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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, you’ll be ready to tackle your interviews.

Innovation Over Organization
While in the old days companies wanted cogs who would fit into a vast corporate machine, today’s 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:

"The good companies in the computer industry have horizontal organizations; they aren’t as hierarchical, and people develop informal project teams with people on the Net. Communications are much easier, and more people know what’s going on. And that’s important, because if you’re 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."

Self-Motivation & Intellectual Honesty
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:

"We find people who are very self-motivated, who set their own targets, and then drive themselves to achieve their goals. They’re 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 other people."

There’s Power At Every Level
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 today’s fast-paced firms is that they’re 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. It’s people on the manufacturing line, the truck drivers, and everybody else. You have to treat them with respect. Everybody’s job has merit, and it’s amazing what people will do just to be a part of a quality operation that delivers something tangible. People love that. They’ll work beyond all expectation."

In this new culture, everybody is important, and an excellent company has to have excellence everywhere. That’s 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 don’t 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 they’ve done, because "past experience" doesn’t guarantee future success:

"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 can’t be done – even if it actually is possible."

Thriving Amidst Chaos
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. They’re 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."

Management Schmanagement
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 don’t hire the "professional managers" that are so common in the upper echelons of many of today’s companies. An MBA doesn’t count for much in the world of high tech. What does count is a solid understanding of products, technology, and the customer’s 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 isn’t 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, we’ll hire somebody who’s not that good a programmer, say, but who’s smart and willing to commit to learning. But, we don’t 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.

Strategic Hiring
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 they’re 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 don’t 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:

"He’s 29 years old. He’s one of the head architects in the company. He’s had no management training, none at all. I’m trying to find out what drives the guy, because he’s a very important person for us to maintain and motivate. He doesn’t really care about the money, he just loves building products. Now that’s obviously the gem you’re looking for because he’s a born entrepreneur."

High Tech Tips
To summarize: if you want to be hired by a high tech firm with a Silicon Valley-style business culture:

  • Don’t be overly concerned with your potential position in the hierarchy. You’ll be assessed as an individual and be given power accordingly.
  • Do give examples of when you’ve been highly self-motivated. Show that you can take direction well, but that once given direction, you can succeed without excessive supervision.
  • Don’t complain if you have to interview with dozens of people before getting a job offer.
  • Do show that you’re an entrepreneur who can identify business opportunities and take advantage of them.
  • Don’t 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.
  • Don’t forget to learn everything that you can about the technology and products of the high tech firm in which you’re interested.

Excerpted and edited from Success Secrets from Silicon Valley (Times Books, 1998) by Geoffrey James.

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 he’s 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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