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January 09, 2006

Hiring the Right People

Michael Mandel

Just landed on my desk: A copy of a new book called The Pentium Chronicles: The People, Passion, and Politics Behind Intel's Landmark Chips, by Robert Colwell, who was the chief architect responsible for the Pentium CPU architecture (at least according to the press release). I opened up the book at a random page and immediately came up with this very interesting nugget about hiring good people:

I had thought that the higher the interview score (the candidate’s average expertise level across the six technical areas), the more likely they would be to “catch on” at Intel and move on to great things. But there really was no statistical correlation between our interview scores and the odds that a particular person would get a promotion within a few years after having been hired. (All “fast-track” performers get such promotions).

This was somewhat distressing, at least initially. It just seemed so logical that people with higher evident technical ability would be better positioned than others with respect to promotions, but the data did not show it.

This made me suspicious. If my intuitions were wrong about this, where else might they be wrong? Well, surely a higher college grade point average out to be correlated with career success. After all, the GPA is a result of native ability, hard work, and demonstrated mastery of difficult technical material, all of which seem essential to success in industry. But, again, the data did not bear this out. It was clear that Intel did not hire engineers with GPAs below approximately 3.2, but once someone was hired, a higher GPA did not in any way predispose its owner to faster promotions.

I was feeling a bit desperate at this point. If interview scores and GPs did not predict future success, how about advanced degrees? Wouldn’t MSEEs and PhDs be able to exhibit higher levels of mastery as well as the perseverance to tackle something and finish it no matter what? Again, the data stubbornly refused to support even this soundly logical assumption. If anything, PhDs appeared to be underrepresented in the ranks of the newly promoted.

By this point, the pattern was clear, and I was pretty sure how the next attempted correlation would turn out. But I pressed on, comparing the alma maters of the fast-trackers to Intel’s list of preferred “focus” schools. I found nothing. There were unmistakable differences in the education background of students who came from, say, MIT, and those who came from second-tier universities, but focus schools were only slightly better represented in the promotions lists. And even that correlation was questionable, because Intel hires disproportionately more students from its focus schools so, naturally, there would be more of them in the fast-track category.

You know, this is something I also suspected about the unpredictability of hiring.

11:28 AM

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I wonder if Colwell considered "EQ" - Emotional-intelligence Quotient. Probably not, since his discussion sounds awfully quantified and not at all in consideration of qualitative factors. Those who have stronger abilities to empathize and communicate have higher EQ's, which are factors difficult to quantify. Nonetheless, a person's ability to socialize, network, understand others and communicate likely plays a far greater role in the advancement of individuals in the workplace. If there is a small range of actual ability which Intel hires from (and it sounds like they hire within a very small, specific range), then the remaining factors are the "EQ" factors.

Prime example: Look at who we have for a President. He isn't there because he's all that intellectually capable.

Posted by: Brandon at January 9, 2006 01:25 PM

Yes, emotional intelligence and the communication capabilities that come with it are likely more important, although measurement of success by promotion is probably misguided but with many large companies it is up or out. What it does suggest is that most of their criteria may be relatively unimportant and they may well profit from a wider selection process, not that I expect they will do so. People prefer objective data even if not useful over subjective data that can't be well quantified.

Posted by: Lord at January 9, 2006 02:01 PM

The idea that there may be no correlation between your hiring process and actual employee success is the point of one of Russo's and Schoemaker's illustrations in Decision Traps: The Ten Barriers to Decision-Making and How to Overcome Them. The book includes excellent pointers on how to apply and overcome our personal bounds of rationality, avoid "group think", and exploit the wisdom of our co-worker crowds. WRT hiring, they recommend using quantified data as a feedback on the process.

In fact, at one point they recommend hiring a few people that you would normally reject just to check your premises. The idea is that if your success rate is 50% among people you actually hire, your *actual* process effectiveness may be much higher or lower. You may be rejecting many candidates whose outcome is mostly good, so your decision-making process is very bad, or you may be rejecting bad candidates and having bad outcomes with the ones you choose (your process is okay, but could be better).

Posted by: Eric H at January 9, 2006 04:28 PM

The idea that there may be no correlation between your hiring process and actual employee success is the point of one of Russo's and Schoemaker's illustrations in Decision Traps: The Ten Barriers to Decision-Making and How to Overcome Them. The book includes excellent pointers on how to apply and overcome our personal bounds of rationality, avoid "group think", and exploit the wisdom of our co-worker crowds. WRT hiring, they recommend using quantified data as a feedback on the process.

In fact, at one point they recommend hiring a few people that you would normally reject just to check your premises. The idea is that if your success rate is 50% among people you actually hire, your *actual* process effectiveness may be much higher or lower. You may be rejecting many candidates whose outcome is mostly good, so your decision-making process is very bad, or you may be rejecting bad candidates and having bad outcomes with the ones you choose (your process is okay, but could be better).

Posted by: Eric H at January 9, 2006 04:35 PM

I'll be the first to admin my undergrad GPA was not as high as I'd liked it to have been (wouldn't get hired at Intel). As such, I did have a little trouble getting a post-college job because a few campus recruiting employers wrote me off on that basis alone.

I did know a lot of people with upper level GPAs that are brilliant minds, yet they have no communications skills and cannot work with business users which is critical in an IT environment. The days of sitting in an cubicle pounding out code are over. With few exceptions (as listed in other post) those jobs are going to India.

Since my first job, no one has even asked to see my transcript. Most employers I've talked to don't even care about a college degree - they are looking more for experience, which I believe is a mistake because college teaches you certain sides of analyzing problems that 30 years in the field won't.

I would like to work in an environment where people were pressured to keep up their learning. Too many people get complacent and fail to improve skills. I'd be very happy to take an annual skills test or something similar.

Some people with marginal understanding of both technology and business succeed with brilliance because of luck or having an enourmous pair of butt-kissing lips.

Posted by: Wes at January 9, 2006 05:00 PM

Mike:

Would you address this for me?

Every company I've worked in has a person or two who is a huge drain on the rest of the team due to lack of skills, knowledge, or drive. As a result, some of the best workers are driven to fail because of increased workload. Good employees burn out, or as I have directly seen, are doing so much work that a mistake here and there crops up. Then the person is a pariah while the other guy doing nothing is a hero because if you do nothing, you don't mess anything up.

Can you think of an effective way to gauge the cost on productivity, profitability, and effiicency of a team containing slackers?

Posted by: Wes at January 9, 2006 05:02 PM

Nice topic, Mike. So, what guarantees success? Way of the world today says, at the very least, a GPA 4.0 is a good bet...

@Wes:

Pariah or not, I still strive to do my best in my shift. It helps me in my understanding of the environment - and helps me to learn more. I do not anticipate being anywhere "forever"...

Coincidentally there's a Mr No-Oscar-Winner where I work, who goes on sick leave once a month, and is very reluctant to pick up tickets, and is almost always on company's or his mobile phone whenever possible.

I've commited 2 huge mistakes thus far - shutting down a critical database and it was so for 2 minutes - but I'd better not repeat the same ones twice.

He is, of course, spot-clean.

An EQ-challenged management would have squared up on me and of course elected Mr No-Oscar as "hero". Luckily, my management thus far sees further than that.

As another colleague who did these things before said,

"If all that I have done were for nuts, then so be it."

Posted by: riversandlakes at January 10, 2006 02:22 AM

That’s the way it works, real commercial life outside the fantasia of academia.

Some points worth consideration

// In reality ‘the pure lab style nature of exams’ generally aren’t good case studies for real life experience.

// Often those that rote-learn a process for a high mark don’t practice well thinking out of the box.

// Then there are those that are simply brilliant mathematicians or scientists but lack the ability to present their ideas and concepts to a wider audience

// Politics are always in play when there are more than two people in the room and the ability to apply emotional intelligence plays a significant factor in a persons chances to succeed.

// People change, what comes easy to some ensures their demise through boredom. That is those that have to work harder to reach an achievement often set high standards of quality. This is paradoxical to traditional thinking, but often the underdog takes the prize because mere focus, discipline are in play.

Posted by: Martin Davies at January 10, 2006 03:12 AM

From observing children and classes for years I've learned that the student with the highest grade is not the smartest one in the class. Intellectually gifted people are not the best at doing what teachers want done in the class. A high GPA in college indicates the student was able to figure out how to get good grades. It does not measure intelligence, work habits, emotional intelligence, leadership skills, or creativity.

Posted by: Daniel Stuhlman at January 18, 2006 09:30 AM

Colwell's findings are not unusual or even unexpected for scientists who are used to thinking carefully about the *systemic* effect on the data. Remember that the hiring process is designed to select the best prospects. The resulting data is not a random sample of all persons within the field, and the lack of statistical differences may only mean that Intel did a very good job of utilizing the information they had at the time the person was hired. For those who are familiar with the research, this is much like the finance theory known as "Efficient Markets Hypothesis".

Posted by: Pete at January 23, 2006 07:19 PM


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