Just Don’t Hire 0x Engineers

May 19, 2015

During one of my philosophy courses at school, my professor gave us an in-class assignment:

For the next five minutes, I want you to think about literal Hell. What would it be like? What would you feel and experience?

And we sat and contemplated what Hell would be for each of us. And then we discussed it. Lots of fire and brimstone. Torture. Pain. It was a pretty lovely discussion.

Then he flipped it on us:

For the next five minutes, I want you to think about literal Heaven. What would it be like? What would you feel and experience?

Surprise, surprise: this was a really shit way to spend five minutes. You first think cool, I get to see all my dead friends and family again. But then you wonder what age they’d all be. And then like, even your BFF is kind of an asshole to you sometimes, do you really want him there? But you also don’t want everyone being complacent zombies all the time- that’d be no fun either. So maybe you just imagine a non-stop orgy and MDMA bender. But wouldn’t that get boring sometimes, too? Variety is the spice of the after-life, after all.

After about a minute of this we all just got bored. But he made us sit there and think about this for the full five minutes. It was surprisingly maddening. This was supposed to be Heaven, dammit. Eternal happiness. This should be easy.

It turns out, it’s much easier to focus on avoiding pain than it is to envision pleasure.

The 10x A-Player Rockstar Engineer

The hip thing nowadays is that your software company should hire only A-players instead of B- or C-players, or focus on engineers that are ten times better than anyone else. Whether or not that’s true is debatable and dependent on how you’re able to measure it, but I think the sentiment itself is the wrong question to ask.

A Hipster Cat

Their About page may say otherwise, but — drumroll, please — the average company is pretty average. Not everybody can hire exclusively top-tier people. And you know what? That’s fine. Quality of individuals is only one part of what makes an organization great. Sports is rife with examples of the nimble, well-connected team triumphing over the team of individual superstars.

When I worked at Gild, it became pretty clear that while nearly all companies boasted that We only hire A-players!, the reality was that most of the companies using our hiring software were most interested in finding people that don’t suck. They wanted good people that they didn’t need to pay the top 1% of salary in the world for. It’s pain avoidance rather than pleasure seeking behavior. It’s worrying about Hell rather than trying to get to Heaven. Basically, most people were Billy Beanes rather than Steve Jobses.

None of this is bad. What I think is bad is that there’s so much pride and focus on The Best of the Best of the Best, With Honors. It’s setting a pretty fucked up expectation for our industry.

Not everything a Michelin

This is an interesting tendency that can occasionally cut across a lot of different areas in your product.

A few years back I had just landed in Amsterdam and was desperately looking around for breakfast. I checked Foursquare and saw that two of my friends had eaten at a small place just up the block. I figure they must have done at least some research to go there, so it probably wasn’t terrible. I ended up eating there and it was perfect. It wasn’t a Michelin star restaurant, because I didn’t need something amazing; all I wanted was to avoid eating shitty food.

When we’re building product, we tend to use words like best, perfect, optimized, and other top-tier words like that. That’s fine; certainly you want to help your user out as much as possible.

But with whatever you’re building, step back and realize that sometimes quick is better than best. Or flexible might be better than optimized.

Sometimes people just want a greasy burger.