Entries in business (3)


Whiteboard Teamwork?

Circus Manager: How long have you been juggling?
Candidate: Oh about six years
Manager: Can you handle three balls, four balls, and five balls?
Candidate: Yes, yes and yes
Manager: Do you work with flaming objects?
Candidate: Sure.
Manager: …knives, axes, open cigar boxes, floppy hats?
Candidate: I can juggle anything
Manager: Do you have a line in funny patter that goes with your juggling?
Candidate: It’s hilarious
Manager: Well that sounds fine. I guess you’re hired.
Candidate: Umm… Don’t you want to see me juggle?
Manager: Gee, I never thought of that.

(From Peopleware by Timothy Lester and Tom DeMarco, 1987.)

Hiring programmers without seeing them program was last year’s technical interview mistake.

But hiring collaborators without seeing them collaborate is today’s.

I was at BarCamp Boston today, and attending a panel on conducting technical interviews got me thinking about the subject of “culture fit”. It’s a ubiquitous phrase in material about technical interviews, but it’s a phrase viewed with skepticism, even derision, by people who view tech company culture with a critical eye. And for good reason! First impressions are ambiguous, it’s easy for unconscious bias to sneak in, and people are inclined to view those more similar to themselves as being more likeable.  But diversity of opinion can be a powerful defense against certain sorts of groupthink-y bad-decision-making patterns, and it can be very worthwhile to have teammate members who disrupt the status quo in productive ways.

“Culture fit” can’t just be ignored, though, since that vague concept does cover some genuinely relevant skills.  It’s important that a new hire will work effectively with other members of their team. But the way those skills are measured in programmer interviews is rather similar to the old way of hiring programmers that inspired the Peopleware parable I quote above: Asking some tangentially-related questions and getting a gut sense that someone will do well.

I’ve never seen tech company interviews that try to test collaboration directly, but I actually have seen one interview process that did. My alma mater, Olin College, has a two-stage admissions process, and their Candidates’ Weekend includes a group exercise / interview that allows candidates’ collaboration skills to be directly challenged and observed.

A few people at the panel mentioned things they’d seen tech companies do to try to test collaboration skills in an interview:

  • Pair programming with candidates on prepared exercises.
  • Having employees work together with candidates briefly on the employees’ personal or open-source projects.
  • Having exercises where the candidate does a code review.

There were also a few mentions of things done to give candidates more of a trial period and mitigate the cost of leaving early if it wasn’t a good match:

  • Bringing on candidates as fixed-term contractors first.
  • Mitigating the financial costs of quitting (by paying employees who leave).

Some of those things might mitigate concern about “culture fit” when hiring.

Still, I think that when it comes to interviewing programmers, a somewhat mature methodology has been build up for judging programming ability, but the methodology for interviewing for collaboration ability still has a lot of room to grow.  What’s the FizzBuzz of measuring collaboration ability?


Update on Netflix

Turns out they’re just really bad at business.  Not that I’m displeased with that decision as a customer.


Netflix Shot First

Netflix’s recent decision to split itself into two businesses (Netflix for streaming, Qwikster for DVDs) has been a source of confusion and consternation all over the web.  Netflix does explain their reasoning, though.  Not in the most recent announcement, but in the announcement of their price change in July:

Given the long life we think DVDs by mail will have, treating DVDs as a $2 add on to our unlimited streaming plan neither makes great financial sense nor satisfies people who just want DVDs.

Note what’s left out.  For whom does “DVDs as a $2 add on to… streaming” not make sense?  Netflix, not streaming customers.  The other half is more or less accurate, DVD-only customers have several options and may be more price-sensitive.

And why does that not make financial sense?  Presumably, the studios are forcing Netflix to pay per-customer for streaming licenses.  If that’s the case, Netflix might see the scenario this way:  If we split up our customers (most of whom mostly use one method or the other) into two bins, we profit even if they all choose one or the other.  Why?  Because even though they’re now paying 80% of previous, the streaming expenses are cut in half.  Win-win, right?

The risk relates to the fact that there’s a big difference between all-streaming and mostly-streaming.  The convenience of renting a DVD when streaming was not available patched over the lack of streaming selection.  “A $2 add on” might not make financial sense to Netflix, but it makes perfect sense to customers who view it as a patch to a bug that, in their view, is Netflix’s fault.  $2/mo. is low enough to feel “basically free”, $8/mo. is not.  Thus, this move may cause some streaming customers, instead of picking sides, to leave entirely.

Therefore, it should be clear that the price change is not a grab for $6 more per month.  Separating the sites, marring the user-experience and reducing convenience (when this is all about convenience) is a clear anti-feature.  Netflix really wants people to choose sides, and was willing to cut prices to give them an incentive.  And where carrots are insufficient, let the beatings commence!

My guess is that Netflix is in a bit of a catch-22 here.  They can’t fix the selection problem while DVD streaming is an option.  Even if Netflix can convince a studio that they “have to be on Netflix”, the studio can just shrug and say, “So? They’ll just get it on DVD.”  On the other hand, the “have to be on Netflix” argument depends on the popularity of Netflix, which may depend on “DVDs as a $2 add on”, so staking everything on “streaming or nothing” is not without risk.

It’s a dramatic case of business negotiations.  Netflix is trying to convince the studios that they need Netflix to win (quickly) in the streaming video market, then holding itself hostage, threatening to shoot if the studios don’t renegotiate.

More than that:  Netflix shot itself first, and is daring the studios to let it die.

(Context: I’m not a Netflix investor.  I am a Netflix subscriber.  I subscribe to both DVDs and streaming.  Before the split I would have paid the extra money, but now I’ll probably cancel the DVD-by-mail service and keep streaming… for now.)