Random Stew It seemed like a good idea at the time.


Hiring Rembrandt

I recently read a very good blog post on More Than a Living in which the author, Rick Turoczy, posits that an artisan is more important than their tools. Seems rather obvious when it's worded like that, eh?

The author makes an excellent point.

People are quite protective of their “tools.”

Oooh. Tools. They’re oh-so-valuable. Lah-di-dah.

Their software. Their methodology. Their ways of doing things. Little flowcharts. Templates. Processes. Scorecards. Whatever.

The perceived value of these tools is huge.

But what about the actual value?

I’d say that there isn’t much value in the tool, at all.


In reality, a tool only becomes valuable by being a tool. By becoming something more in the hands of an artisan to manipulate it.

A computer wizardAn artisan can quickly transition to new tools. In the MTL article, the author discusses Toby, an Excel whiz. A spreadsheet is Toby's tool. Excel may be his choice of paintbrush today, but I'm sure he can very quickly pick up any other spreadsheet program and quickly produce a masterpiece. He is master of financial modeling.

Over the years, I've seen technology job postings become extremely tool-specific, e.g. the following required applicant skill set pulled directly from a job listing on dice.com. I've edited the layout of the post for reasons of legibility, brevity, and removal of pure BS.

  1. ...
  2. Experience in Web-based software application development experience to include:
    1. VB.NET / T-SQL / Reporting Services / JavaScript / XML / HTML / DTS / Classic ASP / HTML / web-based forms
    2. internet integration server (iis) / active directory (ad) / SQL Server 2003 & 2005, SSIS, Visual Studio Team system.
    3. Understanding of intranet / extranet development / reverse proxy/Share Point portal / windows Share Point services.
    4. Understanding of impacts of multiple locations spread out globally connected by wide area network of varying speeds with varying desktop configurations.
    5. Understanding of multiple language, currency and locality impacts
    6. Use and development of web services
    7. Good software development practices including controlled processes and separation of development, test, and production environments.
  3. ...

Contrast these job requirements with the idea of an artisan being more important that their tools. One cause of this type of job posting is the need of headhunters and HR personnel -- through no fault of their own -- to have a checklist with which to filter candidates without consuming valuable interview time and resources. But even so, this type of job posting seems peculiar to technical industries. Have you ever seen a job posting for a carpenter that required 2 years experience with a Stanley 22 oz Antivibe Framing Hammer? Of course not.

Given an applicant's demonstrated competency in my field (programming in my case), I don't hire based upon experience with specific tools. Instead, I've always tried to hire based upon three criteria.

  1. Motivation. Does the candidate show a history of completing tasks and projects? If presented with a problem, do they truly attempt to solve it? Are they lifelong learners? Do they read technical books and journals? Do they play with new technologies? Is this a profession or merely a job?
  2. Intelligence. How do they solve problems? When presented with a problem, do they latch onto the first solution they dream up, or do they develop and evaluate multiple possible solutions? Are they open to new ideas? How well do they think through the balancing of conflicting ideas, requirements, and solutions?
  3. Personableness. How well will this person fit on the team? I try to imagine the person on the team and how the other team members will relate with them.

Given the potent combination of motivation and intelligence, a Java programmer quickly becomes a C# .NET expert -- or vice-versa; experience with specific tools is nice, but relatively unimportant. But even motivation and intelligence must be balanced with how well the candidate will fit in with a team; even the most talented performer isn't worth the cost of disrupting your team. Terrell Owens is arguably the best receiver in the National Football League, but he has eventually poisoned the locker room of every team for whom he has ever played.

I would never turn down a top-shelf developer because they didn't possess experience in a particular toolset. Einstein's tools.I don't hire carpenters because of the type of hammer in the tool belt, but rather their knowledge of construction techniques, materials, and craftsmanship. It was Einstein the artisan that revolutionized physics, not his writing implements and certainly not whatever brand of slide rule he used. Mario Andretti not only won auto races in many different types of cars, but also in many different types of auto races.

If you wanted a portrait done in watercolors, would you rule out a Rembrandt because he primarily worked in oils and engravings? I thought not.