I read a few articles about pattern recognition this week. Anyone else notice the irony of that? Pattern recognition is not entirely negative because it is built from successful prior decisions. It does come with downsides however as it increases the risks of group think, the dampening of innovation, and the barriers that discriminate against outsiders. If we want to break free from the rigors of pattern recognition then, we have to start with the people around us.
There is no greater example of pattern recognition in action than in hiring. We look for people that are like us on the assumption that we will get the same end result. Through minimum requirements, screening questions, behavioral tests, and other methods, we whittle down the candidate pool to people that invariable are carbon copies of ourselves. Thus each resume and conversation reveals the same schools, same degrees, same prior companies, same dispositions, same networks, and same hobbies.
This is not to say that similarity is a negative. We need patterns to make sense of chaos, and selecting talent is one of the most chaotic and random of activities in building a business. At the same time, most companies want to maintain particular values and culture, so similarity is helpful in fostering a cohesive culture that can execute on a company’s goals in a consistent manner.
The problem however is that we are simply bad at hiring. Narrowing down the criteria is the only hope we have to mitigate the chances of choosing a poor candidate. The chances of a Harvard or Stanford post-graduate degree holder being a disastrous hire is pretty minimal in the mind of most people. Likewise, we presume that a programmer with Facebook or Google for a few years cannot possibly suck. This is what I call the Pedigree Conundrum.
Pedigree is a type of branding that gives us a quick read on people. It allows us to quickly categorize and assess people so that we can file them away in our mental social strata locker. This creates a tiered social ecosystem that creates powerful barriers to entry for those in communities that are not as highly regarded. That is in large part why there are so few women and minorities as partners in venture capital firms or traders at the large banks or CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies. Such groups do not fit easily in the mold created by the incumbents. This has long reach effects because the mindset also impacts funding startups, partnering with other businesses, and creating a diverse workforce.
Startups are also victims and perpetuators of pedigree. We perpetuate in the media and through investments the ideal that the best tech entrepreneurs are like Mark Zuckerberg; under 25, white, male, single and nerdy. Data scientists are cloistered academics with long beards and shiny PhD’s. Women with children make risky hires. Coders with CS degrees are much better than self-taught hackers. The best sales people are vivacious and extroverted. I could go on for a while with the types of mental images and biases that exist in the tech industry.
Pedigree is not a reliable marker for success. Like the world of investments, past performance is no indicator of future success. Pedigree can be part of the overall evaluation, but it should never be the leading factor. Very often, the same job role can vary widely in terms of requirements and responsibilities largely due to the fact that companies themselves have different needs and cultures. It is more important that you understand what actually needs to be accomplished in the position and whether said person is in possession of the requisite skills to accomplish the work successfully. When you evaluate capability over pedigree, you have a much greater chance of selecting the most appropriate person for the position.
Beware of getting stuck in social conventions and the common wisdom when looking for talent. The best programmer I have ever met was an English major. The best sales person I ever worked with was incredibly introverted and was a former engineer. I have often gotten better results from hiring hungry community college kids than many coddled and entitled Ivy League college graduates. Color, sex, religion, age and all other physical factors have no impact on ability or outcome. If you get too attached to hiring via pedigree, you could be missing out on excellent talent.