Hiring Athletes instead of Bigfoot

I was talking with a recruiter about a position at their company the other day and after reading the job requisition I commented to her that it was a “Bigfoot” requisition; the kind of req that reads “Must be a Lawyer and a Pastry Chef”.

There’s no way that the recruiter will be able to find a person to fill that req. All of the lawyer’s I know who burned out and became pastry chef’s are quite happy in their new bakery business. So what will happen instead is that the hiring manager will hire someone he knows and grumble about how HR can’t find anyone good.

So it goes.

Personally I’ve always hired for brains+attitude, not necessarily some specific laundry list of tech skills. My best engineer in my last position ported himself from Windows and C++ to MacOSX and Java in about a month; as I knew he would. I needed someone who knew object oriented programming and could design servers, Java was ultimately optional.

The silliest for me is when I see people listing source code control systems like svn, git and SourceSafe in a req. Are you really not going to hire someone who lists cvs on their resume? For that matter, who lists source code control applications on their resume?

The recruiter came back to me with the following:

I love the way you think… It’s always smartest to hire the best athlete and watch ’em perform in the role. All the minutia is ridiculous.

Now, identifying a “best athlete” who’s not a referral… that’s a whole ‘nother challenge for those of us doing the hiring, isn’t it? 🙂

Ok, Stacy, challenge accepted. Here’s how to identify an athlete that’s not a referral, that is, from a resume. So, first rule:

  • Athletes break the resume rules for specialization

Picture yourself as a software engineering manager with a star athlete on his team. Over and over you are going to find yourself saying to the athlete: “Can you help Fred with this? Can you look into this new technology for me? Can you work with Barney on that problem he’s having? Accounting is whining about Billing, and that involves money so we better fix it. Can you figure out what we need to do?” The athletes on a development team are going to have the broadest experience in terms of problems you’ve asked them to solve.

Translating that to a resume, software athletes are people that look like generalists, because their resume will show lots of broad experience. Broad experience is much more interesting in the long run than “depth” in the particular skill you’re looking for; tech skills rarely last longer than 5 years.

My resume for reference. I have been a software athlete, and am now a coach (Director/VP) of athletes.

Specifically, that means that if you’re looking for a Java engineer, a resume that lists:

  • C++, Python, Perl, Ruby

Is quite probably a much more athletic engineer, and a better hire than one that lists:

  • Java

That’s because the 4 languages above have their own strengths and weaknesses. Someone who gets object-oriented programming in C++ is going to pick up Java pretty quickly, and they’ll have learned things from doing programming in Ruby and Python that will serve them well with Java. Someone who has done Java and only Java for years will be much more narrow and less versatile in the long term. After 2 months, the C++/Python/Ruby/Perl guy could easily know more about Java than the original Java guy, because he’s more curious in fact, that’s been my experience.

Similarly, you want to look for the same sort of breadth in achievements. Someone who has the same 6 months of experience 10 times is not going to be a good hire. I call those people IT mushrooms because its common to see someone from the IT department at a big company who did the same thing for 5 years. Just like a regular athlete can do 20x what an average joe can do, so can a software athlete be 20x more productive than a regular software engineer. Software managers give their star athletes giant tasks to accomplish, tasks that are often hard to distill down onto a resume.

So if I was looking for someone with Business Intelligence experience, given a choice between:

  • Developed 8 reports for Accounting using Oracle Business Intelligence system


  • Reworked billing.

When asked to find a person with high-end Business Intelligence experience I would most likely hire the second guy. Because what I know happened is that billing was broken somehow and Accounting was always whining (it was taking too long, etc.). So I asked my software athlete to “Fix billing”. He fixed it, which involved meeting with Accounting to figure out what their needs actually were, setting up an ETL process from the OLTP database into a data warehouse, setting up the BI system, and developing a couple of reports. It probably took him 2-3 months.

After that, I would have assigned the first guy, the mushroom, to follow in the athletes footsteps and do any additional reports Accounting needed. It probably took him about a month to do each report, sometimes more. So even though nominally the first guy looks like a closer fit for the position, the athlete is the one that really did all the work.

Of course, I have an advantage as a technologist, that I can skim a resume and tell if a person is an athlete or not to a decent approximation. What are recruiters supposed to do? My suggestion is to get the hiring manager to follow the process I use when working with recruiters:

  1. Talk to the hiring manager about whether they want an athlete for this position. “Do you want an exact match, or a smart guy?”
  2. Select 20 resumes at random, after throwing out the obviously bad ones. (Grammar problems, misspellings, web designer for a programming position, etc.)
  3. Have the hiring manager sit down with you and sort the resumes from best to worst, with the specific idea that you’re looking for athletes. They should immediately know which technologies overlap which other technologies and what tradeoffs they’re willing to make. Have them explain the top 5 resumes they selected to you, possibly against the bottom 5. You’ll get a lot of good information out of this about what they really need for the position, because as a hiring manager, I have to say that my job requisitions are rarely perfectly written…
  4. Repeat steps 2-3 occasionally if needed if you’re having trouble finding a match.

This information gathering exercise will tell you a lot about what the hiring manager really wants, not what the job requisition says!

From your meeting with the hiring manager, you should now be able to glean a few “possible athlete” resumes from your queue for the position. The next step is in the phone screen. When phone screening for athletes, your goal is to separate the jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none candidates from the master-of-all-trades-throw-me-at-a-problem-and-I’ll-kill-it athletes.

My two biggest tools for doing this are the questions “How did you do that?” and “Why did you do it that way?”. It’s nice but not necessarily important for me to understand the details of their answer. What I’m looking for are that there are those details, that they really dug into the problem, solved it, and moved on. I’m looking for something that for any other candidate would be 2 years of work and required training classes but the athlete did in 3 months. I’m also looking for people who had a hammer in their hand, but had a problem that was a screw, so they put down the hammer and went and found a screwdriver. Finally, I’m looking for brains.

I can’t explain it any better than that, but it’s obvious to me when it happens during a phone screen.

So after scanning resumes, phone screening the results, and hopefully finding one or two possible athletes, that’s the point where I would make a note on the resulting candidate “May be athlete”. Because the manager is going to interview a potential athlete differently than they’ll interview someone who is merely a close fit.

I hope this helps, let me know!


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