On the Cultural Normalization of the Recruitment Process

The recruitment process of old is long dead. The didactic hierarchy of employer as king and the cowering potential employee grateful for the opportunity “just to be here” is over.  In the tired metaphor of the “War for Talent”, talent has won. Employers must now be more venturesome than ever before in their sourcing and courting of talent to add to their organisations.  We have seen the growth of internal sourcing functions, the lessening of reliance of third party agencies and entire internal recruiting departments swell in numbers.

No where has the pressure to uncover this talent been more pronounced than in the expansion of the global technical giants.  In the race to become dominant there is no country left un-visited, no university left un-plundered and no diversity group left un-infiltrated.  However, in the growth of these organisations where talent can be a direct corporate advantage there is a strange byproduct of the economic choices they have made.

Dublin is a city with just under two million people in the Greater Dublin area and due to it’s lucrative tax incentives for companies to set up European headquarters there has more than it’s share of large internet brands. Google, Yahoo, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and eBay all have offices in the city to name just a few – a large number of the employees to staff these organisations are imported from the continent or further a field but the staff to support these are usually local hires, this is a rapidly decreasing pool of people who have the relevant experience and the availability.  Due to another cost reduction incentive – the use of the 11 month contract – many of these staff, particularly those in the HR organisations have worked at one, if not more of the other organisations.  This is where I feel the problem lies.  It’s not that these individuals aren’t great recruiters, all I’ve met in interviews and at events are, but in crossing the cultural boundaries, in joining new organisations they bring something of that culture with them.  This cultural inheritance is not only evident in physical objects but also customs, ideas and values.  When a recruiter from another organisation joins yours they have a preformed conception of what “works” proven by their previous experiences.  It is wholly natural for them to wish to replicate these experiences.  This can lead to practices that “borrow” heavily from the previous employer, from the selection of a software tool because “it worked for X company”, the treatment of candidates in a process “we never gave feedback at X company” or even the style and number of interviews a candidate faces all can be held up to be judged as good and replicated accordingly.  There are always more insidious aspects of cultural inheritance here too, over engineered administrative processes, biases in sourcing and overly lengthy approval chains to name a few.

So why is this a bad thing?  If it works it’s good right?  Right?

Maybe.  However, there is a casualty here.  Entire recruitment processes at these large organisations are becoming homogenized.  The recruiters, heavily targeted and fighting for a position at the end of their 11 month contract revert to “what works” rather than a recruitment process that will do more than simply test the suitability of a potential employee; it will communicate a true reflection of that company’s culture.  As the number of organisations looking for great technical talent increases still further they seek to replicate processes that they assume are effective – how many organisations are still asking candidates “How many piano tuners are there in Brazil?” even when Google themselves have moved away from these questions, calling them “a complete waste of time“.  The homogenization of hiring cultures across organisations will only lead to a lack of innovation, a cultural blandness that will leave the candidates unimpressed and the recruiters unfulfilled, cogs in a process.  Whether or not you aspire to a hire talent of the same calibre as Google or Facebook perhaps the answer lies not in the “Googlification”, “Facebookification” or Nextbigthing-ification” of your hiring process but in the effective communication of your own corporate culture.  If we accept that the recruitment process is also a time for candidates to learn about your organisation an awareness of what you actually want them to learn might be a good thing.  Rather than be the beige old porridge, the pale imitation of a recruiter’s previous employer why not look upon the recruitment process as a great chance to iterate, looking for ways to continuously improve,  to provide true value to the organisation.  You could even borrow from software development practices and look at A/B testing to see which practices work better for your candidates (yes you should always ask them for feedback), just don’t get them to dance, that might be differentiation you don’t want!

In conclusion, when building a recruitment team, adding to an existing team or even changing policies and processes – caveat emptor.  Ensure that you’re not adopting practices have worked for you previously without holding them up to the scrutiny of your new situation.

A War on Attrition

The word “Attrition” as used by HR departments throughout industry seems like a semantic comfort blanket. In the same way as the terms “ethnic cleansing” and “collateral damage” are linguistic devices to distance ourselves from the reality of what is happening, so “Attrition” is a sanitised nomenclature for an unhappy reality that we’d rather not face. As a recruiter I like to add value by providing information to my hiring managers on what else is going on in the current labour markets, are our competitors hiring? at what levels? are salaries increasing? etc. Often when supplying this information I am asked about “attrition” within our own organisation. Traditionally these discussions take a familiar form – Why are people leaving? Do we care? How many can we expect to leave and What can be done?

One of the broadly prevalent anti-patterns of HR seems to be the absolute faith placed in process, policy and procedure without reasoning that we are dealing with real people. There is no allowance in a policy for the foibles of humanity and thus no flexibility. The faith in numbers approach has basis in sense – there will always be movement in the staff employed – people will move on, change careers, retire or even want to come back. Those with their numerical approach acknowledge that movement is normal – predicting staff turnover and reporting on it as a metric – without the consideration of the bigger picture, the process has blinded them to the real and ultimately more important questions of “Why is this person leaving?” and “Are we OK with that?”.
I have spoken to organisations who have an “Attrition Policy” where a “Retention Strategy” might be more appropriate, in the majority of cases there is no forum to address concerns over status, hierarchical level or salary satisfaction beyond an exit interview by which time it’s already too late. If you maintain a lovingly crafted file of the reasons individuals have left your organisation but do nothing about it, you’re essentially just describing the lock of the stable door from which the horse has long since bolted.
If employees are leaving your organisation they are voting with their feet. There might be a myriad reasons as to why but obfuscation through process isn’t a defence. Whilst it is rare to loose an entire workforce, however, it is increasingly possible to loose teams or key members from those teams that may have a dramatic effect on the organisation as a whole. This can be a tranche of people with a particular skill set or often more detrimentally a layer of experience leaving your organisation e.g. employees who stay for 4 years have a 90% chance of leaving in their 5th year.
There is no simple answer in solving “attrition”, offering a safe forum for discussion of issues may lead to a better understanding of employee issues but this is still reliant on the information being acted on and being seen to be acted on. There is little more risible than employee charters or staff “councils” giving voice to concerns that are then ignored.
When people are leaving your organisation they are going to another employer that they see as “better”. Everyone involved in the “exit process” or who has discussions with the employee should be seeking to discover what those “better” options are. Is it something as simple as a higher salary? A more achievable bonus? Better training? It is these things we should be monitoring not simply listing dissatisfaction with the current organisation – have no doubt your employee has been “sold” a new role – finding out the selling points will better aid you to avert losing more members of staff (if you are able to solve the issues) or at least enable you to compose a more compelling job description for the new hire you’re going to have to make.
At the very least an organisation should have an awareness of reasoning behind leaving, enough awareness of the current market to spot a trend if it’s occurring (this should come from the organisation’s recruiters) and a sense or urgency when it’s required to ensure than an expected turnover doesn’t turn into a flood of leavers.

Video Nasties…they’ve got a recruiting video we should make one quick!

In an online world where YouTube is king of the video realm there are still many pretenders to the crown. There are in fact so many video hosting sites and aggregators of the web video that it was only a matter of time before the recruiting departments of the world’s corporations jumped both feet first on to the bandwagon to give us an insight into why they are the right choice for candidates. Like websites in the early 90’s there is a odd emotion of curiosity mixed with panic around the phenomenon. Online recruitment video is the new must have and when used well can only enhance the online brand of the company they represent. Of course there is a flip side to this and some companies seem dead set on trying to destroy their credibility at 24 frames a second and all in glorious technicolour.

So here are some examples, followed by my own lop-sided bias as to what I think works or doesn’t work about them.

If you have to say something is “cool” it isn’t. If you have to say something is “fun” it isn’t. This is akin to finding your parents are using Facebook or watching an Uncle dance at a wedding.

OK so “Cool” shouldn’t be stated explicitly. What about “Happy”? What do people do when they’re happy?

Sometimes when I watch old episodes of “Friends” I think they look a bit dated. The 90’s were a long time ago and this video from 2001 (BC?) looks a little less than fresh… It might also be a symptom of my British cynicism that means I balk at the almost religious fervour displayed by the “choir”.

It’s easy to get this very very wrong. However, it’s just as easy to not fail completely but perhaps to dilute your message and to attempt to cover all bases thus alienating a good number of your target audience.

Modern net savvy consumers are aware of the mediated reality in which they operate. The self-referential irreverent style of post-modernity has become the norm for those companies trying to illicit a response from Generation Y. Flying in the face of this is “Corporate Branding 101” or iStockphoto-ism. This is where a large corporate either buys photos to use in it’s branding OR worse still commissions photos that end up looking like they’ve trawled a Google image search. I like this next video, but it does feel a bit “iStock” and thus the message is commuted to “false” in my mind at least.

Not that I’m using this as a reason to bash Microsoft per se but have you seen the Windows 7 release party video? This is so monstrously bad that at first I thought it was a parody. “Someone MUST be attempting irony, right? This is a joke? Right?”. A video so STUNNINGLY bad that Charlie Brooker was forced to coin the term “shitasmic” to describe it.

Back in the world of recruitment videos if you’re trying to attract people the ultimate goal of your video should be the projection of company culture. Video, more than anything else in the marketer’s remit has the potential to communicate the underlying values and attitudes towards employees without explicitly stating them. Why is this important? Why is it no longer OK to have a talking head on screen saying “This company I work for is cool”? For me the answer is simple…it’s not ok because if you work for the company, they’re paying your mortgage/rent you would say that! A “Great Place to Work” is inferred. Prospective candidates must feel aligned to the values or to those a video represents, in a recruiting campaign this is why we tell employee’s back stories or even introduce them in the first place. It’s also why so many corporate videos feature employees/actors of different ethnicities/genders etc in effect over proving their all encompassing nature, often despite the fact that we’re all pretty wise to this now.

So what does work in a recruiting video? For me it depends on who you’re trying to attract. There isn’t a coverall message for candidates – there can however be an coverall message of a company’s culture. A video can illustrate values and show the participants in that culture. True explicit mess ageing should be confined to “we are hiring” rather than the elitist “We are great…maybe you’re good enough to join us” which risks the alienation of the prospective employee.

This video from Connected Ventures (the people behind CollegeHumour and BustedTees) is a great example, people having fun (it looks genuine!) Certainly above all it communicates culture of a working environment, it’s a place where your colleagues are likely to get together and dance and sing! Whilst it may alienate some job seekers its a statement aimed squarely at the section of society they want to recruit.


Lip Dub – Flagpole Sitta by Harvey Danger from amandalynferri on Vimeo.

While this is all opinion and just my opinion there is one guiding factor… looking again at all these videos there is one clear deciding factor. Those that seem aware of their own culture and their audience have a couple million more views. As candidate sourcing is often about numbers of the right audience applying getting your message out to a few million more potential employees has to be something worth striving for.

Employee Happiness – Throw cash at them right?

Recently I’ve been reading some of the work by psychologist Amos Tversky. Tversky was a cognitive and mathematical psychologist and pioneer in the study of systematic human cognitive bias and how we as humans handle risk. The following scenario is based on research originally completed by him.

Imagine you were offered two jobs. They are the same in terms of working hours, duties location and career prospects – in fact Job A is exactly identical to Job B in every way – except one, the difference between your salary and that of your colleagues. In Job A your annual pay will be £50,000 and your colleagues will earn £30,000. In Job B your annual pay will be £60,000 and your fellow employees will be on £80,000.

Which would you prefer?

Then, which would make you happiest?

Surprisingly when Tversky posed these two questions he got different answers. We’d all prefer to earn more money, but when happiness was introduced respondents felt that this had more to do with their perceived value to the organisation – even to the extent of being paid less at a perceived higher value. This is an interesting problem for those people currently in the job marketplace or in salary negotiation with a prospective employer.

What did you answer to each of the questions? Did you change your mind for happiness?

The Muddy Waters of Salary Transparency

Recently there has been much comment and debate around the issue of salary transparency in organisations. The New York Times columnist Lisa Belkin published an article on this very subject in August. Like many arguments in the world of employment there are pros and cons as you would expect. For those on the pro transparency front the case is a simple one.

1. Salaries will become more fair. The system gets a chance to adjust itself. (This argument is often given a more inclusive flavour with a smattering of diversity thrown in for good measure – “We will be able to see that women are paid fairly” – I’ve not heard this salary/diversity measure argued by any of the women in my organisation, and to me it smacks of validation)

2. It will be easier to retain the best employees because they’re more likely to feel they’re getting a fair salary.

3. The pressure is on the people with the high salaries to earn their keep. Everybody has to pull their weight – the higher the salary, the larger the weight.

4. Secret salaries can create paranoia and mistrust between peers (is he getting paid more than me?)

These are an amalgam of points, by no means exhaustive, taken from internal discussion and the wider blogosphere. I think the majority of the pro-transparency arguments are covered here. They are in no particular order and I hope to expose some of the counter arguments and the mis-thinking behind them.

Putting it right out there in the open I am against salary transparency. I feel there is little to be gained, when an organisation has reached a certain size and covers different geographies, in the widespread disclosure of salary information. The arguments in favour of keeping this information private far outweigh the perceived benefits, and in my opinion too many of the people arguing for the release of this information use equality as a soapbox for their own issues with their personal salary. As you will see, I postulate that this is an example of a very different outward agenda for what is essentially a personal issue.

The first and most important part of the argument against salary transparency is one of privacy. The advent of the Internet has meant that a wealth of information is already freely available to the casual surfer. With one reasonably refined Google search I’m confident you could find my mobile number, home address and probably my now dead pet Gerbil’s name*. Is this a good thing? Some would argue yes however there are some things I might not like to disclose – salary is one of those things. People may say it’s my bourgeois middle-class white upbringing that leads me to think it impolite to discuss salaries but I don’t believe that’s the case – as a recruiter I discuss salaries everyday, constantly and all the time. I am happy to talk about this in exact figures and not to think myself crass for doing so. It’s a taboo I’m happy to break. However I think there are genuine relevant reasons for not disclosing one’s salary. Despite any organisations attempts to maintain a flat structure people function through the constant comparison of themselves with others – in knowing a salary structure of an organisation do you immediately assume that those with a lower salary are less valuable? I’d make the challenge that yes as salary would be the only insight you have into the role played by an individual in that organisation. In my opinion salary is not a measure of value. If I’m bleeding to death I’d wager I’d not be concerned with the salary of the paramedic stemming the tide of blood, but his value at that moment would be priceless. Nurses and Care Givers are paid less than Investment Bankers and Police Officers less than the latest “celebrity” to leave the Big Brother house – value and moreover personal worth should never be measured in pounds, shillings and pence.

The issue of “fairness” is an interesting point and in certain organisations I feel would apply. If we take the example of a manufacturing plant and compare two workers performing the same task on the same line at the same time – then it would be unfair of an employer to make this same role tiered in terms of pay, I’d agree with that – the exact remuneration alters when one or more of these factors changes e.g. a worker on a night shift can expect to be paid more for working anti-social hours, a worker performing a more highly skilled task can expect to earn more and so on. However, within most modern organisations the nature of “role” has to be taken into account. You might have the same overall “function” e.g. both lawyers but for the individuals in question the “role” and responsibilities thereof may differ vastly. There are increasingly issues around this “same-ness” in modern roles, are there really any roles that are exactly comparable? In an organisation like ThoughtWorks where we have transient job titles and with a lack of public sector style concrete grades we are left to consider each individual separately. So how does an organisation decide what aspects of an individual’s performance and role are worth more – taking the world of IT consulting as an obvious example. What do we look for in potential ThoughtWorkers? What do we value? As a few examples I can say those people who are passionate about their jobs, those that commit to open source projects, maintain a blog and partake in the ongoing learning offered by more informal gatherings like our “Geek Nights” and “Ruby Tuesdays”. These are extra points that may add “value” to your employ by the company. However as I mention “value” doesn’t equate to “salary” as an exact transfer.

In the discussion of salary that I have with a potential new hire I always ask two questions. They are, “What is your current salary?” and “What would you like to earn?” The differentiation between these two sums allows me to gauge a candidate’s perception of their own value, in short their own marketability. This is an important consideration. It’s Marx that states that in working or allowing the “exploitation of their labour” an individual in a Capitalist state is in effect selling their labour to their employer. The “price” they accept to take a role is their salary. The scale of difference between the two numbers offered will also give a recruiter insight into their attitude towards the current employer and often their knowledge of the current market. I will be first to admit that anyone wishing for a £20,000 pay hike is going to have to demonstrate effectively what their reasoning is for wanting that large a differentiator, what are the factors for justifying it? For employers salary has a memory. The majority of standard reference requests will ask for a confirmation of a stated salary.

Salary transparency as a means of retention is again a limited argument. The assumption is that as an employee either the primary or ultimately the sole reason an employee stays with an employer is because of salary. We are all hopefully aware that this isn’t the case and that many employers offer a wealth of benefits and concessions to a work life balance that are not quantifiable in the simple measure of basic wage. Looking at those labour markets where salaries are substantially higher e.g. Investment Banking higher salaries are oftentimes referred to as “golden handcuffs” or “gilded cages” effectively these employers are having to buy the loyalty of their skilled staff in the face of the lack of other trade offs like work life balance or flexible working times. Is it the transparency of salaries that keeps employees in these locations happy and working or simply that the salaries are sufficiently inflated to keep them from asking (or giving a damn about the answer)?

ThoughtWorks is a developer of bespoke software solutions and a keep proponent of the Agile and XP methodologies. In designing software we ask our clients to use a standard construction in describing the purpose of a feature for their new software, referred to as a “story”. “As an X, I want to…, So that…” we use this to hold up requests for scrutiny, to evaluate them in isolation removed from the often emotive responses end users may have. So, as an employee of X company, I want to know all my co-workers salaries so that… then I think it all falls down, if there’s no action are you in a better or worse position knowing than not knowing? How does knowing this information inform your actions or your interactions with other employees? It’s my feeling that most people want to know the salary information of their peers to use as a jumping off point into their own discussions around their personal salary. However, the information of peer salary in this discussion is largely irrelevant – instead we should be thinking of the wider labour market in our current geography. To gain salary information as an individual you don’t have to piece together pages from the finance teams shredder or lie in wait in the dumpsters near the office, salary information is freely available on the job boards and advertising available to all. Recently there has been a glut of websites launched aiming to catalogue salary information for casual viewers. Glassdoor.com is a recent newcomer to this space and provides, amongst other things, salary information for staff of major corporations, and yes ThoughtWorks has a presence, although I can confirm that the pay scales are incorrect at present. Provided more people join and enter their information truthfully this scale will normalise over time.

In all of these discussions the culture of transparency is held as the ultimate goal of an organisation and I’d wonder if this is the case. In my opinion it is a culture of trust we should strive for. Employees who feel they are paid fairly, because they have effectively sold the “exploitation of their labour” with full knowledge of the market in which that labour is sold will be better able to realise their own position and not be concerned with how Bob was able to afford that new Corvette, but instead trust they are given a fair salary based on their own personal circumstance and that the company they work for will aid them in their strive to grow and develop as an individual – salary, the nuts and bolts measure of their value, will become secondary.

* For those interested parties the Gerbil in question was named “Nibbles”.

Also for those people disappointed not to find a tribute to McKinley Morganfield a.k.a. “Muddy Waters” of Blues fame I attach a picture by way of apology. Go listen to him here.

A job for life…and why it’s good to keep in touch with your ex…

I’m always pleased to read new posts on Johanna Rothman’s blog Hiring Technical People, as I feel there is a lot of noise around recruitment hers is a voice of sanity. Her latest entry on Initiative vs. Entrepreneurship seems to match perfectly with my experiences in my current role. In short she advocates hiring those candidates who demonstrate an entrepreneurial streak – whilst they may be a flight risk (leaving to set up on their own) the ideas and skills they bring in their time spent as an employee are often invaluable. Whilst this stance can often be a lightning strike to traditional thinking of a job for life in truth we now live in time that a “long term” employee is one that has been in the same job for three years! These are now our “old hands” this trend towards a patchwork CV increases in the technical sector and is further exacerbated by the peaks and troughs of an industry effected by technical discoveries as much as it is by financial market flux.

It’s a fine line between demonstrating high levels of initiative and entrepreneurialism. It can be a particularly fearful one for an employer who feels the investment thay make in sourcing and courting a “high flyer” should be rewarded with at least x-years of service. I’ve harped on about the “Values” ThoughtWorks holds dear before but it took Johanna’s post to make me see the thinking behind our – “Entrepreneurialism – Imagine and Pursue”. Actively encouraging this spirit within our staff can do only good, and has led to some truly innovative tools and products being created. Whilst it maybe true that some of these people have left to go on to pursue their own interests it’s certain that as an organisation as a whole we have certainly benefited from having those people as ThoughtWorkers. In taking those initial risks we have an alumni network that has aided sales and continues to promote ThoughtWorks as a standard of technical excellence at a global level – as evidence it was just yesterday I received not one but two referrals from one of our ex-employees. Sometimes it pays to stay in touch with your ex 🙂

Firing for Values?

As a subscriber to “Diversity Inc” my interest is always piqued when they get round to the core discussion of “values”. This month’s issue has a really interesting comment in their “Legal Section” simply they pose the question “Can you fire employees with different values?”.

Weldon Latham a discrimination law attorney suggests that companies should exercise caution in these cases. He uses the example of those companies that operated in South Africa during apartheid, he goes on to cite examples of those companies who did not permit the external prevailing rules of apartheid to operate within the rules of their controllable corporate environment. Weldon gives a cautionary note however that a corporation cannot exist entirely removed from the country in which it operates. This is a great point, recently I’ve been reading about the rights of women workers in Iran – legally they are only allowed 1 term of maternity leave, if they become pregnant again they are forced to resign. In a similar vein, when women are ill, the social security office pays them 66% of their daily wage while men are paid 75%. In the face of national, institutionalised discrimination surely a corporation has a hard road to follow – they can fight the prevailing hegemony of the country in which they operate or chose not to operate in that region at all.

These are broad sweeping issues, polarising to those outside of the countries in question. The question “Hands up who wants to work for a racist company?” is pretty easy to answer, but then what “values” are we willing to negotiate on? As a consultancy should the values-led organisation be wary of which clients they are willing to engage with? Should an organisation ask expect an individual employee to put aside their personal values, attitudes and beliefs for the company’s profit margin?

At ThoughtWorks we do have stated values. They exist as in many other organisations as a web page, in some people’s email signatures and as handy “non-discrimination” notices at the bottom of recruiting ads… how then do we ensure that they amount to more than this? Too often “values” are sloganeering in the extreme, more about marketing position and candidate attraction as hollow as a sweeping “we recruit the best”. How can an organisation ensure that it’s stated values do not loose meaning overtime? In ThoughtWorks we have an answer. The values we publish are the subject of a constant conversation around their use, meaning and also as a set of checks and balances to guide decision making. There are often questioning voices as to the “values alignment” of a particular project and also occasionally of particular individuals, certainly it’s a feature of our recruitment processes, and figures as part of the “Cultural Fit” interview.

There are those people who would take a contract in Iraq at the height of the conflict as it came with a massive salary, “danger money” if you will! There are those people who would only ever consider working for a not-for-profit organisation and even then some are deemed “too corporate” or “only about the money”. I don’t think ThoughtWorkers exist at either of these extremes nor as a body of people are they stuck in a particular mindset – instead happy to measure the flow of information against their own checks and balances – filtering through their own personal values. It is this discussion around our values that gives them their strength – they cease to be meaningless corporate lip-service and become a living, breathing part of life at ThoughtWorks, we don’t expect people to recite them by rote but chances are they are already living them.

From “Social Experiment” to Memetic “Big-Bang”.

ThoughtWorks says it’s different. It’s my role to communicate this “difference” in very real terms to candidates who apply to join us. As recruiters it’s something we do everyday, what differentiates us? How are we different? What differences are more attractive that others?

It is the communication of difference that causes a problem and if a skilled recruiter can use the cultural differentiators that an organisation holds to be true about itself then these can be used to marry up to a candidate’s motivations for joining the organisation. e.g. at a basic level, their current company doesn’t offer them opportunities to travel – ThoughtWorks has many of it’s consultants working outside of their home offices and aids them in relocating for a short term, the life of a project or even emigrating for good. Obviously not all aspects are that binary, it can’t always be “current dissatisfaction + “different” cultural aspect = reason for joining”. If it were always the case then an organisation would have to be all things to all people all of the time, no company is a nirvana so there will always be pros and cons to joining an organisation. All this got me thinking about the difference of ThoughtWorks comparatively to other organisations and how I could illustrate this to candidates.

ThoughtWorks has already done a lot of thinking about how it wanted to be different from the day it was founded and still does. Roy’s Social Experiment offers a model for a company based on humanistic or anthropological lines concerned with the human behaviour, belief and value systems, sociological and cultural norms, that matched the type of company the founder wished to work in. This is obviously already a marked difference from the established organisational model which owes more to engineering showing an organisation as human constructs to be planned and controlled by rational, formal, structures and procedures. Though I feel the first model still holds true, ThoughtWorks is now a much larger place, over 1000 “ThoughtWorkers” across multiple continents in a myriad of countries. In growing globally “cultural norms” are blurred and belief and value systems are disparate and sometimes even conflicting. How then does a “social experiment” of an organisation maintain “cultural norms”. One answer is to regionalise and accept geographical/political boundaries as cultural way points – the other alternative is to create a culture of your own.

The third model I propose in communicating the “difference” of ThoughtWork’s organisational structure is organic evolution by natural selection. In the case of ThoughtWorks it is an evolution punctuated by the imposition of selected “organic replicators” – the employees are selected through an interview process. While organic evolution is blind or without conscious design (sorry to the Creationists) organisational evolution is a conscious program of selected memetic replication, shaped by internal forces managers, recruiters etc as well as external forces market pressures, competitors and technological advancement.

Biological metaphors have long been applied to the world of business e.g. “Survival of the Fittest” to illustrate competition, but more recently new thinking around “Chaos” and self organising systems offer a better model for an organisation than the “engineering” approach. Allowing us to realise that organisations like economies “evolve” as self organising systems. If we take this “genetic” approach I think it’s natural to take Roy’s Social Experiment as the memetic Big-Bang that went on to spark the evolution into the organisation as it exists today

ThoughtWorks as an organisation has, from Roy’s original primordial soup, developed surprisingly common sets of dominant motivators. People who don’t share them don’t join, or don’t get on, or are the first to leave on discovering a culture than can be alien to the “norms” that exist outside. In creating and managing a “learning organisation” we can escape the genetic dominance of the simplistic “survival of the fittest” and move towards an assumption that companies are creatures of their memes in the same way that organisms are creatures of their genes, that is vehicles which the memes or the genes, the replicators, create in order to perpetuate themselves.

For me this is what ThoughtWorks has become, a memetic snowball rolling down a hill, growing as those that share the similar ideals and values join and growing larger with each new hire. The fact that this evolution is constant can account for the “bursts” seen in nature exploiting environmental factors, this has an obvious parallel with the exploitation of new technological advances and the fostering and cultivation of those advances that will give the organisation an edge. New memes can propagate freely and become “viral” within the organisation, undergoing a micro-evolution of their own as they pass among individual ThoughtWorkers.

Working outside of rigid and constraining forms of a “normal” organisation allows for freedom of communication, a flat structure free from hierarchical constructs and allows the collaboration that fosters innovative thinking to thrive. That’s not to say that ThoughtWorks is a panacea for career ills, it is a company full of individuals and with that come individual opinions, ideas and all the flaws and foibles that make us human.

Thinking about the company I work for in this way enables me to better illustrate how “different” we are from other workplaces and allows me to assimilate all the tangents that a candidate might have questions about. Motivations for joining a company are diverse and it’s rare that I talk to two people who share exactly the same motivators, however the ever changing and constantly evolving elements that go to make up ThoughtWorks as a whole enable me to offer an area of interest to most who apply.

Vive La Différence!

Recruiting: Gateway to the New World or HR’s Dirty Little Secret

 “My name is Matt and I’m a Recruiter.”

…the rest of the group rise and there’s a smattering of applause, the first step on the road to recovery is admission. Finally the guilty truth was out…

 Is being a recruiter all that bad? Certainly while at school it’s not something you aspire to, others wanted to be astronauts and doctors; with recollection I think I wanted to be a fire engine. Note, not a fireman, a fire engine. So what is it that leads someone to become a Recruiter? Personally I enjoy the talking to people and, perhaps arrogantly, I think that in a Consultancy particularly Recruiting has a real and defined role to add value to the business as a whole. I’ll explain, ThoughtWorks as a business model doesn’t sell software, we trade on the ability of our people to create software – in effect we “sell” the skills of people. In my arrogant recruiter way I think that the success or failure of a project can be directly affected by our ability to hire the “right” people and the timeliness of those hires -both responsibilities of the Recruiter. If you don’t have confidence in the ability of your recruitment team to do this then it might be time to change that team – or at least look at the motivations of your recruiters.

In my experience of working in an agency (the dark side) I continuously found myself talking to in-house recruiters who either wanted to change their role or were just plain unhappy. In my opinion a lot of this is due to the position that “Recruitment” as a function occupies in these organisations. Recruiters are often the first contact a candidate has with an organisation if at this stage they are made to feel insignificant or unimportant why wouldn’t the candidate look elsewhere? Keeping the Recruiters in your organisation buoyant and motivated should be of paramount importance – too often the “People are the most important thing” maxim is touted and paid due lip service but not given consideration from an internal perspective. If your recruiters are sending the wrong message or are not the “Ambassadors” you want them to be then you should quite rightly give them that feedback.

There is much talk of the “War for Talent” and whilst too much of human ingenuity is given over to ways of killing other humans it can’t be argued that a raft of innovation hasn’t happened in the area of “defence” (better called “offence” in certain nations). How can this innovation happen? In the military money is given over to “think tanks” to R&D and people who are freed of the day to day military procedure and policy that works for the rest of the team, if you expect your Recruiters to be the “Special Forces” in this War for Talent (this metaphor is stretched pretty thin now) you need to give them the imaginative space and freedoms to do so. This is one of the main reasons why I feel the a Recruiting function needs to be separate of a HR function.

Depending on how your organisation is structured perhaps this division doesn’t need to be so concrete – if your role as a recruiter is just to ferry candidates through a predefined process then I don’t think you have to concern yourself with a broader strategic view. However, I would argue that “Recruiter” and “HR Professional” are different skill sets – I don’t possess the skills (or the patience) to work in HR, I know I couldn’t do it, it’s more pastoral care and empathy than I can invoke! HR Professionals work from strong and firm foundations based on policies laid down in advance, whilst recruiting benefits from having an agreed process as a platform on which to extrapolate. We need a goal and some hurdles but what’s important is the individual candidate experience. Even if a candidate is rejected or told to try again later no one in their right mind wants that person to tell all his friends what a terrible time they had. I tailor the process to suit the candidate – interviewers are chosen with care, they might be peers, direct reports or part of the same team – I don’t just use whoever happens to walk past the interview room!

Recruiting should never be a “one size fits all” approach, and with a tangled web of policies and procedures with which to conform to it can become this. I’m very lucky in my role, I get to try new things all the time, I don’t have constraints on who I can hire based on country or nationality, I am “free” to recruit for talent. It can take a long time – the visa process for a Japanese/Brazilian coming to the UK is a path less trodden – but ultimately I think it’s worth it.

So the point of this torrential rant? If you’re hiring a recruiter make sure they want to be there! Test for ability to stay motivated, flexibility and personal drive. If you’re applying for a position assess if you’re valued as a person or are you meat for the grinding wheels of draconian HR dogma – let this inform your interactions with the company – a great recruiter working in a small team may be fallible some of the time but the process will fee more personal and less of a shunting from one gate to the next. Above all if you mention even in passing that it’s your company’s “…people that make the difference…” be prepared to invest time and energy ensuring that your Recruiters “get it”, realise that this is your first human impression beyond a job advert and make it count!

Recruiting for “Agile”

For many recruiters reviewing a resume is a simple task. It’s binary. The buzzword bingo they play is matched by the increasingly infuriating practice of loading CV’s with massive lists of all the technologies that the candidates has ever used, looked at or heard that someone else was using in a nearby room. It’s an antipattern created somewhere between naive recruiting practices and savvy developers to circumvent keyword searching and the buzzword bingo. In ThoughtWorks recruiting “Agile” experience is something I’m wary of.

The problem with this thinking is that “Agile” in this form does not exist. Recruiters looking in this way will miss out on the majority of great candidates. Agile is a conceptual framework not a language or a certificate for your wall, though I’m sure they’re available. Working within the binary world of “has Agile/does not have Agile” would alienate and turn away some of the brightest and gifted developers I’ve seen. If a candidate has a dearth of experience in a public sector organisation it’s more unlikely they will have encountered the all-singing all-dancing index card waving “Agile” we know and love – but then should we discount them? In looking at a resume or talking to a candidate I’m always looking for evidence of skills beyond that of “Tester” or “Developer”.

Too often experiences of the technical practices of XP are mistaken for the behaviors we should be looking for. To people who have not been exposed to “Agile” thinking I take the time to explain what “Agile” means to ThoughtWorks. What tools and techniques they are likely to see and be a part of. I then try to ask a practical question based on their interpretation of those techniques, do they see a benefit? Do they feel there is benefit in the closer communication between the team? and between the team and the customer? I may then go on to ask what they would like to see in a development process? What would they do to improve the processes they have been involved in historically? I’m trying to ascertain how they feel about software development in general do they have that passion?

If they can demonstrate times where they are committed to delivering useful software to their customer, they are flexible enough to change software late in the process, have a will to work in a self organising team and above all want to work in close collaboration with the business and their team members – well, how much more “Agile” can you get? Ramming what is essentially a concept into a prepackaged-gift wrapped box will only rob an organisation of it’s ability to recognise talent. Whether you have been a developer in a waterfall, RAD, RUP, SCRUM or some other methodology there is no reason to allow yourself to be over looked. Recruiters should be looking for potential not just clones of their current staff.

In his keynote opening QCon 2007, Kent Beck talked about the future of software development. He talked about the need to improve skills that are essential to excel in an agile development environment: Social and Technical Skills. He said social skills are more important than technical skills and suggested that Developers of the future will need to learn to listen more effectively. With the rise of a more tech-savvy business Developers will lose their “wizard” status and will need to turn to “Appreciative Attitude” and “Emotional Intelligence” as the important traits in being part of an Agile team. It’s interesting to see where this goes, if Beck is proven to be right Developers used to gaining an edge by buying the book and cramming overnight will instead have to work on their interpersonal skills – look for the early adopters in the Self Help and Psychology sections of a Borders near you…