Writing

Software, technology, sysadmin war stories, and more. Feed
Sunday, June 16, 2013

Self-limiting groups and more than 100% membership

I keep seeing people who assert that companies are filtering their applicants and are creating a hiring process based on IQ or similar. The idea is that they draw a line and anyone who falls below that line won't get in. Then they maintain this over time no matter what. A thinly-veiled advertisement post which made it onto HN today continues this line of thinking.

I need to shoot some holes in this theory again. But, before I do that, I want to talk about classic car dinners.

So there's a group of people who own a specific kind of classic car. Maybe it's the Delorean made famous by the Back to the Future films. It could be the 1948 Tucker Sedan, which figured into a movie about the creator, Preston Tucker. The point is, they own a car which was never made in huge quantities in the first place.

One year, a bunch of these people ran into each other at a classic car meet-up. They decided to hold a BBQ just for fellow owners of this one car. Nobody else was allowed in. It went off so well, that a year later, they went and did it again. Before long, they had a vibrant group and looked forward to those dinners all year long.

These dinners became legendary. People wanted to get into them, and would seek out these cars in order to gain membership. This drove up prices for a car which had only had a small amount of interest previously. Now, any time one would come up on an auction site, a bunch of would-be owners would pile on. Only one lucky person would come away with a car, and they'd be at the next dinner. The group continued to grow. They outgrew a simple campground and had to book an actual lodge one year. Then they found themselves unable to keep up with the BBQing duties themselves and had to bring in catering people to do it instead. This seemed weird, but they were having a good time and so they rolled with it.

Eventually, one of the folks who had been in the group for a while looked around and said... wait, just how many people are here? They did a head count. They found that their latest dinner had 1200 registrations. These are people who supposedly owned one of these cars and thus were members of the club.

There's a problem, though: they only made 1000 of those cars, and they had been tracked in exquisite detail over the years. Each one had a unique serial number and was tracked in the club newsletter as it was handed off to a new owner, got in a wreck, or was lost to a garage fire.

Somehow, they had 1200 members of a club that should have maxed out at 1000, and is actually lower due to various cars being destroyed. They didn't have 200+ cars suddenly materialize out of nowhere. Nobody was making replicas. Somewhere, something went wrong.

They thought they were filtering based on ownership but in reality something had slipped through. As the group continued to grow, this became more and more obvious. The group continued to assert that it was just for owners of this special car, but it couldn't possibly be true. By the 2000th member, it was clear that something else was going on.

It wouldn't have been a big deal if they kept the group going with some new reason, like "people who own and those people who like the X car", but they stuck with their "only the owners, and nobody but the owners" motto. That just did not make sense, and the numbers did not check out.

That's sort of what it's like when companies talk about only hiring the best. There can be only so many people at or above a certain line, and even though there are seven billion people on the planet at the moment, the pool of candidates shrinks rather rapidly when you start applying restrictions.

Maybe some are too young to work for a company. 8 year olds can be wicked smart but they can't be employees in your software sweat shop... in this country, anyway. Perhaps others are too old. Once you hit 35, that little turkey timer thing pops out of your neck and all of the other valley techies start treating you differently.

Some won't speak whatever language or languages the business happens to use. English is in a lot of places but it sure isn't everywhere. Some people can't legally work in the countries where a business might have an office. This might be a temporary problem or it might be a permanent one. Besides, not everyone wants to move.

Keep subtracting the people who refuse to work for that company or have already worked for that company and then moved on. Also remove the ones who are at other companies and are happily employed, and won't be moving. How many are left? That's your global talent pool.

Let's say you come up with about 25,000 people, and your company has 30,000 engineers. Where did the other people come from? Who let them into the exclusive classic car dinner?

Just like the hypothetical dinner, they're basing their acceptance of new people on something other than whatever they claim. You can believe it and go along with the story even though it can't be true, or you can call it out and try to guilt them into changing their story.