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Sep 17

Imagine you're a member in a close-knit cooperative commune. The commune has been buzzing along for a few years now, and the members know each other well and coexist nicely. However, it is decided that a crucial skill for the commune is missing and new talent is needed. As the natural leader of the commune, you are asked to interview and decide which candidate would bring the most benefit to the commune.

You've seen two candidates. The first seems to be highly skilled in that one thing your commune is looking for. The second candidate also has the same skill, but he may be not as skilled as the first one. Alright, dilemma over, let's pick candidate #1. Or are we really done?

Extending the interviewing discussion

Technical interviewing is pretty much a solved problem, or solved enough. Sure, people come up with new interesting approaches every now and then, but for the most part seasoned interviewers have zoned in on their own method for telling whether a candidate is actually a capable programmer or merely a good self promoter. At the very least there are enough ideas and approaches floating around that tech interviews are no longer a wild west where everybody has to figure out their own approach.

However it seems we are still in the wild when it comes to culture fit. Many of us either don't consider it as important when interviewing, or even if we do we have the luxury of delegating this headache to HR or some middle management figure.

As a team leader, I want to convince you to stop delegating culture fit vetting and to take personal ownership over it.

What Culture fit is, and what it is not

When we talk about office culture, I like to focus less on how people interact with each other during lunch and on break, but rather on how they interact with each other while collaborating to produce value for the company. Cool office spaces with entertainment accessories are definitely nice to have and this article is not written to castigate them, but people often confuse these ancillary factors for the main ones. Having a ping pong table at the office is never going to be the main factor in making or breaking the cohesion and success of your team.

Further, culture fit does NOT relate to gender, race, or country of origin. It doesn't relate to personal hobbies and preferences. Cultural fit does not try to determine whether the candidate is cool, a hipster, a nerd, or belongs to any other high-school clique . Creating a cool company image is a technique for attracting talent, not for determining whether the talent that is already attracted fits in or not.

So from this perspective, if the team holds a weekly Mario Kart competition and the candidate doesn't like video games, that's not a problematic culture fit. However if the team works in Scrum and the candidate likes to work as a black box, that's a problematic culture fit.

Why you can't delegate culture fit vetting

Back to our cooperative commune from the first paragraph. Interviewing a candidate for a commune requires more than just evaluating their skills. After all, they would also share the day to day life with other members, living and working in close proximity for many hours of the day. If you're bringing a new person into that daily mesh, their personality should be a significant factor in their candidacy. If candidate #1 has a divisive personality that would create tensions and hostilities among the existing members and candidate #2 seems to be just the kind of guy who would strengthen existing bonds and create new ones, you're probably going lean towards candidate #2, despite that the actual skill you initially cared about is stronger with candidate #1. What's the point of bringing in a highly skilled individual if as a baggage they also bring a very real risk of unraveling the entire social tapestry of the commune?

But is a cooperative commune the only place where people work in close proximity for many hours of the day? How about your own team, couldn't that statement be applied to some degree to? In which case, the personality of the candidate should be a factor as well. The more closely you work together to produce value, the more weight the personality should have. If you work in an agile environment, you're basically by definition going to have to take the personality aspect into heavy consideration.

In this "tech team is a commune" metaphor, HR or middle management plays the role of an external, well meaning idealist who's never lived in your commune or any commune similar to yours for that matter, but has heard all about what it's like to be in one. Sure, they can vet out some obviously malfunctioning personalities, but it is no replacement for the intimate, day to day knowledge of what makes the commune tick that is required to make the culture fit call.

Theoretically

When approaching culture fit, consider the social mesh of the existing team. What are the strengths and weaknesses? Every team, collectively, exhibits personality traits that emerge from the way the individuals interact and express themselves. This emergent personality can be assessed just like an individual personality can be assessed. Some traits are positive and wanted: Honesty, hard working, forthcoming, openness, positivity, assertiveness, etc., and their opposites are usually negative and to be avoided. No team gets full marks on every item on the list of positive traits, as is true for any candidate. Therefore culture fit can be approached as figuring out how the candidate's personality lines up with the team's emergent personality.

An absolutely neutral addition would be an individual whose personality would fit right into the emergent personality without decreasing or increasing any trait too strongly. If we only cared about personality when hiring, this hire wouldn't be so great as we're not getting anything out of it. But since we are expecting to also benefit from the candidate's skill and experience this is would actually be a net positive, so it's overall a good deal.

An ideal candidate for your team will be the one that fits like a puzzle piece into the team's emergent personality: The candidate's strength will elevate the team's weaknesses, and the team's strength will elevate the candidate's weaknesses. Not only are we gaining from the candidate's skill and experience, the team's overall performance and well being will also benefit from this hire. This is where we want to strive towards.

An absolutely imperfect candidate for the team is not necessarily one that is orthogonal to the emergent personality, but in my opinion, one whose personality is such that they would try to pull the threads of the existing social mesh and reweave them to fit their own preferences. No matter what the existing emergent personality is, there are personalities who will rip throw the social mesh. An imperfect candidate for the team would be highly individualist, overly confident, one who prefers to lecture than to listen, who prefers to instruct rather than to learn. Unfortunately our industry has put on a pedestal this type of personality in the form of "developer rockstar", and these traits can often be mistaken for positive ones. When you interview, remember that you are not only looking for the best possible candidate best on their ability to perform, but also for the candidate whose addition to the team will be beneficial for all your existing employees. If you've brought in a rockstar developer whose personality makes everybody else's life miserable, you completely missed the mark on culture fit vetting and you're risking your entire team in the process.

And practically

My starting point is to ask about the ways of working in previous teams.I like to get an idea of what daily work was like, and find out what the candidate liked and disliked about the codified interactions with their peers and superiors. I often ask them what kind of changes to the way of working they would implement if they could, and what is the ideal work environment. This line of conversation tends to reveal the broad lines of a person's personality quite clearly.

tl;dr

You owe it to your team to make sure that the candidate will at the very least not make the day to day interactions worse, and hopefully will make them better and stronger. Therefore, don't suffice with technical interviewing and never skip culture fit vetting

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