Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Hire For The Ability To Get Shit Done

I have found that the two biggest causes of having to fire an employee at an early stage startup are a lack of culture fit, and the inability to Get Shit Done.  I don't care how smart someone is - if they are unable to work hard and crank out a large amount of high quality work, they will weigh down your startup.

Inability to get things done may manifest itself in multiple ways including:
  • Lack of urgency.  Used to a large company environment where its OK if things take a few weeks longer.
  • Easily distracted.  Heavy procrastinator.
  • Lazy / doesn't work hard.  Some very smart people are basically lazy.  Don't tolerate this.
  • Starts but never finishes things.
  • Lack of follow through - makes commitments but does not follow up.
  • Argumentative. Arguing incessantly about how to do something rather then just doing it.
  • Slow.  Taking a long time to code (or do) something simple.
  • Perfectionist.  Tendency to overdesign something and to spend 4 weeks building the perfect implementation versus 1 week building the thing that "just works" for 95% of the time.  Sometimes the edge cases need to be covered, but in most raw startups this is not the case.  On the business side this manifests as someone heavy on analysis, low on "doing".
Unfortunately, this is the fault of the entrepreneur and of the hiring process - too few hiring processes focus on the ability to Get Shit Done (GSD).

Screening for the ability to Get Shit Done.
Here are some ways I have used in the past to check for the ability to Get Shit Done:
  • Coding exercise.  As part of our hiring process at Mixer Labs, we would often give people a half day coding exercise.  We would see what tools they used,  how they worked with the team, but also how productive they were.  What was the final output of the half day, and how did that compare to other candidates?  We had a few candidates that went from "did OK on interviews" to "wow, that person is great" when we saw the output of the exercise (and vice versa).
  • Personality.
    • Follow through.  Did the candidate respond to every email from me quickly?  Did they follow through on everything they said they would do?
    • Excellence.  Do they spend the time to become good at anything they adopt as a hobby?  Larry and Sergey at Google would famously ask about people's random hobbies to test whether they were the type of people who focused on excellence and depth of understanding.
    • Proactivity.   Do they suggest the right next steps without prompting?  Do they go above and beyond in the interview and come in ahead of time with e.g. a 5 page analysis of where the company should head?
  • Homework.  We would give non-engineering candidates a simple task to complete between phone screen and onsite.  E.g. "Come back in 3 days with a 1-page marketing plan for our product."  If they did not finish this on time, or they came back with little insight / shoddy work we would not move forward with them.
  • Ask the candidate.  I would often straight out ask people how effective they were at GSD, and how did they compare to their peers?  It was surprising how honest some (very smart) people would be on this.  E.g. "I am average compared to other engineers".  For an early stage startup, average is not enough.
  • Reference checks.  Ask about people's Get Shit Done ability in multiple different ways during reference checks:
    • What %ile of getting stuff done is this person?
    • How does this person compare re: GSD to their peers?
    • Give me an example of how this person was proactive?
    • How proactive is X versus their peers?  What %ile is this for your company?  For all people of Y-function you have worked with?
    • How hard does X person work?
    • When has X person been unable to follow through on a commitment?  When has X not come through on a commitment, no matter how small?
    • How fast does X accomplish tasks?
    • How frequently does X go above and beyond what they are asked for?
With the simple steps above you should be able to optimize for people who are proactive, have good follow through, and Get Shit Done in addition to the other screens for raw intelligence, culture fit, and functional knowledge.

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Tuesday, September 6, 2011

12 Year Old Steve Jobs Meets Bill Hewlett (of HP)

I was eating pho with a friend the other night and he pointed out how grateful he was to be living in the one spot on the planet where it was easiest to contribute to the creation of the products and services that are driving massive technological change across the planet.  This is a big picture, technology-as-a-force-for-awesomeness perspective I had not been reminded of in some time (with all the noise of who is filing to go public, what are all the 65 companies in the last YC batch doing, etc.).

It also reminded me of how much I love Silicon Valley.

Here are 3 of the many reasons I love Silicon Valley:

1. Steve Jobs (at the age of 12) meeting Bill Hewlett (CEO of HP).  When Steve Jobs was a kid, he grew up in Mountain View.  HP was right around the corner and at the time was being run by Bill Hewlett, one of its co-founders.

To quote the HP website:
When he was in eighth grade, Steve Jobs decided to build a frequency counter for a school project and needed parts. Someone suggested that he call Bill Hewlett. Finding a William Hewlett in the telephone book, the 12-year-old Jobs called and asked, "Is this the Bill Hewlett of Hewlett-Packard?" "Yes," said Bill. Jobs made his request. Bill spent some time talking to him about his project. Several days later, Jobs went to HP and picked up a bag full of parts that Bill had put together for him. Subsequently, Jobs landed a summer job at HP. He later went on to co-found Apple Computer. 

Think of how amazing this is.  The founder and CEO of one of the major companies of the time, Bill Hewlett, got on the phone with a random 12-year-old he had never heard of.  He then proceeded to personally make sure to assemble the bag of HP parts the kid needed.

I wonder if this explains why decades later Steve Jobs was then so welcoming to the 10-year-old kid with an Apple logo shaved in the back of his head, who also contacted him out of the blue.  You can read the story here.

To me, this sums up the ethos that pervades Silicon Valley during non-bubble times - people helping each other out of the love of technology and the impact it has on the world.  People recognizing and nurturing talent even if it comes in an unexpected form (e.g. an eventual hippie-esque college drop-out obsessed with fonts starting Apple computer).  And once successful, people realizing they need to give back in turn when they are the person who can help others.

2. Netscape in a Strip Mall;  Taking a Baseball Bat to a Lamborghini
I remember feeling pretty exuberant the first time I landed in Silicon Valley back in 2000.  I flew into the San Francisco airport and immediately drive down to see all the great companies I had read about and/or whose products I had used.  As I drove down the 101S and related roads I saw the signs for Netscape, Intel, Yahoo!, eBay, Cisco etc. (this is back before Google, Facebook, and Twitter became the next wave).

The thing that stood out most for me was, well, how understated all the buildings were for these major tech companies.  They basically looked like one or two story strip malls.  If you compare this to the opulent, wood-paneled, 100-story buildings most of the Fortune 500 has, you realize how the culture of a technology company is often focused on building a great product, rather then building the perception of importance.  Great technology companies are too busy doing the important, to worry about looking important.

When Google was about to go public, I attended an engineering all-hands led by Wayne Rosing, Google's former SVP Eng who ran the whole Google eng organization (he was also the eng director at Apple who led the development of the Lisa Computer, Apple's precursor to the Mac).  Wayne said something along the lines of "Once we go public, if I so much as see someone drive a Lamborghini into our parking lot, I am going to take a baseball bat to it."  Wayne's message as I read it was "Keep your heads down doing good work- this is just one step in the long evolution of a our company.  Don't get showy - we still have lots to accomplish.  And lets not screw up our culture in parallel with gross displays of wealth - this is just a dumb distraction from our mission."

The people I am most impressed by in Silicon Valley still share these values.  Reid Hoffman, for example, (now worth billions post LinkedIn, and Zynga and Facebook investments) still drives a Toyota.

3. Drop Outs and Immigrants.  
Most Silicon Valley startup stories sound like the punchline to a joke.  E.g. "An Indian, a Jew, and a boy from the Midwest walk into an empty office space..." and the next thing you know a great company is born.   Many of the great technology companies were started by people who dropped out of college or grad school (Microsoft, Facebook, Google, Apple, Dell, etc.).  Cultures that, at their best, ignore a person's origin and education level, tend to create the most innovation.  The best ideas tend to rise to the top.

Summary: Silicon Valley Values
I guess to sum it all up, to me Silicon Valley as an ideal has the following values:
1. Understated
2. Focused on changing the world through technology
3. Egalitarian
4. Giving back to the community - Entrepreneurs and technologists helping one another out

I hope we don't lost sight of these values in the current boom cycle.

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