Hire the person that says – “I Don’t Know”

Teach thy tongue to say I do not know and thou shalt progress! 

– Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides)


Over the years, I have interviewed and hired (& sometimes fired) many people – including engineers, product managers, QA, marketers, project managers, senior leaders, etc. Whether it’s a startup or a multinational corporate, hiring is arguably one of the most important decisions for the company.

So, how to hire the right people for the job? How to separate wheat from the chaff? Here are a few things I look for when I interview & hire people:

Domain Knowledge: Whether you are running a refrigerated meat warehouse or building a Cassandra big data warehouse, unless you are hiring fresh grads, you need to hire people who have an understanding of your business, technology involved, industry knowledge, etc. Hiring people with the right domain knowledge mix allows you to build the correct product/service with fewer mistakes & iterations. There is a reason why companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, Netflix, Yahoo, Microsoft, Tesla, etc. pay premium salaries & sign-on bonuses while poaching from each other to get the domain expertise.

Basic Smarts: Don’t think I need to elaborate much on this.

Tenacity & Persistence: Great products/services don’t built in the first iteration – similarly tough problems don’t get solved in the first try. You need to keep going at it until you crack it. I look for evidence in the person’s resume/background that shows that the person has the persistence to keep going even when things get tough.

Details & Execution Strength: As they say, success is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. I like people who are willing to sweat the details and focus on execution (aka get stuff done) – I’m not a big fan of people who skim the details. If you don’t dive into details, whatever you deliver will be pedestrian quality that will crumble sooner or later. When Mark Hurd got fired from HP, he immediately got hired by Oracle with a $40 million pay package. Why? Mark had a reputation for detailed analysis and focus on driving results. Read more about my views on attention to details…

Thinking Patterns: I like to understand how the candidate structures his/her thinking on a given topic. To judge this, I sometimes ask candidates to share a non-confidential document/deck that they have authored. This also helps me gauge their communication skills.

Team Composition & Culture: You need to ask the question – how does this new person fit into the overall team composition? People-person vs lone-wolf, tactical do’er vs strategic thinker, leader vs follower, specialist vs generalist, academic vs hustler, etc. End of the day, what you want is a well-balanced and a well-rounded team that gets the job done.

… and now about that rare quality:

I Don’t Know: Professional and Intellectual honesty is one of the most under-rated qualities – it’s also a quality that’s hard-to-detect. Everything else being equal, when I find a smart candidate that says “I don’t know” for a question or a concept, I know I have found an intellectually honest candidate. This also affirms that the candidate is not a glib talker.

Hiring right is more of an art than science – hope you find the Yoda you’re looking for!


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