Discussion: April 6, 2010 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter

A reader wants to know How to Say It:

One thing that really bugs me about the tech industry is this focus on Skills, as opposed to Ability to Get Said Skills. When I interview for management roles and I am asked about the types of people I hire, I always lead with a comment to the effect of, “I’ve never fired someone because they weren’t technically capable, but I’ve fired people because they weren’t capable of getting the necessary skills.”

I know that I’ve lost at least one opportunity because the interviewer strenuously disagreed with me on that point. (Not that I would want to work in a company that focused on skills as opposed to skills acquisition…) What’s a good way to explain my position? How should I say it?

This is a fine point in management. Do you hire someone who can do exactly this job now? Or someone who can quickly learn how to do this job and the work that comes next, as well?

Many managers are dopes. They’d rather hire someone who brings them a fish, than someone who knows how to catch more fish. (I cover this in more detail in Talent Shortage, or Poor Management?)

How do you explain the difference between having skills and being able to get skills in a job interview? How do you say it?


  1. I hired based on brains (can get skills as needed), attitude (will be happy to get skills) & integrity (will use skills for me).

  2. @Ray: I think you just wrote a one-sentence how-to book for managers!

  3. Explain it with the following analogy:

    Do companies grow by doing the same thing or by learning about/creating new markets/products/processes?

    Anybody who cannot understand the analogy is not someone you want to work for.

  4. This very problem, the focus on skills as opposed to talent, is the very reason I’m strongly considering a career change out of programming and making moves in that direction. I’ve been a programmer for over 20 years now, but I’ve been the good soldier, maintaining the old stuff (lately VB6) and doing everything my companies have needed me to do. What does that get me? A career going down the toilet, because I don’t have 5 years of C# or whatever. Doesn’t matter that I could learn it quite easily. At least in accounting debits are still debits and credits are still credits, even 20 years later.

    I wish there were more managers who realized that talent is more important than skills. All I can say is keep fighting the good fight, and maybe someone else in my position will come and work for you.

  5. Most people I speak to on this question give me the answer I want to hear: If you’re smart you can learn it.

    But we live in a conservative culture and it seems that most employers are anxious to find the candidate whose hand can fit the glove of the predecessor, unless the predecessor was a bust.

    In the case of sr. management, the question is: are you doing the specialized work that is the employer’s bread/butter or are you enabling line experts to do that work. In a healthy organization, they should be better at that than you will ever be. Your role is to give them the support (technical, financial, infrastructural) to excell and to help resolve problems of a non-technical nature (opening doors, people conflicts).

    Also there’s an argument to be made that a talented outsider is more likely to be fresh and innovative than the hand that slips into yesterday’s glove.

  6. I could repeat Jim’s post except change the career to engineering. I made the mistake of working for the same company for 14 years, doing whatever was needed to try to make the company successful. Our corporate owner closed our facility in Oct 2008. Now every job listing I see requires a minimum of 5 years of experience in some software app that we did not use or 10 years experience doing the exact job that they are hiring. No one is hiring the exact job that I was doing for 14 years which was to solve problems on the fly, keep people productive and get product shipped out the door.

  7. @Ray: I agree 100%.

    One of the worst coworkers I ever had was a fairly bright and knowledgeable engineer, but already thought he knew it all. He lost everyone’s respect (including the construction workers) within days.

    The best engineers have intense curiosity and never stop learning and asking questions.

  8. You answered your own question. You may not have looked at it that way but you were interviewing them too, and the company failed, or their representative interviewer did. They failed Ray’s test. and they either get it or don’t. They didn’t get it, so why bother. You have the right formula and if you got that kind of strong push back you were talking to the wall, so save your breath and find someone who “gets it” and in on the same page as you are.
    I worked in hi-tech computer companys for 40 years mostly as a manager, and I followed Ray’s formula. When you do, management is easy. But I’m quite familiar with the goose stepping computer scientists who worship the skill de jour. What you & others herein are dealing with is risk aversion. The world seems to have this feeling that engineering managers are daring innovators. Actually most are conservative imitators. (I should probably remove the word engineering). They simply think its safer to try to avoid/resist change and hire people who have EXACTLY the right skills to sustain what they do, or if one must, to do what risky new they they must undertake. The real skills of an engineer is to adopt, adapt and push the edge. As you said, know what you don’t know and know where to find it. If you have that you can do about anything if you’re bright enough.
    You’d be much happier in a start up or company not far from that stage, where they can’t afford people who are set in their ways, who can’t move out of their comfort zones, want to be trained, and generally need to be told what to do. Where Ray’s principle lives.
    PS: I tested software and systems & built teams that did. I specifically hired bright, curious generalists so I could be fast on our feet. Every time we came out with a new product, or adopted a new programming language I wanted people who could make a quick shift and take on anything coming down the pike. subject matter know it all specialists were not a good fit.

  9. What you really need are people that can solve problems and work on the unexpected. If you hire for only a present need, then you are ultimately shortchanging yourself and your company.

  10. Like Ray, when I’ve hired I looked for people who were quick on the uptake with applicable experience.

    Not perfect matches – they don’t exist.

    The key piece? Integrity and social skills that indicate they can work well with the group.

  11. So, where are the ones that disagree? I guess that they don’t read Nick’s newsletter/blog.

    Am I the only one feeling that the business world is “polarising” among two types of people / workers /managers /businesses?

    I hope the “good” ones win in the end.

  12. The reality is so much of hiring today isn’t based on who’s best to do the job. It’s instead driven by fear to see who’ll cause the least amount of damage. That’s why there’s all this emphasis on Skills, Skills, Skills.

    I’ve found it both necessary and entertaining to address these fears, subtly. If the hiring person is as modern-age as most of us are, they can likely relate to today’s incessant rate of change. Don’t they too have the fear of getting left behind, of not staying on top of everything? Have they realized it’s impossible to know everything about everything? Aren’t they constantly having to prove themselves, especially by picking up new things?

    Then once they agree or relate to most of this, what is the difference between a candidate who is capable of delivering on new things and themselves? What if someone else denies them a job opportunity based on similar insecurities? Why do they want to propagate it — to live out that rule of doing unto others like you’d done unto you? I think NOT!

  13. Sorry I didn’t make reference in my post to David Hunt’s excellent “The Perfect Fit Isn’t”: http://www.asktheheadhunter.com/gv060106.htm

    Very much on topic!

  14. This is one problem that I really just don’t get. I keep shaking my head. How is it that managers get so hung up on getting “this job done now” without asking, “Am I hiring someone who can ride a fast learning curve without falling off?”

    I recently “fired” a client who could not get past the “cost” of a software developer who could have done the job at hand, and then could have moved on to develop apps that would have taken the company into the future the president imagined. While I respect any manager’s desire to live within the budget, I go bananas when a manager keeps talking about the “cost” of a hire, rather than about the “investment” in someone who will return far more than they cost a year down the road.

    It’s become so reductionist. Here’s the work. What EXACT skills do we need? Hire those skills. There’s more work. Start all over again.

    I really put a lot of this at the feet of an HR profession that has dumbed down hiring into a dictionary of keywords that makes it unnecessary to truly assess people for what they can do. Why can’t HR get away from the job-board model of hiring keywords? Why can’t HR get off its duff, get away from the computer screens, and go out and meet real people? Talk. Ask. Learn. Get the managers involved.

    Keywords are worthless and so are the hires they stimulate.

  15. Nick, your comments are dead on about the HR “profession”. Maybe not far enough tho.

    My dad (who was in HR before it was called HR) used to say that companies ran better when It was called “Pay and Benefits”, and they stuck with those tasks: Making sure the payroll envelopes had the correct amount in them at the end of the week, and making sure the benefits were competitive and not canceled. When it became Human resources, and “professionals” started telling hiring managers who they could and could not interview, telling legal what was right or wrong, telling management all was well with the company – all the while keeping anyone smart enough to “get it” out of the building is when corporate America started to go down hill.

    Can’t say I disagree with him.

  16. I have been doing an unpaid internship while looking for a job in an area im good at office/business administration. With my experience I can expect to be in an entry level position, but they want two years with all these skills that needed.

    I always think to myself: “employers dont believe in transferable skills any more” they want someone: who can make charts, format data, make reports, schedule trips and events. Hey, I can use excel and learn a few things i dont know; I can type even though i may not the exact format but i can learn and i can use a phone and talk i can find the information i need to plan something and a calendar to track it. Managers have become dense thinking “Only apply if you done this job” I say if i had all those skills and more i wouldnt be there anymore id get a better job.

  17. It may even be a little worse than you think Nick. There are various assumptions in those skills that at times I wonder how well is that really understood. Someone may be barely using a skill for a number of years but this is the test that HR puts on a skill is how long have you used it rather than how deeply do you know something,e.g. I’ve used a knife for 30 years, does this make me a knife expert? Hardly. This is without getting into terms that have multiple meanings and interpretations.

    Being adaptable is a common requirement as most job descriptions will carry an “Other duties as required” component that acts as this lovely catch-all for nearly anything that one may do as part of their job.

    I’m not sure how many people could come in off the street and begin writing software in my team in under 8 hours realistically. There will be some time spent getting used to the environment and this makes sense. Even a hired consultant may need to spend a few days getting some bearings before making a contribution which has happened a few times on this project.

  18. @L.T.: You’re right. I didn’t go far enough. Your dad’s right. Interesting perspective from someone who worked in HR. And dead right. I keep telling HR people they need to get out of the hiring business.

  19. @JB King: Hiring “our most important asset” is now an institutionalized darts game. A grocery checkout clerk could do it just as well as HR: scan those cans… er, resumes… add up the prices… er, keywords… move on to the next. No, I don’t care what you bought or what you’re having for dinner… er, what the job is or who you’re going to hire. Will that be cash or credit?

    Look, some HR folks put their hearts and minds into recruiting and hiring. But most don’t. I don’t buy the argument that HR, even in the best cases, serves by screening and qualifying applicants before managers have to bother their silly little brains with interviews…

    Managers are as much to blame as HR: meekly deferring to HR rather than asserting their responsibility and authority to find and hire the best people. Any manager who isn’t spending 15-20% of their time actively recruiting and hiring isn’t managing. (Unless, of course, there’s no need to hire.)