social-digital” line is around 30 years today, in late 2014…

…in 2024 the age line will be around 40…

…in 2034 the age line will be around 50…

…in 2044 the age line will be around 60…

…in 2054 the age line will be around 70…

I imagine that the line will be blurred as time goes on, but these are rough target dates.

What life events happen at different points? At what date is a critical mass of this social-digital line going to arrive at certain things?

I’m not foolish enough to think that this social-digital line is going to move smoothly throughout the ages, but there’s definitely reason to think that later-in-life products haven’t been created yet, or that the market for an otherwise-good-idea hasn’t been created…yet.