When it comes to evaluating talent there is no end of opinions or philosophical points of view, particularly in the technology industry. Some have started conducting their interviews via text. Whether your company uses algorithmic problems, take-home projects, timed exercises, personality testing, or some combination of these, there is no one-size-fits-all approach for analyzing someone’s potential.
One rule of thumb, however, that I’ve found to be a powerful signal of technical talent is a candidate’s self-awareness of and dedication to their Craft. The best people in any industry on the planet—whether they’re building rockets or electric cars—are craftsmen.
Let me explain the importance of craftsmanship, and what thinking with Craft can bring to a business.
On why people that think with Craft are so valuable to a team
By “thinking with Craft” I don’t mean someone who is a hobby blacksmith, or likes to blow glass after work. I mean someone who’s deeply engaged by what they do, who is constantly seeking skills in order to learn about what they know from a new perspective, and who engages in radical experimentation. Really great developers will code for the sheer joy of it, or to solve a very specific problem that they have. Highly creative designers will tinker with prototypes, often destroying what they know will pass and starting again from scratch just to see what will come of it.
The insanely talented and highly creative have a well-developed muscle for generating ideas. Even that–idea generation–is something people across all disciplines in all sectors can do on a daily basis. 6Sigma uses the 5Whys, which barely gets airtime anymore. But just incorporating some discipline around thinking through alternatives can inspire new solutions, new projects–some of which turn into companies. A few turn into larger companies.
On how to evaluate craftsmanship
When ideas of craftsmanship and creativity are misunderstood, people focus those with hobbies or quirky side projects. They look for the side hustle. Everything is on the side. And, that might indeed be an indicator of someone who thinks differently. However, sometimes it’s an indication that they can’t fully express their creativity through their day-work.
Many organizations are set up (consciously or unconsciously) to stimy creativity. When a certain pace for growth is seen to be achievable, and repeatable–creativity generally starts to fade. Research and development get isolated. Brainstorming is bracketed. Creativity is related to specific, time-bound activities so that the speed of business is not disrupted.
But true craftsmanship, you know it when you see it.
When someone is very, very good at what they do–they stand out., they challenge the status quo and elevate standards.
It’s not about the number of things they’ve accomplished. It’s about the level of ownership of and accountability to their Craft that are important. Think of the work you did when you were in flow. Think of the work you’re proud of.
By nature, people that think and work with Craft like to work independently on something before they partner. This is one of the reasons side projects are compelling at first. For Craftsmen, their independent work matters 10x more than what they did as part of a job or a team or group where they were instructed what to do.
On why skill development still matters
In the debate of skills v experience, it is chic now to value experience above all else. Right now I’ve found that to be mainly lip service, semantics, and a false choice.
Skills can represent experience, depending on how they are framed. A database analyst doesn’t necessarily need a ton of certifications; they need to know how to manage certain environments. That knowledge is skill.
Skills still matter, no matter what you hear. Skills are still present in every job description. They are listed in every performance review and development plan. Skills are what companies invest in more than anything else when it comes to development. That’s what funds the billion-dollar development industry.
Someone thinking with Craft is in constant pursuit of learning new skills if only to look back on their own certainty with fresh eyes. In fact, they are quite generous with their knowledge, willing to give what they know today because they know they will learn more tomorrow. They learn skills to advance their thinking, not to cross off a development goal.
Why investing in deep experiences is essential
Companies pay a lot of lip service stating they would rather hire for fit rather than skills. Tell that to the recruiter and the person that writes those templated, written for jobscan job descriptions. Most job descriptions haven’t evolved past the vapidity of ‘Must have ten years experience in this, five years experience in that, must know the latest software [name here]…’
A good candidate can pick up most skills on the job. A good engineer can learn a new language. A good designer can learn a new toolset. But how often are they really given the chance…when they are over forty? over fifty? changing careers? coming back from a career gap?
Years of experience really don’t matter that much, or they shouldn’t. By now, there should be a younger version of me out there who’s better than me at almost everything. That is proof society progresses. The learning tools have gotten better. Younger generations were raised with the internet, cell phones, portable media, and gadgets for nearly everything. With all that to support them, they should be smarter than me. Look at this kid. All I could do at that age was write a letter to my senator and try to be heard. They should have read more than me. They should be better at math than me. They should be able to build a business younger than me.
Kinds of experience are what should matter now. Regardless of age, how someone has fashioned their own learning, taking responsibility for their own development is what should matter most. Did they challenge themselves to learn something difficult? How did they go about that? How much risk did they take? How have their experiences contributed to their thinking and problem-solving skills? How have their experiences enhanced their creativity? How has what they’ve learned been revealed through their work and how they express themselves? How has their approach to learning given them insight on their uniqueness of perspective or greater proximity to the problems they want to solve?
On the importance of aligning incentives
People struggle in hierarchies because hierarchies bury talent. In hiearchies, people develop survival skills to be seen, like managing up through bosses and other sponsors versus really thinking about what is best for the business. It’s referred to as “increasing visibility.”
On the whole, it’s important to be working on incentives. After recruiting and retention, which in fast growth cultures, is almost the sole focus of a manager, their most important priority is incentive design. After the vision is laid, the strategic goals are chosen, and people are staffed to execute on those goals–then it’s time to design the incentives that will enable those goals.
Incentive goes beyond financials. People want flexibility with where they work. However, when a company isn’t hitting its target, they want everyone close together. While money and equity still matter, flexibility in when and how people work are additional ways to motivate.
People vary in their productivity. How do you keep and motivate those people who can run circles around everyone else? You can’t pay them 10x more. And, it’s hard to actually link their productivity to skill, luck, and teamwork. That’s what stock grants are for.
Stock grants should align with the contribution. One area where Silicon Valley–and more startups–miss the target is they provide a lot of equity based on when you joined. Inevitably people join in year five or six who have a fraction of the equity of their peers. And yes, their peers took some risk, so they should have some more equity, but it usually ends up extremely lopsided. That’s what makes it harder and harder to recruit and cultivate loyalty.
Employee number 500 needs to be taken care of as well as employee number 5 if 500 turns out to be super productive, and 5 is not.