On hiring

Are you lucky to get these kind of emails to apply for a research position you recently advertised?

John Carmack on Twitter:

  • People like the idea of hard and fast rules, but putting +/-infinity as a factor in a policy decision is almost never the best plan. Hiring is an obvious example, with “requirements” that filter out large chunks of applicants that don’t have some kind of back channel \
  • influence. Disqualifications are rarely explicitly stated, but they exist. If a company has a reasonable flow of applications, just tossing out all the ex-cons is an easy call. On the other hand, applicants often don’t appreciate that interviewing prospects is a very non-trivial\
  • cost to an organization, and “interview everyone” is not viable for places in high demand. Given imperfect signals, a degree of random exploration is mathematically optimal, but “add up your stats and roll a D20 to see if you get a job interview” is unlikely to be very popular \
  • on either side. It is a really hard problem, but the workforce is clearly nowhere near an optimal distribution. Thinking about this while considering the challenges that @UnderdogDevs face in trying to help the previously incarcerated into software jobs.

Originally tweeted by John Carmack (@ID_AA_Carmack) on September 7, 2021.

I stumbled on this excellent Twitter thread on hiring. I have gone through a few interviews myself- on average – hired almost all the times, barring a few which had an unexplainable sense of entitlement bestowed on themselves. This is a classic leadership quandary – how to hire recruits that are the “best fit for the organisation”. For medical professionals, it becomes even more complex because soft skills (dealing with patients/administration) or colleagues are inherently more important than external attributes – self promotion on Twitter, “recommendations”, academic publishing/h-indices. for note, every qualified practitioner can dispense or prescribe. Outcomes depend on a combination of luck or “soft-serve” by bonding with patients and their caregivers. Indices don’t define competency, but research values loud sirens (ability to attract name-funding). Lobbying skills are inherently more important than ideation and clarity on self-sustaining financial modelling for research outcomes.

Here’s a fascinating write up:

“But you don’t really have a how-to-organize-your-time problem, you have a finding a needle in a haystack problem. There are way fewer qualified people applying for programming jobs. If you get one hundred resumes, you might have no qualified people, you might get one, if you get two or three in a hundred you’re doing well. If you have one good person in a hundred and you throw fifty away randomly, you now only have fifty resumés to sift through, but there’s a fifty-fifty chance you won’t find anyone worth interviewing, much less hiring.”

Ernestine nodded. “So,” she essayed, “I need to be a lot more selective about the resumés I discard because I have a much lower signal-to-noise ratio?” Mark stared at her blankly, then laughed as he caught her meaning. “Right!” 

The market has a strong desire for credentials. Yes, that’s a professional requirement. I am not denying it. However, individual circumstances determine outcomes, and therefore, placing everyone on a common pool is foolhardy.

I have been blogging over 3 years now. I have demonstrated a rigorous habit; a laser focus and now a huge idea moat that is not easy to replicated. I determine the value of an individual by the “attitude” and not “competence”. If a resume lands, the individual is competent enough to understand requirements.

More from the blog:

Oscar interrupted her. “Look,” he said, “University teaches you important things, things that are essential to doing your job. A degree is a requirement, and I don’t mean as a test of conformity.” Ernestine nodded. “Well, it’s true that nearly everyone we’ve hired has had a degree. But all the same, I didn’t sort resumes by degree or by school, I simply looked for relevant experience and reviewed the candidate’s code samples or portfolios when they had them to share. It turns out that almost everyone with the experience we wanted also had a University Degree.”

“But it’s dangerous to confuse correlation with causation. And especially dangerous to confuse correlation with necessity. If University is a great idea for a programmer, it will sort itself out when you look at their experience, look at their code, and interview them. I take the same approach to stuff like whether they blog or have hip hobbies like rock climbing. Most of our folks climb, mountain bike, or paddle, but I ignore that when looking at resumés.”

“After all, having the wrong hobby would be very unlucky. And I don’t throw unlucky resumés away.”

(emphasis mine)

It is tough to search for aptitude and attitude. Those are the best combinations. It is for the same reason I don’t believe in references. Those are someone else’s perceptions about an individual, and most of them resemble a boilerplate template anyway. For those statistically inclined, it is called a “secretary problem“:

The basic form of the problem is the following: imagine an administrator who wants to hire the best secretary out of {\displaystyle n}n rankable applicants for a position. The applicants are interviewed one by one in random order. A decision about each particular applicant is to be made immediately after the interview. Once rejected, an applicant cannot be recalled. During the interview, the administrator gains information sufficient to rank the applicant among all applicants interviewed so far, but is unaware of the quality of yet unseen applicants. The question is about the optimal strategy (stopping rule) to maximize the probability of selecting the best applicant. If the decision can be deferred to the end, this can be solved by the simple maximum selection algorithm of tracking the running maximum (and who achieved it), and selecting the overall maximum at the end. The difficulty is that the decision must be made immediately.

How many oncologists gate crash through job openings? The Wikipedia link doesn’t give the optimal solution to this complex mathematical jargon (I don’t understand much of it either).

I reckon the best hire is to assign the person with the personal motivation. As a soft attribute, blogging daily (in addition to my busy clinical schedule) should be a good enough marker for personal motivation.

Hiring shouldn’t be “political”. As a leader, one needs to develop a zoomed out perspective of potential applicants. Decisions can be fine-tuned in due course with increasing role and responsibility. One way to get diverse ideas is to break down echo chambers of conformity, because that works best in the interests of science and our patients.

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