Hiring Heartbreak: Torn Between Two Candidates

Sometimes in the hiring process you’re faced with choosing between two excellent candidates who show great potential for very different reasons. The challenge is deciding which of the two to select and clearly understanding why one is the better choice.

Allow me to illustrate: I recently had the opportunity to serve as a sounding board for a colleague faced with such a decision. As a software development company with a tight, creative product team poised to take on rapid growth and change, each new hire was critical. After an extensive interview process, they had narrowed down the pool of candidates to two they felt very positive about. Since any addition to their small product team would have a significant impact, making the right choice was crucial.

Future Potential versus Current Need

One candidate had a strong combination of business and technical skills with an entrepreneurial bent that was highly attractive (especially to the CEO). This candidate was well-spoken, demonstrated great leadership potential and had extensive customer-facing experience. In fact, this was the kind of candidate who could truly grow with the organization in a variety of roles.

The second candidate had more product management experience (though less customer-facing experience), was highly detail-oriented and had a talent for writing exceptional product specifications. With a strong resume and a comfortable interpersonal style, this candidate would be an asset to the product team, ensuring that product strategy was clearly translated into product development.

As my colleague described the two candidates, she seemed to be convincing herself to hire first one and then the other. After a few fruitless iterations of this, two facts emerged: she was torn between what the company needed now and what the company would greatly benefit from in the future; and (like the CEO) she was drawn to the candidate who was most similar to her. It was evident that, without some clear construct to help in the decision process, she would likely have to flip a coin, since she didn’t have the budget to hire both candidates.

After a few probing questions it became evident that my colleague recognized the current product team lacked the ability to write a good technical specification and this weakness impacted the whole company. The reason this gap had never been addressed seemed to be the tendency to hire for attitude, personality and leadership potential, based on the assumption that specification writing is one of many skills that can be learned on the job—to this point, however, that hadn’t happened.

The Non-Development Version of Technical Debt

Technical debt is a metaphor referring to the eventual consequences of poor software architecture and software development within a codebase. The debt can be thought of as work that needs to be done before a particular job can be considered complete. If the debt is not repaid, then it will keep on accumulating interest, making it hard to implement changes later on. Unaddressed technical debt increases software entropy.

When considered from this angle, it became clear that much like a development team accumulates technical debt, the company as a whole was accumulating “organizational debt” as a result of its hiring practices. By demonstrating a bias toward long-term needs, leadership potential and a big picture perspective, the company was juggling a growing skills deficit, which would become harder and harder to address with continued growth.

In this case, the clear gap in the product team was detail orientation and the ability to write good specifications. All members of the current product team demonstrated traits similar to the first candidate described above, but none had yet developed excellent specification writing skills. Clearly, just as the development team needed to spend some time resolving and closing off defects in the software to keep the technical debt at a manageable level, the product team needed to address this weakness that would leave them highly exposed over time.

Having talked it out, it was clear that addressing the current gap in the product team and paying down the “organizational debt” was the way to go. When the team is balanced and strong, with no significant competency gaps, it makes sense to hire for extra capacity and future needs. Not so when the lack of a specific skill set creates an increasing drag that threatens to hold everyone back.


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