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Who Do High Tech Companies
Want To Hire?
By Geoffrey James
High tech companies the ones that are growing fast
and hiring lots of people have corporate cultures that are wildly different from
the traditional "big business" cultures of the past. These companies succeed by
hiring the kinds of people who perform well in turbulent, entrepreneurial environments. If
you want to work in one of these companies, you need to present yourself as the kind of
worker who can thrive in their world.
Once you understand some of the fundamental facts about
high tech culture, youll be ready to tackle your interviews.
While in the old days companies wanted cogs who would fit into a vast corporate machine,
todays high tech company is looking for individuals who can contribute to the
corporate community. High tech CEO's believe that innovation the lifeblood of a
high tech firm is partly the result of a lack of traditional formal structures and
hierarchy. As Ed McCracken, former CEO of Silicon Graphics put it:
& Intellectual Honesty
"The good companies in the computer industry
have horizontal organizations; they arent as hierarchical, and people develop
informal project teams with people on the Net. Communications are much easier, and more
people know whats going on. And thats important, because if youre going
to make quick decisions and get on with things that are changing so fast, you want each
individual to be able to make informed decisions. We thrive on self-motivation."
High tech companies are looking for a special kind of
employee: one who feels comfortable and secure with the notion that self-motivation is
more important than following orders. Becoming a successful employee in these firms
requires the ability to stay self-motivated without a supervisor or manager looking over
your shoulder. Mike Maples, former Microsoft executive vice president, says:
Power At Every Level
"We find people who are very self-motivated, who
set their own targets, and then drive themselves to achieve their goals. Theyre
intellectually honest, if you will, in terms of training themselves to do better. We look
for people who are leaders, who not only are self-motivated but who can help motivate
Traditional companies look for people who are
self-starters, but generally only for positions such as sales that are
conducted outside the corporate environment. A major difference in todays fast-paced
firms is that theyre looking for self-motivated people at all levels of the
organization, even for positions that traditional companies would consider low-level
labor. Frank Ingari, the former CEO of Shiva, believes that while not all people are
self-motivated, the few who are make the world (and business) go round:
"Self-actualizing behavior is present in a
significant minority of the population. Its people on the manufacturing line, the
truck drivers, and everybody else. You have to treat them with respect. Everybodys
job has merit, and its amazing what people will do just to be a part of a quality
operation that delivers something tangible. People love that. Theyll work beyond all
In this new culture, everybody is important, and an
excellent company has to have excellence everywhere. Thats possible only if everyone
(including the people on the loading dock and the people who clean the floors) is doing a
top-rate job, without being overseen by paternalistic bureaucrats.
Reinventing The Job
The quest for self-motivated employees drives the
employment process for these firms. This is vital because the duties of almost any job are
likely to change on a week-to-week basis, and many positions dont even have written
job descriptions. Shiv Nadar, Chairman of HCL, one of the largest software outsourcing
firms in the world, hires people for what they believe they can do, not just for
theyve done, because "past experience" doesnt guarantee future
"We look for employees who are natural
entrepreneurs. Markets are always evolving, and entrepreneurs identify these opportunities
and turn them into businesses. We try to find people who are particularly good at this. On
the other hand, we avoid people who rely excessively on past experience. The worst are the
one who think that certain things are impossible. Once you say that something is
impossible, it cant be done even if it actually is possible."
This means that the job candidate must be able to
communicate the willingness to tolerate significant chaos and a lack of
"definition" about the exact work that needs to be done. A person who can stay
organized in the midst of chaos, says computer industry guru Jonathan Seybold, will be at
home in the high tech world:
"There are people for whom order and continuity
and predictability are very important. Theyre like pets who resent absolutely any
variation from their daily routine. At the other end of the spectrum are people who are
basically anarchists. Along that continuum are people who like making sense of things but
who are comfortable with ambiguity. Life itself can be ambiguous! I try to hire people who
can deal with that."
Just as there are types of prospective employees that
Silicon Valley companies seek out, there are those they tend to avoid. For example, they
often dont hire the "professional managers" that are so common in the
upper echelons of many of todays companies. An MBA doesnt count for much in
the world of high tech. What does count is a solid understanding of products, technology,
and the customers needs. This requires a certain level of technical understanding
that the so-called professional manager is likely to lack.
When successful high tech companies evaluate job
candidates, Mike Maples explains, it isnt management skills they look for first:
"We look for people who are highly skilled in
their area, but more important, who are extraordinarily smart and can learn. If somebody
says he or she is a programmer, we test him or her. But, often, well hire somebody
whos not that good a programmer, say, but whos smart and willing to commit to
learning. But, we dont hire very many people to come in as managers. People are
hired as marketing people, or as programming people, or as content specialists, but not
typically as professional managers."
The trend against hiring professional managers is based
on a concern that such people function professionally in ways that make sense in
traditional environments but that are not acceptable in an Silicon Valley-style
organization. Such techniques tend to create dissent and anger, thereby disconnecting
employees from the higher goals of the corporation.
Companies in Silicon Valley generally have long and
complex pre-employment interviews. It is common for a prospective candidate to interview
not just with his or her manager but with prospective peers as well. If the candidate is
being considered for a management job, the candidate will typically be interviewed by the
people who will report to him or her. These extensive interviews make certain that the
candidate will fit into the culture and into the team. Jonathan Seybold again:
"When you hire people, you have to pay attention
to how theyre going to fit in. Someone can be a great person, but if he or she is
not going to fit into the culture or the team, he or she is the wrong person. In this
organization, there is a low tolerance for people who are political, who do not contribute
to the team effort, or whose influence is negative. The focus is on getting the job done,
and we simply dont have the time for people who violate that."
Organizations with a Silicon Valley business culture are
always looking for employees who are entrepreneurs. They want people who love what they do
and who are motivated by doing it. Frank Ingari describes a top performer:
"Hes 29 years old. Hes one of the
head architects in the company. Hes had no management training, none at all.
Im trying to find out what drives the guy, because hes a very important person
for us to maintain and motivate. He doesnt really care about the money, he just
loves building products. Now thats obviously the gem youre looking for because
hes a born entrepreneur."
To summarize: if you want to be hired by a high tech
firm with a Silicon Valley-style business culture:
- Dont be overly concerned with your potential
position in the hierarchy. Youll be assessed as an individual and be given power
- Do give examples of when youve been highly
self-motivated. Show that you can take direction well, but that once given direction, you
can succeed without excessive supervision.
- Dont complain if you have to interview with dozens
of people before getting a job offer.
- Do show that youre an entrepreneur who can identify
business opportunities and take advantage of them.
- Dont position yourself as being politically savvy or
as a professional manager even though you may very well be both.
- Do talk about building products, making a difference, and
changing the world.
- Dont forget to learn everything that you can about
the technology and products of the high tech firm in which youre interested.
Excerpted and edited from Success Secrets from Silicon Valley (Times Books, 1998) by
Geoffrey James is the author of numerous books on
technology and business including the critically acclaimed Success Secrets from Silicon
Valley (Times Books, 1998). His writing has been featured in national publications such as
Upside, NetworkWorld, CIO, Marketing Computers, Datamation
and the New York Times, and hes been a guest on national and regional
broadcast media. James also has 20 years of experience working with and for high-tech
corporations, has taught at the University of Washington and the University of California,
and is a frequent speaker at national and international conferences.
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