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Published:Nov 09, 2017

Fit vs Ability: Why Hiring the Right Engineer is More Important than Hiring the Best Engineer

On our blog, we often talk a lot about culture and process. We talk about instilling the right values and having the right mindset.

But there’s something that’s even more fundamental and comes before any of that stuff.

It’s the hiring process.

How is your company finding and choosing technical talent to join your team?

There are so many constraints and considerations that come into play. It can often feel like you’re trying to piece together a jigsaw puzzle with a blindfold on.

One trick to making this whole process easier to manage is to define and prioritize your hiring criteria in advance.

What is most important in a potential hire?

Is it raw talent? Relevant experience? Industry knowledge? Cultural fit? Salary expectations?

Two of the most common contenders are technical talent and cultural fit. Anyone hiring engineers knows that they want both someone who is technically brilliant and also fits in well with the rest of the team. But, which is most important?

In a perfect world, this isn’t even a discussion.

If things were perfect, you would hire someone who is both exceptionally talented and fits perfectly with the company and the team. And, of course, if you can find that candidate, then hire them.

But in reality, you’re often faced with trade-offs and you’re forced to prioritize. The question, then, is whether you should place more emphasis on talent–hiring the “best” engineer–or on cultural fit–hiring the “right” engineer.

Hiring “The Best”

Many companies and hiring managers set out to hire the best talent.

They want to brightest people from the most prestigious schools. They want “rockstars” and “ninjas” who can crank out elegant code in their sleep (if they ever slept, that is).

For most companies, though, this is ultimately a mistake. Too often, hiring managers are blinded by exceptional talent or a degree from Stanford. They fail to consider the other elements that would make that candidate a good hire.

Of course, that’s not to say that skill, talent, or experience are irrelevant. They aren’t–at all.

But it is to say that technical aptitude is almost never the most important consideration when hiring an engineer. A rockstar team of smart people who work well together can run circles around a dysfunctional team of “rockstar” engineers, especially when there are dueling egos.

More important than the politics, though, is the sacrifice that you make to focus on talent over fit. Most notably, you lose out on important dynamics that make a team great.

Why “Fit” Matters More

Technical talent is, of course, important on any engineering team. But, ultimately, team dynamics are what make or break a company’s ability to build and deliver good software.

Raw ability can’t replace the “soft” skills that are required to work within a team. It requires compromise, communication, and a shared sense of goals and values. While technical talent can be learned, personal and professional incompatibilities are not easy to overcome. Even the most talented engineers can cause more problems than they’re worth if they are a poor fit for your company culture.

Toxic work environments can kill productivity, motivation, and employee engagement. This is why it’s so important for managers and executives to protect the integrity of the company culture at all costs.

Sometimes, you have to fire a brilliant asshole.

The notion of team fit isn’t just an abstract benefit, either.

An analysis found that employees who are more closely aligned with their company and/or team saw a number of improvements in their work:

Greater job satisfaction
More likely to remain with their organization
More committed to their work/role
Higher job performance

On a macro scale, these results compound. If all of your engineers feel a strong sense of cohesion and a shared vision for the work that they’re doing, then they will produce better work. They’ll feel more ownership over the work that they’re doing, and they will generally produce better software. In a nutshell, engaged and motivated engineers perform better. And those who feel they fit in are more likely to be engaged and motivated.

So, if we compare the importance of technical ability versus that of fit, it’s clear that cultural fit and team dynamics are ultimately–in almost every case–more important to the quality of work that’s completed by the team.

Now how can you make smart hiring decisions about cultural and team fit? First you need to understand how it should be used and how it shouldn’t.

via GIPHY

The “Fit” Fallacy

It’s worth noting that the word “fit” can take many forms on different teams.

In its most innocuous, fit just means that the person being added to the team has complementary skills and experience and that they seem to generally get along with the other folks they’ll be working with.

But, the idea of fit can also be misconstrued to mean that the candidate is similar to everyone else on the team. It can be a catch-all reason for hiring people with all of the same background–or, for not hiring someone who doesn’t look or act the same as other members of the team.

This is, of course, problematic. Not only is it unfair, but it also disadvantages your team. Many studies have shown that diversity helps teams to solve difficult problems or come up with innovative ideas. So, using “team fit” as an excuse for homogeneity is not a smart move.

There is some resistance to the idea of “cultural fit” and some evidence to support the idea that this umbrella term could be used as a dog whistle for discrimination. In response, many experts are calling on companies and hiring managers to focus on “values fit”–team members who share similar priorities in the workplace–in lieu of the more abstract idea of “culture”. Codifying these values into some kind of systematic rubric is also helpful for removing the subjective bias that can come with the notion of “fit”.

If these measures are carefully designed and thoughtfully applied, they can guide your team’s hiring process. They can allow you to focus on hiring the right engineers for the job, even if they aren’t necessarily the best on paper.

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