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On identifying talent

Anthony Butler
4 min read

There are few decisions that can have as great a positive – or negative – impact on a company or a team than hiring decisions: talent allocation is, after all, the fuel behind economic growth.  As such, being able to interview well is a super-power; part art, part science but a fundamentally important skill for anyone who is trying to build a team.  

However, interviewing is hard because a prospective hire is, obviously, incentivized to present a picture that they believe will be palatable; because there is also a natural bias towards well-spoken and articulate individuals; an over reliance on credentialism; or other biases related to the pool of prospective hires that is being addressed which causes us to overlook parts of society where talent may be found.  

Whilst the world is filled with books on how to get hired, there are not so many books on how to hire effectively.  Hence, the recent book by economist Tyler Cowen and venture capitalist Daniel Gross ("Talent: How to Identify Energizers, Creatives, and Winners Around the World") makes for compelling reading.

Zvi, in this excellent long form discussion of the book, lays out a good summary of what the "ideal" hire looks like.  I generally agree and it certainly matches my experience where I have built some very high performing teams by hiring people who might otherwise have been excluded or don't fit the "traditional profile" for certain roles.      

As per the authors, if we want to hire high performers we should consider:

  1. The person will improve over time, and improve at improving.
  2. As such, they spend time often, ideally every day, working on improving.
  3. They are almost always extremely driven, high-energy and ambitious.
  4. They have a chance of being extraordinary.
  5. They are someone who others will have a hard time finding or evaluating.
  6. They are often someone that others won’t appreciate or find strange or off putting.
  7. The market will underpay for other reasons.  For example, they belong to a group that is discriminated against or are, for other reasons, excluded or not targeted for hiring.
  8. They may have something wrong with them that you can handle.
  9. They may prefer working for or with you for unusual reasons.
  10. They tend to be idea-seekers rather than status-seekers.
  11. They tend to avoid the bureaucratic approach that minimizes loss and values consensus.
  12. They are people who you took the time to understand as complete people and who you holistically think will be good fits for the task at hand.

Whilst the entire book is filled with useful information and guidance, they mention one interview question that they consider to the best in terms of helping to reveal a person's true character.

“What are the open tabs in your browser right now?”

The question is interesting because, although a single question, it will lead to a person revealing far more than the sorts of questions asked in structured interviews.

  1. A person will not have prepared for this question so any answer they provide is likely to be truthful.  It's difficult to fake or have a pre-canned response unlike the classic questions such as, "what are your weaknesses".  
  2. The answer informs you of a person's interests.  Through their answer, you will get a sense for the breadth of their interests and, as they explain the reasons for each tab, you will get a sense of what they are interested in, what they are excited about, and to what extent they have expertise or knowledge of that topic.  This is important because, as the authors write, for many jobs, the very best performers don't stop practicing for long; they are constantly refining their skills, including in their spare time.  
  3. The answer can provide a useful validation of what someone might be saying in their CV.  If, for example, they claim to be an accomplised software engineer and they have a C++ subreddit open or they have a Github project they are contributing to, then this is a good validation that they are genuinely interested in the subject.  This is, again, important because the best people tend to be passionate about the subjects on which they work; such a discussion around this tab would let you guage that they are not just looking for a "job" where they write code for 37.5 hours a week then go home and watch television.
  4. In the book, the authors say "personality is revealed on weekends" so this question is a non-intrusive, non-confrontational way of understanding someone's extra-curricular interests and, by extension, what they are likely to be energised about.  
  5. The question makes it easier to correct for bias, particularly the bias towards what the authors call "glib but unsubstantial people" where someone can be well-spoken and articulate – but lacking deep understanding or passion for a topic; or, alternatively, where someone might be extremely talented, innovative, and high potential but, for whatever reason, not as eloquent.  As the authors warn, "Do not overestimate the importance of a person’s articulateness.”
  6. Depending on the role, you may want someone who is a "digital native" and, through the tabs, you can get a sense to what extent this is true based on the communities that they might belong to and their level of participation.  e.g. if they are involved in a Reddit sub-reddit, Hacker News, Less Wrong or some other online community.
  7. As they talk through the different tabs, you will get a sense for their enthusiasm.  The authors suggest that, of all the factors that can denote a high performer, it is enthusiasm that is one of the strongest factors – even moreso than what might be considered "intelligence" or IQ.

This interview with one of the authors provides a great overview of the core ideas.

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Anthony is a Senior Advisor to a G20 Central Bank on emerging technologies and applied research. He was previously Chief Technology Officer for IBM, Middle East and Africa. Lives in Saudi Arabia.

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