Monday, October 13, 2008

The Effects of Open-Source on Recruiting

This is the first of a series of blogposts in which I will explore the impact of an open-source business model on different aspects of a software company. During my tenure at both JBoss and Red Hat and now at my current employer Appcelerator, I have witnessed these sometimes subtle, often dramatic, effects from finance to sales to engineering to IT to support to marketing to legal to human resources. Everyone is affected in an open-source company.

I have always enjoyed technical recruiting. Probably a result of my first employer (Tallan) emphasizing the importance of everyone participating in the recruiting process. The company actually tracked statistics on which employees had passed/failed interviewees and the success/failure of those interviewees who were actually hired. There were no direct financial rewards for being the best interviewer, but there were definitely some bragging rights. It was during this time that I realized just how different hardcore technical recruiting is from almost any other position. When companies hire accountants, managers, lawyers, marketers, and salespeople, so much of the decision was based upon a candidate's history, his/her personality, and his/her attitude. However, when a company is trying to fill a highly technical position, the VAST majority of the decision (hopefully) falls on his/her technical accumen. Technical recruiting is different... and for good reason.

One of the most difficult challenges facing companies who need to fill highly technical positions is to accurately assess a candidate's skillset and knowledge. Notice that I distinguish between knowledge and skills. While I do actually understand the bodily mechanics, balance, and coordination necessary to dunk a basketball... I still do not possess the athletic skill to do so. Oftentimes, the HR department won't even attempt to evaluate the technical aptitude of a candidate, just assuming that the candidate's proficiency on any technical skill listed on the resume is likely to be sufficient for the position's requirements. That's not a dig on HR, how on earth would we expect them to evaluate whether a candidate who lists Oracle as a skill is capable of installing Oracle, designing datamodels, or tuning Oracle databases? It takes a rockstar to know one ("'s just a handful of people in the world who can tell the difference between you and me. But I'm one of them." - from Goodwill Hunting). When companies do actually attempt to assess technical talent it is often conducted haphazardly by someone who would rather be coding than interviewing candidates. Either way, the result is that the quality of technical talent within an organization fluctuates more than the price of crude oil. And because companies loathe the concept of shedding weak talent, mediocrity becomes the accepted standard.

Enter open-source.

The introduction of open-source into a software company's business model adds a new way to evaluate the technical accumen of potential hires. When looking to add new members to the team, no talent pool can compare with the members of that project's open-source community. Rather than conducting a series of interviews to determine the best candidate, you can easily see who the most engaged, most insightful, and most talented community members are based on their comments, their posts, their blogs, and their code contributions. This approach to recruiting results in a ruthlessly efficient "weedout" process allowing a company to easily identify the best possible candidates. Much like the ability of open-source software to prove it's value before a company invests in support, this model requires a job candidate to prove his/her value prior to consideration.

During my tenure at JBoss I specifically remember that the HR department was not allowed to interview or source candidates for positions on the core development team. You first had to be a contributor. And if your contributions showed that you were a rockstar, then we would send you an email and ask if you would like to make your hobby into your job. Few people declined because it gives them a chance to work on something they are personally interested in (which isn't necessarily true for most programmers).

Next week, Appcelerator will have our first official hire directly from our community. Kevin Whinnery (formerly of Lawson Software) will be joining our team as an evangelist. Kevin has been one of our most active members to date and is in the process of writing a book about Appcelerator. This is a perfect example of someone who clearly proved their worth in advance... and we are thrilled to have him coming aboard. Welcome to Appcelerator Kevin! Are you next?


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