John Chamberlain
Developer Diary
 Developer Diary · You Heard It Here First · Monday 19 January 2004
Hiring the Best
Yesterday I wrote:

Big companies can't stand the idea of a single developer being responsible for a program; too much money is involved. They obsess and oppress until there is nothing left. They pay lip service to wanting the best geniuses to develop their product, but in the end they hire mediocre performers whose primary qualification is doing what they are told--usually not the profile of creative geniuses.

So I couldn't help but laugh when I read these comments from Steve Jobs in excerpts from the new book "In the Company of Giants":

I noticed that the dynamic range between what an average person could accomplish and what the best person could accomplish was 50 or 100 to 1. Given that, you're well advised to go after the cream of the cream. That's what we've done. You can then build a team that pursues the A+ players.
    - Steve Jobs

and then he followed up with the statement:

We've interviewed people where nine out of ten employees thought the candidate was terrific, one employee really had a problem with the candidate, and therefore we didn't hire him...

This is exactly what I was pointing out. Jobs pays lip service to hiring the best, but in reality he does what everyone else does: turn it into a popularity contest. Hiring the best performer and someone who gives twelve random people a cushy feeling inside are two totally different and opposing objectives. In Jobs' process the divas and geniuses will inevitably be blackballed because they will be the types to stir up the strongest emotions or be victims of prejudice. Unless the genius' skills include diplomacy they better not bother applying to Apple.

If Jobs were serious about hiring the best he would (1) pay more, and (2) base his decision on tests. If Apple advertised a $500,000 programming position and used a battery of performance tests to winnow the tens of thousands of responses, they would undoubtedly ferret out some of the best programmers in the country. Do they do this? No. They pay $120,000 or less (market rate) and then make the decision based on fireside chats. No wonder Apple is known for having a "meetings culture".

Without tests it can be very hard to gauge someone's ability. I remember in particular when I was hiring to a senior position and the candidate had a master's degree from a good school and a long list of publications. He really stood out and he talked the talk. Luckily for me I was in the practice of giving a qualification quiz that tested applicants on basic undergraduate CS knowledge. I used the results to baseline my applicant pool. After ten minutes the guy came back into my office and announced sheepishly that he could not answer any of the questions on the quiz. This is supposedly a guy with nearly twenty papers published in computer science journals and he can't answer a single question on a beginner's quiz (e.g. name some of the fields in a TCP packet). Guess who ended up hiring him? Microsoft!

Kasparov is the top-rated chess player in the world. Some people say his personal manner is impatient, aloof and egotistical. Do you think he would do well in Apple's interviews if he were a programmer? Neither do I.

The truth is that if you want to work for a big software company forgot your skills and focus instead on getting in a good finishing school.

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