Recruiting smart people

Recently, I have ended up giving bits of advice to people recruiting at start-ups, and a few patterns have emerged that are worth sharing.

Before I go ahead, I should warn you that I have no qualifications whatsoever. (All consulting advice should come with this caveat, perhaps!) You might be better off reading Joel Spolsky’s Smart and Get Things Done (read). I haven’t read it myself, but from what little I see of it, the thoughts seem similar.

The key is to realise that smart people are probably 10 times as productive. OK, that may be wrong. It probably originated with Fred Brooks, and has been debated to death. But it seems fairly well accepted that the best people contribute more than they are better paid. (The best guy is probably paid twice the average, but is worth more than twice the average guy.)

This isn’t because they do more work. It’s because they solve harder problems. You can get two people to do two people’s work. You can’t solve a problem twice as hard even with twenty people.

For a startup, the problem is acute. You don’t have the luxury of being able to manage a large number of people.

Since smart people typically work for a lot less than they’re probably worth, it’s a bargain to hire smart people. You pay them twice as much, and they’ll solve problems twenty others couldn’t solve.

The problem boils down to finding smart people and getting them on board.

Finding smart people

You need to go after the smart people. They won’t come to you. Many reasons. You’re not big enough. There aren’t that many of them. They’re not in the market that much (no one lets go of them anyway).

So that just demolishes the traditional recruitment model straight away. You don’t advertise for people and filter their resumes. You find the people you want and go after them.

The good thing is, smart people cluster. They tend to know other smart people, meet up with other smart people, read the same things as other smart people, etc. That gives some useful starting points.

Matt Biddulph talks about Algorithmic recruitment with Github. The premise is that smart programmers are at the centre of the social networks in their respective areas. Just go after them. I advised a friend similarly: to look for the network (or at least the smart people) that hang out on Stack Overflow for a given topic. Last year, when I was looking for a Django developer, I scoured the Infosys internal blogs for similar networks. (Found only a few, but it sure introduced me to a lot of really smart people that I didn’t know existed!)

Conferences are another place to look for them. I tend to periodically check out Upcoming and Meetup to see who’s taking part in what, go over, meet them, and see what they do. I find it a great way of figuring out who’re the experts in a field. (I once met one of the guys who wrote TiddlyWiki, and it was immediately obvious that he was in a different league from the others that day at the Javascript Meetup.)

You can go a step further. Since smart people cluster, they form networks, and control of that network is power. So why not organise those conferences? A lot of these smart people just need a place to hang out and learn from each other. I know the Javascript Meetup was struggling to find a place to meet. Pubs don’t give you the quiet atmosphere needed to learn from each other, and it’s certainly impossible to have a talk there. The folks at Hackspace have done this really well, renting a place and equipment for people to tinker with electronics.

That’s what smart people want, mostly: a nice quiet place, good company, and perhaps pizza. Skills Matter does this beautifully. They organise free workshops every now and then. The list of people that attend these is invaluable.

Getting them on board

Once you’ve spotted a smart person, what do you offer them?

Remember – they’re probably 10 times as productive. Money is quite likely to be worth offering. If that works, great. But if you’re a startup, you probably don’t have the money. You probably could offer a stake in the firm. That might work too.

But, to quote Dan Pink: “One of the most robust findings of social science is that incentives dull the mind and hamper creativity. Yet, businesses ignore it.” Some people aren’t motivated by money. You might get better results if you didn’t pay money than if you did. (Read this story on motivation by Peter Bregman.)

Suppose you said, “I have this problem… I’ve no idea how to solve it. Would you be able to help me?” Most smart people would probably help you. For free. The feel good feeling is worth more than the transaction cost of extracting payment from you.

Or you might be championing a worthy cause – anywhere from world hunger, rural poverty or cure for cancer down to organising a scout camp. The thing about this is they are intrinsically attractive. You probably just need to open up and say “This is what I’m doing, can you help?”

The flip side of it is loss of control. Jonty told me about how Hackspace London was run: “it’s as loosely organised as possible without falling apart”. You don’t manage these people like traditional organisations. You manage them like a community of volunteers. Like parents at a school day function. Like family at a wedding. You don’t pay them. You don’t order them around either.

Part of that is the flexibility of being a startup. You can afford that loss of control. Yes, you don’t have the money. No, not everyone’s working for money. (The planet as a whole is fairly well off. Smart people particularly so.) But you might offer something interesting. Just as long as you’re willing to let go of some control in your mind…

  1. Kevin Boulder says:

    Extremely well written and quite practical too. One thought that I could add is, we need 2 kinds of smart people. One who can solve new problems (throw the problems as they arise) and the other who can quickly make it into an operational reality. “Thinkers” and “Doers” – if one may call them so. The latter kind are not dull in any stretch of definition of smartness -they see execution problems well in advance of these seemingly great thoughts and solve them to0; and that their skill sets are different. As the “thinkers” invent/create their set of imaginative and brilliant probabilities and choices to arrive at a plausible answers, the “doers” go through a creative (for them at least!) ways of sustaining the organization as these smart solutions are implemented. We need both kinds in a good dosage. Only a very few employees are either one of these kinds entirely. So again despite the two kinds, we are still looking for smart people in any of the categories – thinker/doer. Good thing is smart people of any kind do not get motivated by monetary incentive alone, but creative incentives will weigh heavily with them. With the command&control organizational paradigms losing its relevance, “hire smart people for a difficult but impacting business problem and let them loose (well almost) with a common theme/purpose binding them” could make star- ups successful (for that matter, any organization)!

  2. Ravi Atluri says:

    I would certainly agree on one thing – Some people aren’t just tempted by the money, they would prefer a machine with Quad-Processor, a graphics card and dual-monitors and then would come the money. ;)

  3. Sanjeev Desai says:

    Nice article. Very clear thoughts.
    My bit. One of the key factors of the employess of great start ups, is passion. Start ups should check the degree of passion candidate possesses for the subject in which the start up is working.

  4. Hi,

    Met somebody today, who was praising you very-very highly. So me also being an Infoscion once upon a time wanted to find out about you. So found this site/blog of yours. And must say your writing is also very good.

    You have mentioned about Joel Spolsky, and his writings. I also like them. I would also recommend reading what Paul Graham, Derek Sivers and Steve yegge have to say on Start-up culture/hiring etc.

    Regards,
    Khushnood

    PS: Would love to be in touch with you

  5. The real difficulty is in defining “smart”, is it equal to higher IQ. IMHO skilled, interested, open and internally happy resource are far more productive and useful for the team than SMART-IQ resource. Extreme example to highlight my point : Throwing an Einstein for HTML development might not be very productive. I have built a very successful technology team from scratch, like you rightly said I had to “GO” to the talent. However the Goal wasn’t pure smartness, but the talent that will be genuinely excited about the opportunity and has necessary skill or capability to develop the skill. Don’t get me wrong, my resources are very bright but what made them part of the team and really productive was much more than just smartness!

  6. Peter says:

    There is a difference between “smart” and “extroverted.” Extroverted people are the central hubs of networks. Smart people sometimes are, but sometimes aren’t. They do cluster — poaching from Google, or looking up recent graduate students from Sussman, Rivest, or whoever — seems like a reasonable strategy. Google takes this approach exclusively — find smart people, and poach them. Offering money is not bad. You won’t poach someone (except for a very young and naive someone) without offering money.

    The couple of posts are correct though — there is a difference between thinkers and doers. Some thinkers are necessary — they’ll take a problem, and make it 10x simpler and save you a wad of cash (and you probably won’t even notice, since the solution will be obvious). Or they’ll design the control systems for your antonymous airplane. You also need doers — people who can implement quickly. That’s often a different set of people. You also don’t want people too smart for your problems. They’ll get bored and won’t do a good job.

  7. Siddhartha says:

    Nice article. I would second Khushnood above in recommending the writings on the subject by Paul Graham, Derek Sivers and Steve Yegge.

    @Anantharaman: I find “resources” to be a very derogatory term for referring to employees. Maybe it’s just me.

  8. Rajesh says:

    Great piece, as ever. So, I am going to try to follow your advice. I have started this company called AIEEE.BE, and am struggling to develop good content. This is for a decent enough cause – to teach people Maths, Phsyics and Chemistry and might even give you the kicks. So, if you are interested in picking up some old Mathematics today, Physics today or Chemistry today and creating some good questions, please go for it. :)

    Under the extension of your hypothesis, if smart people indeed network together, then this blogsite could be one such place, so fellow commenters, you can also take the lead and chip in with good content.

    I would also like to believe that creating good content is intrinsically attractive :) And just to demonstrate that this is not a random request, I have given 3 questions below. One each in maths, physics and chemistry.

    The questions are of the type of Assertion and reason. In each of the three questions there are two statements. Statement 1 is an assertion, statement 2 is a reason.
    Mark answer choice 1 if the assertion is right, and the reason given is the right reason
    Mark answer choice 2 if the assertion is right, but the reason given is wrong
    Market answer choice 3 if the assertion and reason are right, but the reason is not the right explanation for the assertion
    Market answer choice 4 if the reason statement is right, but the assertion is wrong

    Mathematics:
    Assertion: If A-1, and A+1 are prime, A has to be a multiple of 3
    Reason: Among n consecutive positive numbers, there will be at least one number that is a multiple of n

    Physics:
    Assertion: When driving under heavy rainy conditions, it is better to press the brake of a vehicle multiple times than to keep it pressed continuously. Pressing the brake a number of times brings the vehicle to a halt sooner
    Reason: Kinetic friction is greater than rotational friction, so pressing the brakes many times helps

    Chemistry:
    Assertion: CH3-CH=CH2 + HCl follows Anti Markonikov’s law when the reaction happens in the presence of peroxide
    Reason: In the presence of peroxide, electrophilic addition cannot take place and the end compound is formed via the free radical mechanism.

    Am hoping that “smart” people will respond by the hordes (am assuming that the emperor has no clothes hypothesis works).

    Cheers all,

  9. Neutronstar says:

    Actually, there is one more dimension here. Smart people take lesser time to solve problems. Anyway, since smart people do not necessarily do more work, productivity is unlikely to increase if most of the work is of average level difficulty.

  10. V ShivaKumar says:

    Hi,
    Smart people are great to have on board, but you need to have sound internal control and a good organized flow of system. If they are allowed to be dealt with cash on day to day basis, the controls have be extremely good for the owner to check the reports periodically. Else the owner will be in trouble.

    They will move on, when even if they are not even slightly satisfied with the work or with the boss, even if you pay them well

    I do accept all the positive points mentioned by Anand in the above article. Jim collins also says about these things in his book “Good to Great”

  11. NoOne Special says:

    The truely smart people/person will always move on. Only new problems or excitement can keep them. Whichever is your flavor or theirs. Recruiting Smart People is a good. Most of what I read is been written many times by many people. Not this one. Atleast I see new. Back to dullness.
    Thank you for something new, and sorry for my late response.
    bravo!, bravo!