Jeff Atwood: We Hire the Best, Just Like Everyone Else

Most startups, statistically speaking, are going to fail.

And they will fail regardless of whether they hired “the best” due to circumstances largely beyond their control. So in that context does maximizing for the best possible hires really make sense?

Given the risks, I think maybe “hire the nuttiest risk junkie adrenaline addicted has-ideas-so-crazy-they-will-never-work people you can find” might actually be more practical startup advice.

.. If your hiring attitude is that it’s better to be possibly wrong a hundred times so you can be absolutely right one time, you’re going to be primed to throw away a lot of candidates on pretty thin evidence.

.. Perhaps worst of all, if the interview process is predicated on zero doubt, total confidence … maybe this candidate doesn’t feel right because they don’t look like you, dress like you, think like you, speak like you, or come from a similar background as you? Are you accidentally maximizing for hidden bias?

.. One of the best programmers I ever worked with was Susan Warren, an ex-Microsoft engineer who taught me about the People Like Us problem, way back in 2004:

I think there is a real issue around diversity in technology (and most other places in life). I tend to think of it as the PLU problem. Folk (including MVPs) tend to connect best with folks most like them (“People Like Us”). In this case, male MVPs pick other men to become MVPs. It’s just human nature.


  • .. Using screens to hide the identity of auditioning musicians increased women’s probability of advancing from preliminary orchestra auditions by fifty percent.
  • Denver police officers and community members were shown rapidly displayed photos of black and white men, some holding guns, some holding harmless objects like wallets, and asked to press either the “Shoot” or “Don’t Shoot” button as fast as they could for each image. Both the police and community members were three times more likely to shoot black men.

.. It’s not intentional, it’s never intentional. That’s the problem. I think our industry needs to shed this old idea that it’s OK, even encouraged to turn away technical candidates for anything less than absolute 100% confidence at every step of the interview process. Because when you do, you are accidentally optimizing for implicit bias. Even as a white guy who probably fulfills every stereotype you can think of about programmers, and who is in fact wearing an “I Rock at Basic” t-shirt while writing this very blog post*, that’s what has always bothered me about it, more than the strictness. If you care at all about diversity in programming and tech, on any level, this hiring approach is not doing anyone any favors, and hasn’t been. For years.

.. I would argue, quite strongly and at some length, that if you want better diversity in the field, perhaps a good starting point is not demanding that all your employees live within a tiny 30 mile radius of San Francisco or Palo Alto. There’s a whole wide world of Internet out there, full of amazing programmers at every level of talent and ability. Maybe broaden your horizons a little, even stretch said horizons outside the United States, if you can imagine such a thing.

.. The most significant shift we’ve made is requiring every final candidate to work with us for three to eight weeks on a contract basis. Candidates do real tasks alongside the people they would actually be working with if they had the job. They can work at night or on weekends, so they don’t have to leave their current jobs; most spend 10 to 20 hours a week working with Automattic, although that’s flexible. (Some people take a week’s vacation in order to focus on the tryout, which is another viable option.) The goal is not to have them finish a product or do a set amount of work; it’s to allow us to quickly and efficiently assess whether this would be a mutually beneficial relationship

Remote Diagnoses

But as ominous or unprecedented as it might seem, Trump’s outburst is far less dangerous than the way we understand it. The opposition between rationality and irrationality has long undergirded the foreign policy doctrine the United States has relied on for dealing with the DPRK. Now it has been applied to our own President. What I have in mind here is not an elaborate Foucauldian construct, although its popularity certainly has something to do with the way post-Enlightenment Western society has conceived of the relationship between sanity and insanity. This opposition is far blunter, more soundbite-friendly—and thus more seductive. And its greatest partisans are the members of the national security establishment that stand to gain the most from the removal of this troubled President.

.. English-speaking analysts are prone to understanding the behavior of the DPRK through the lens of Richard Nixon’s “madman theory,” a strategy the President adopted in 1969 as he sought an advantageous end to the Vietnam War. Following the theories of the Cold War economist Thomas Schelling, Nixon adopted an approach called Giant Lance, aiming to convince the Soviet Union that an American nuclear strike on Moscow or Hanoi was imminent. By demonstrating that his behavior was not subject to ordinary rational calculation, Nixon hoped to achieve a superior bargaining position: “I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe that I’ve reached the point that I might do anything to stop the war,” he told H. R. Haldeman. But the Soviets were not fooled: it was not easy to convince them that a world leader would truly be willing to act beyond material motivations and constraints.2

Instead it is American foreign policy doctrine that continues to divide the world into rational actors, typically NATO countries, and irrational ones, typically not long for this world: Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, the Kims. In this worldview it is not a set of threats or behaviors that makes a leader a madmanit is the determination to maintain independence from American empire, often through the pursuit of nuclear weapons. In such a framework it is always the advocates of continual pressure, threats, and sanctions that appear the most rational, for they are the ones that maintain vigilance against uncontrollable madmen.

.. National security types believe their supreme goal is the prevention of nuclear Armageddon through non-proliferation. But their behavior demonstrates an utter lack at least of means-end rationality, for their policies have made proliferation inevitable.

.. George W. Bush not only invaded Iraq; arguing that he could not negotiate with such an evil regime, he unilaterally renounced the United States’s commitments in the Agreed Framework, justifying North Korea’s weapons program and its skepticism about American dealmaking.

.. Above all, it is the sheer reach and relentlessness of American empire that has set us on knife-edges all over the world. We are constantly told that we have rivals in all corners of the globe—places most Americans, when surveyed, have proven unable to identify on a map.

.. If we are on the brink of nuclear apocalypse, it is because the reasonable people, the Pences and the Frums and the Obamas and the Clintons, have put us and kept us there.

The idle blather of a Trump is nothing in comparison to this threat; if anything, it is a flamboyant extension of it. As a historian I struggle to think of even one instance in which careless words alone started a real conflict. The most grimly absurd adventures of the American military machine—Korea, Vietnam, Libya—were launched by people who were celebrated as the best and the brightest, working from doctrines developed by experts and scholars. To achieve a North Korea policy that does not menace us with nuclear annihilation, we first need to be able to escape their grip.

Steve Bannon’s Book Club

If a novelist were imagining the Trump presidency, this book, a case study in what can go wrong from the outset of an administration ushered in by a change election in uncertain times, is precisely what Mr. Bannon would be reading.

.. But the implied irony was not that the advisers weren’t impressive men (always men, usually men who had attended Harvard). They were. Rather, Mr. Halberstam’s caustic title and the nearly 700 pages that follow indict the notion that society’s smartest are necessarily the ones best equipped to tackle society’s biggest problems.

.. President Kennedy chose his men based on general wits, rather than on specific knowledge. Perhaps the most famous example was Robert McNamara, an ingenious scientist of managerialism, a president of Ford Motor Company, who as secretary of defense, said Mr. Halberstam, “knew nothing about Asia, about poverty, about people, about American domestic politics.”

.. “The book speaks to a concern about having a government run by technocrats,”

.. He has also advocated “a very, very, very aggressive stance against radical Islam,

.. If “The Best and the Brightest” is a brief against the East Coast meritocracy, though, its proposed alternative is not pure ideology. It is expertise.

.. Time and again, in Mr. Halberstam’s telling, lower-level government officials who understood Vietnamese politics, sentiments and even geography assessed reality accurately and offered correct policy

.. “You’ve got these guys that are so brilliant, but they’re generalists,”

.. “There’s a distinction to be drawn, he concludes, between this abstract quickness, this verbal facility, and true wisdom, which he says was missing.”

.. an order that, according to reports, was written by Mr. Bannon and the Trump adviser Stephen Miller, neither of whom are counterterrorism experts (or lawyers).