What I learned during 10 years interviewing people - talking about hiring and discrimination
February 23, 2013
At the moment women in IT is one of the most discussed topics I am aware of. There is no day without new tweets, tumbles and other stuff discussing the topic. After I read Ashes post I thought about talking about it from the perspective of an employer and someone who had more hiring talks than you can count the last ten years.
This post is basically a collection of things I learned from hiring and managing employees and contributors (read: freelancers).
I will briefly talk about my past experience and my hiring process before I start discussing gender diversity. So if you only care for that part just skip the next two sections.
I feel like I should add a big, fat disclaimer, but I refuse to write it in red. These are my experiences. I will not claim to have all the answers, not even one, I do not speak with an absolute authority. I just talk about what I did, how I did it, why I thought it would be a good idea and what I learned. It is possible that you disagree, which is good. Different situations, different people, different ways to handle something. The worst thing you can do after reading this is trying to adopt every single point and act like I did.
How I learned the essentials
Thankfully I did not have to learn everything by myself. My father taught me everything possible. He is self-employed as long as I can remember, working for international companies, my mother runs the organizational part of his business. I could always ask them for help and when they saw that I was about to screw up they told me what I was doing wrong when clients were about to be harmed - but otherwise I had to learn my own lessons by myself. And I am really thankful that they did not try preventing me from doing stupid things.
Thanks to my father I grew up with tech everywhere. It was his job and it became my passion. I could solder before being able to do more math than add, subtract, multiply and divide. With 13 I had the opportunity to join a group of people organizing network parties. We had up to 350 gamers and after my first year I was in charge of the network and tournament organization. This was also the first time I had to coordinate and work with others, sometimes just telling them what to do - and I learned a lot.
With 16 I founded my company to be able to charge people for repairing their stuff. Thanks to the fact that I was well known I had the chance to work for small companies. I think my biggest client had around 50 employees. As I turned 18 I started a training as financial consultant, while finishing my university-entrance diploma. I chose to be self employed, learn in the evenings, take the exams for my training on weekends and run two businesses side by side.
I took as many advanced trainings as I possibly could while working (they were offered on a regular basis). I focused on the psychological part of selling, hiring and managing and became an IT coach for around 250 people. This is the part where I stop, because I would waste the next five minutes of your and my life with details that do not really matter, but would explain how everything in this organization fits together. Just to finish this up: This is the business I only manage today, it does not consume much time, my employees basically do everything by themselves, I only make sure the quality is as good as it can be. 90% of my time are used for freelancing, developing and designing things for the web or iOS.
The hiring process
Being responsible for other people was a bit scary at the beginning but I quickly noticed that there are some projects where I needed help. Sometimes to stick to the schedule, sometimes to ensure the quality was right.
It was before my 17th birthday that I needed to hire someone. A client asked me to setup 30 workstations, two servers and the network. I asked two friends who I knew from network parties. We agreed on a price and just did it. There was no need for anything but "Do you have time and want to make some money?". I knew them, I knew they can do what was needed.
For my second company I needed some people for growth. I could not satisfy the demand on my own and I wanted to make sure the business still runs when I am not there.
In eight years I interviewed around 300 people, for myself, clients and friends. Believe me one thing: You will see and hear things you never wanted to see or hear. But my top 3 "Oh my god, just go away!" moments are a topic for another post.
I always used a pretty simple interview process. The first question, after I told them what they would have to do, was "Do you believe you are able to do this in a professional way, making sure the quality is excellent?".
If the response is: "Yes I can", it is the point where I would start asking domain specific questions. What I ask depends on what I expect. Highly specialized vs. an all-round talent. Sometimes I ask a specialist I know to attend for the domain specific questions. If customer contact is involved I add questions how he would handle them. Of course, past projects are also interesting. I think you know the different possibilities how to interview someone.
If the candidate response is "I am not sure", the first question is "What do you think would it need that you are able to do it?", followed by "Are you willing to do this to get the job?". There are trial periods, there are time based contracts, there are so many possible ways to see if a candidate is able to learn what he needs. This does not work if you need someone immediately but for the long run I also always consider people who are able to learn.
After the interview I consider the candidate. A standard procedure would be a one week contract, paid, of course, working with the team if there is already one. I do not believe that hiring someone without trial and forcing people who just hate each other on plain sight to work together is a good idea.
Discrimination and sexism
I know that women are often paid significantly less than men. I am aware that there is discrimination based on gender, skin color, sexual orientation, religious and political views, and everything else you can think of.
I had one contractor who thought it would be funny to always make the same joke about an interview process involving the cup size of a women. The first time I told him that it is not appropriate, the second time was the last time he was ever seen in my office and company.
I have to admit I do not know how it feels to be discriminated, well - beside jokes I had to take as kid because I was a bit bulky. But I also do not see why we cannot solve this. I sometimes have a really simple black and white view of things.
Inappropriate behavior of any kind should be mentioned in a civilized way and from this point the person should know not to do it anymore. How hard can that be? Millions of years of evolution and still some people claiming to be intelligent are not able to understand someone finds something offensive? Sorry, I just do not get it.
Sometimes it is not obvious if someone feels offended by a certain behavior. Telling this person, the first time it happens, should result in a changed behavior and no hard feelings for calling it out. You know, this stuff called civilized communication. Funny stuff, maybe one day we will all just use it.
Who do I hire? What are the consequences?
So, when hiring I look out for three main qualities: Is the candidate able to deliver, gets the job done and works with the rest of the team? If my interview partner is capable of doing all of this, it's likely that I consider him as an option. I never wanted many employees, as a consequence I always just worked with the necessary minimum plus contractors. Worked exceptionally well for me. But I believe this is business and industry specific.
While asked to help interviewing a candidate for other companies I had not always have a choice who was in front of me, so I will only talk about the people I hired for my two businesses, so I talk about IT and finance, both fields which are, I believe, male dominated.
The ratio of applications from men to women was 5 : 1, sometimes even 10 : 1. The women I interviewed had one thing in common: Most of them were qualified for the position, those who were not were less likely to say: "Yes, I can just learn this, no problem", while I believe around 30-40% of the male candidates lacked some skills but believed they could easily learn them.
Over the years I hired 7 men and 4 women for my own businesses. They were between 20 and 55 when they started, white and colored. I know one of them is gay and one a believing muslim. The best advice I can give you: diversity is great. Different perspectives, different experiences and knowledge. I did not find a downside. It is a bit more management work, but I do not see this as a problem.
Before the hiring process a salary or rate and bonuses are decided, according to required skills/time etc. Then candidates are interviewed. The problem with this is that there is no room for negotiations and sometimes this is just bad. But on the other hand it easily ensures everyone is treated equally. There is no difference if someone just screwed up or acted out of the way or if I like the person. Salary is the same and bonuses are depending on a work target. Pretty simple. Both industries do not favor anything but skills, this makes this system pretty simple and easy to implement.
Several things have to be considered when you have a diverse team. When we have a short meeting I get some cookies and gummy bears. Knowing that one of my employees is muslim means I have to check that he is allowed to eat them, which means gummy bears which do not contain animal starch, etc. Not too hard. I do not really see this as such a big problem as some people claim. Again, millions of years of evolution. We have a brain to use it. Being sure not to exclude someone with such simple things is important.
Some of them have kids. From my experience a women is more likely to take care of a child than a man. Maybe the school is calling or there was an accident or the child gets sick. It could be possible that a women misses two or three days a year because of this. Does it make her less qualified? Is her productivity lower? Work worse? Let me make it short because I never understood this discussions: No.
One of the funniest scenes I remember was a male employee bringing his kid to a six eyes meeting because he could not find a baby sitter. Pretty simple trick: Place a good-natured dog in front of a kid. Problem solved. Did you ever see a kid putting his pacifier in the mouth of a (obviously confused) dog?
30 Minutes later we had discussed everything we needed to continue working on the project, the kid was happy, the dog did not need much attention for the rest of the day and the employee was happy that this problem was solved this way, without drama, discussions, threat or anything else he encountered.
This will not work if there is a big meeting with many people. Especially if there are some who just do not like each other. Or if clients are involved. But as long as we can have a relaxed atmosphere why should I care? Work was done. And it should also be clear that it is an exception. The good thing about a team which likes and respects each other? You do not have to point this out and no one is offended.
Training new employees
I trained new employees for another company, overall something around 180, for nearly 4 years. Beside some special events we talk about 12 weeks, one evening a week. (I also trained two people for my business but I believe this is a less significant sum to take a resume.) They had to take an exam after those 12 weeks.
I would have to look up the exact numbers but I would guess around 140 men to 40 women. I have never seen one women fail, while it was common that at least one or two men do not pass. While the course was running the female attendees always worked as you expect it from someone who is professional while male attendees had a tendency to just scream an answer or question in the room or talk to someone else. On two occasions I had to ask two male attendees to leave the room.
Each course had ten to twelve attendees, sometimes they worked as a group. One advice if you ever find yourself in a position where I am your trainer: If you try to flirt with someone who obviously has no interest and clearly shows this, if you get more aggressive or if you generally act out of line with stupid (discriminating, sexist...) jokes, you will leave. You want to be treated as an adult, professional? Act this way and not like a hormone controlled 16 year old.
How do I work?
When I was 13 I first read "the hacker manifesto". It correlated with the way I was raised. Maybe this is one of the reasons I liked it so much back then.
I think I was 15 when I had the opportunity to attend some CS classes in an university as guest in my summer holidays. I was sitting in a lounge, trying to understand binary search trees. Someone a friend introduced me to, showed up and asked what I was doing. She wasted her two free hours explaining me the basics on how to implement a B-Tree. The first person explaining something advanced IT related to me (in person) was a woman. I could not have cared less about her gender - there was a person who taught me cool stuff. This was everything that mattered to me. Please do not get me wrong, I also like to see a beautiful women, bonus if she is fscking smart, but this should never influence work.
I judge people on what they do. I could not care less about skin color, sexual orientation or whatever. I want the highest possible quality of work and happy clients and I expect from everyone working with me the same.
I canceled contracts with freelancers and clients because I refuse to work with people who repeatedly believe stupid jokes are funny and do not care if they got told that some people in the room are offended. It does not make a difference for me if I am offended or someone else. I want a pleasant working environment for me, my employees and everyone else in the room.
You are free to disagree, but...
You are free to disagree with everything I wrote. You can disagree with the way I hire, you can disagree with the way I handle my team. Is it possible that 10 years are not enough experience? Is it possible that I am too young to see why we cannot just act like tolerant, sane adults? Maybe. Maybe I will see some things different in 10 years from now on. But right know it works just fine. I make a good living, I enjoy every hour of work I do and I can believe I do everything I can to not be part of the problem.
I am not free of guilt. Sometimes I just do not see a problem until someone points it out, sometimes I say something stupid without thinking of every possible interpretation. But I care wether or not someone is offended, I adjust and I try not to repeat mistakes.
I do not have all the answers. I do not know how to solve the big problem. But I do know one thing: Even if you disagree with me, if you just make sure you are not a part of the problem (and even do something against it if possible), then you do not have to become an activist, and still we will see the problem getting smaller. It will not vanish this way, but it will help those who fight it.