Blog Post

It's not them, it's you: Why new hires are so hard.

Editor’s Note: Our friend Trevor Stafford, Editor of the Canadian entrepreneurs’ network, Red Canary, recently authored this fun bit of satire to demonstrate why so many startup ‘new hire’ interviews are unsuccessful — often it’s because self-obsessed founders treat such meetings like blind dates. It’s also because job ads are poorly executed, drawing the wrong candidates. Satire aside, Trevor offers some advice on how to make your job postings, and interviews, more effective. Hiring is a big pain point for all founders, so take this one in.

This is a fabricated “blind date” between a startup founder (F) and a potential candidate (P).

Prospect: Hi there! I’m Trevor, nice to meet you

Founder: Yes it is. Before you sit down I have a list of things you need to be able to do.

P: Sorry? (reads bulleted list of responsibilities) Uh, well I can do all of these things. I even…

Founder: Wonderful. As part of your … obligations you’ll be expected to take care of my essential needs—creativity and innovation are important to me. You also need to work hard, because I’m the best [boss] that you’re going to find. I’m such a knockout that I don’t even shave my legs.

P: So that’s what was in my drink. You know, I’m really looking for a [working] relationship where I can build on what I’ve learned and explore some new ideas with the right partner.

Founder: Don’t worry, I’m incredibly dynamic, fast-paced and challenging. It says so right on my t-shirt.

P: You know, you remind me of an ex[-boss] of mine…

Founder: That’s hardly the positive attitude I’m looking for. This relationship requires a ‘can-do’ approach and great communications skills. You need to innovate and be creative while you work independently in a team.

P: You said some of that already.

Founder: It’s important that you understand my needs.

P: Your needs sound like everyone else’s. What about me? How will we grow and what will we share?

Founder: This isn’t about you. I’m a stunning success story, haven’t you heard? I just put out a press release!

P: That’s great, but what are you like?

Look, you’ll love meeting my demands. Please show me your qualifications.

P: Oh hey! I forgot about my double root canal, I have to run.

Founder: When you come back we’ll evaluate your suitability. Do you have strong problem-solving and communication skills?

P: Cheque please! (runs away)

Call me! (shouting) On second thought, just send an email to this generic address!

Sound familiar? It should, because 90% of technology job [interviews] are a lot like a bad blind date.

[Founder-recruiters typically] say the same things—in the same vaguely selfish way. In fact, the impression I get from most [startup] job descriptions is that I’d be joining a work gang in service of the great leader.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Four ways to improve your [new hire] jobs ads and interviews:

* Write down what your role offers the ideal person. Create a paragraph with that information and call it ‘The opportunity’
* Don’t say what you want them to do. Say what they will get to do
* Speak in second-person (you’ll) so that they can visualize themselves in the role
* Talk positively about your company and its recent wins or product developments

What [Startup] HR can learn from Advertising

Most technology [recruiters] do not differentiate, they ignore three golden rules of advertising:

* Identify your ideal (target) candidate
* Put yourself in their shoes
* Speak to their specific needs and desires (make it more about them and less about you)

But a job description isn’t advertising!
Yes, it is. Particularly when there’s slim pickin’s in them thar fields. A job description is the first (and usually only) contact between your company and your ‘perfect’ candidate. It’s an advertisement for the position and indirectly for your entire company.

If you were to have a conversation with a candidate, would you read a job description aloud to them? Of course not. You’d tell them what they’d be working on, introduce them to who they’d be working with, and generally try to help them feel positive about the role.

Why don’t job ads do that?
Most technology jobs ads read like instructional movies from the 1950s. Just substitute a toothy ‘hey, that’s swell!’ grin with ‘we’re fast-paced, dynamic and challenging’, and add shiny phrases like ‘problem-solving’ and ‘written and verbal communication’ skills and you have half a tech description.

How to turn what you’ve got into something they want

You don’t need to be a combination of Hemingway and Seth Godin (would that be Sethingway?) to write a good job description. I write 90% of the jobs you’ll find on Red Canary and most of the time I’m able to excavate the interesting bits of a job from the sediment. Things get even easier when I know something about the company.

My approach? Take that doughy, ‘roles and goals’ doublespeak and squeeze out the opportunity.

Exhibit A
Here’s an example of a Senior Product Manager role for CiRBA. The original job description is actually pretty decent, I’m merely using it here as an example of how ‘decent’ can very quickly become ‘compelling’. All it took was a visit to CiRBA’s website and some interior decorating.

Old Description

This privately held, VC-backed vendor of Systems Management solutions has a growing number of Global 3000 clients. Serving industries as diverse as Financial Services, Telecom, Oil & Gas, Technology and Managed Services, CiRBA enables cost-effective virtualization and consolidation.

We are seeking a Product Manager to join the Product Management Team. As product manager, you will articulate product features from existing ideas, and help to develop new ideas based on your consolidation and virtualization industry experience, and your contact with partners, customers and prospects. You must possess a unique blend of business and technical savvy; a big-picture vision, and the drive to make that vision a reality.

New Description

Put your stamp on a sizzling product and company that isn’t simply leading its market, it’s shaping it.

This role blends long-term vision, strategic decision-making, and hands-on tactical savvy. Your industry experience will give you perspective; feedback from partners, customers and prospects will help turn perspective into ideas, and your expertise will turn ideas into well-executed success.

It’s the kind of job that has you racing to work on a Monday morning.

There are a dozen reasons why CiRBA has been recognized as the #1 virtualization vendor to watch in 2008. Your gusto, big-picture vision and tactical skill could be reason 13.

About the Company
Few companies are hotter than CiRBA right now. With another round of funding behind it and top-tier partners lined up alongside, this company is out-thinking and out-executing the competition. The executive team are proven veterans and the company expects to grow by almost 100% in 2008. <

What changed?
Where this job description said ‘you must’, I helped it say, ‘you get to’ at a company where ‘you want to’.

The old description told the candidate that they would be joining a team. The new one says they will be valued. I asked myself “what would the right candidate get, career-wise, from this job?”. The answer: they get to take a young product to market for a hot company.

If I was a product manager I’d be drooling. Why? Because this is the kind of role that would prep me for an even more senior or executive-level job.

Bottom line: a description shouldn’t hand the reader a ransom note with a list of demands. It should get them excited about the opportunity in front of them.

Serving industries as diverse as Financial Services, Telecom, Oil & Gas, Technology and Managed Services, CiRBA’s cost-effective, optimized virtualization continues to attract global interest.

Trevor Stafford is the Editor of Red Canary, a terrific community site for software professionals and entrepreneurs in Canada. (“Red” canaries are a hybrid species that require careful nurturing and very hard work — like software startups.) Trevor is also an experienced magazine journalist and a frequent contributor to Found|READ.

8 Responses to “It's not them, it's you: Why new hires are so hard.”

  1. steve simon

    We used a head hunter from a large company–but never again, they were like a used car salesman, did not bring the candidate I wanted and cost me over $20,000 for a fee–I recommend do yourself.

    Steve Simon

  2. So you’d read the first line — and only the first line — of a job ad in order to decide whether it was right for you?

    You’re not seeing the full ad here, Evan, it gets into the nitty-gritty of responsibilities and roles later. Every job ad should.

    I’m sick of overproduced car ads too, but they got that way because the first few ads in that style broke through the clutter.

    That ad, by the way, attracted over a dozen top-shelf candidates.

  3. Evan Wired

    “Put your stamp on a sizzling product and company that isn’t simply leading its market, it’s shaping it.”

    Sounds like the voiceover in an overproduced luxury car ad. I’d take one read at either version of that ad, think “these people don’t know what they want me to do” and move on.

  4. Dead on. I am a soon to be CS graduate (10 weeks) and have had my own ‘sit-downs’ with two startups in my area. Your script from the ‘blind date’ seems eerily similar – as if you has a mic in the rooms in which we met. To further degrade the encounter, since everyone involved knew my ‘newness’ out of school, not only were incredible demands laid out for me ahead of time, but I was pretty much told I would be paid in peanuts (and “experience”) in the same breath. Sorry, I know me being green merits less pay then a developer with experience, but I also did not go to 4 years of school to be paid $9/hr – yes, that is the real figure. Less then I would be paid to flip burgers and Micky-Ds (and without the free Big Macs)!
    For lack of a better way to put it, I was amazed at the smugness that seemed inherent with going into this environment. In my experiences, I was lead through the office by the “golden boy” developer for a quick meet and greet with the current development team before being taking into an office with the owner/investor/guy-who-would-rather-do-nothing-so-is-hiring-me to have the demands laid out before – but not before they tell me how cool they are, how cool what they are doing is and how great and awesome their ideas are. In both cases I was given the distinct feeling that not only would I be treated like crap and paid pretty much in the same manner, but that I likely would not be being paid for long as I could not see how their model and vision would go anyplace but bankruptcy.
    Nice article Carleen, I thoroughly enjoyed the read… Now to figure out where to go when I get out of school!

  5. Angeline

    What you said is really true…even in other countries as well. It’s like a brand, like pop corns and cokes. And I tried to access the Red Canary website but it’s unavailable at the moment (sigh). Any ideas when it will be up and running?