It’s time to abolish the reference check. The unpleasant process of calling up a job applicant’s former boss to gab about the candidate’s pluses and “deltas” is just silly. Maybe if we all just agree to stop doing it the practice will go away, like pay phones and fanny packs. Instead, I’ve learned a better way to hire that leverages a universal human attribute—namely, the fact that we’re all lazy.
What’s my beef with reference checks? They don’t accomplish the job we intend them to do. In a startup, you can’t afford to hire B-players. But reference checks, which are intended to do the screening, fail to eliminate these candidates who are just so-so. This happens because the person giving the reference has no incentive to say anything but good things about the candidate. Telling the whole truth, warts and all, could expose the former boss to a defamation lawsuit. But legal action aside, no one likes to speak poorly about an ex-colleague. It’s bad karma and just feels icky.
Instead of asking a reference to call you and spend an awkward half-hour chitchatting about pretty much nothing, try a technique I’ve come to call it the “average-need-not-apply” method. Though I’m not sure who invented it, the approach was taught to me by Irv Grousbeck at Stanford.
Lately, I’ve noticed a startling paradox in Silicon Valley. I see shitty companies hiring more engineers than they know what to do with, while other, much better companies struggle to fill open roles. Now my definition of “shitty” is completely subjective, but I bet you too can name some ridiculous start-ups that no sane engineer should work for. Meanwhile, companies catering to huge markets, logical business models, amazing user growth, and cash in the bank from top investors, are having a hard time hiring tech talent. What gives?
I call this phenomenon the developer divide. It occurs after a company has cracked a user need and is gaining traction, the VCs have started piling on the cash and the servers are melting from all the users. But there’s one big problem. The company is having trouble hiring engineers to keep up with the torrid pace of growth.
Take Pinterest, the latest toast of Silicon Valley. The company is growing faster than Facebook when it was of equivalent size. Andreessen Horowitz, some of the smartest money on Sand Hill Road in my opinion, just invested in a $27 million dollar round only 5 months after the company closed its series A. The company has umpteen different ways to monetize and few serious competitors. Of course, the company is no sure thing and has plenty of risks ahead, but any investor could make a case for why this company is a good bet. But despite the opportunity, a LinkedIn search reveals the company still employs only 15 people.