Quick Roundup 390

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Life in the Swamp

I ended 2008 swamped and start 2009 swamped. This time, I'm finally putting together the paper that will cap off my scientific work in Houston. This will allow me to finally move to Boston to be with my wife, and I may take a day or two off from blogging here or there if I find that I need to to make that happen faster.

In the meantime, I have a decent backlog of interesting material that will permit me to create my roundup posts faster, including a few blogs and other web sites you may find of interest.

I'll start with one of those today....

Scott Holleran has a blog.

Scott Holleran, whose movie reviews I have mentioned here from time to time, and whom I met at Telluride last year, has a blog, which he calls, "as an informal forum for my thoughts ... on a variety of topics". One passage that caught my eye was his take on Obama's pick of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State:

During the campaign, Obama practically (and rightly) denounced Sen. Hillary Clinton as a liar when she falsely -- and repeatedly -- claimed she was under fire in Kosovo. He pointed out that she routinely substituted being First Lady for foreign policy experience -- and now he has designated the woman who all but declared him unfit for the presidency as his secretary of state. You want change? His appointments are Clinton/Bush retreads, unmasking his change theme as a fraud less than a month after he was elected.
Other Objectivists have accused Obama of being a pragmatist on the basis of his proposed appointments, but -- although this wasn't his point here -- I don't recall any showing that the appointments were pragmatic quite so well. Scroll down to or search "2 December" to read the whole passage.

Although browsing around his blog promises to be worthwhile -- I plan to go back later some time to read what he said about the various presidential candidates of both parties -- I do wish there were a way to link directly to individual posts. But that is a problem for the blogger, not the casual reader....

Stop by there from time to time for more from the side bar. I alphabetize by blog title, so look under "S". Also, for fellow fans of his movie reviews, he has been posting them at his site since about the middle of 2008.

Skills vs. Talent

An aspect of the job hunt I must attend to even as I finish up my work here has been the well-known Catch-22 of experience: Many times, I have seen jobs advertised online that I know I am perfectly capable of doing, but for which I am nominally unqualified. This is patently absurd. Sure, nearly all ads list "experience" as a requirement for being hired, but people do have to get experience somewhere. Highly specific experience is clearly not always a requirement for getting hired.

The solution to that problem is to get to know people in the companies and industry one wants to target. They, in turn, can point you to places that might need (and be willing to train) you, and perhaps introduce you to people who are better willing and able to evaluate your abilities than whoever it is in HR buried under that pile of resumes Monster coughs up. Not that a few pieces of paper can really do justice to such important intangibles as your personality, intelligence, or motivation.

I owe the above insight -- which runs against the grain of lots of advice out there -- to professional head-hunter Nick Corcodilos, whose archived "hot tips" reads like an Art of War for job hunters -- and businesses looking to hire good people, for that matter. On this subject, he says:
If you need skills, hire talent.


Anyone can hire people with specific skills and deploy those skills to get a job done. The best managers hire talent rather than skills, because when you have talent, you can develop all the skills you want. The best managers know that talented employees can handle new projects because these employees can acquire almost any skills they need to do jobs they've never encountered before.

In many cases, it's cheaper and less time-consuming to let a talented employee learn to do a new task than to find, interview and hire someone who already has the necessary skill. It can also be more efficient to hire someone who lacks specific skills but is talented enough to ride a fast learning curve. [one minor edit, bold added]
This sounds like common sense. So why is so much of job hunting focused on ads and resumes that simply list specific skills?

There are many reasons for this, some cultural (pragmatism comes to mind), and some inherent in the nature of the problem of trying to find the right man for the job from a huge pool of strangers. The best solution for job-hunter and employer alike is to sidestep this mess and work through personal referrals as much as possible.

After Credentials

This reminds me of a related topic Paul Graham recently discussed: The declining importance of academic credentials relative to performance in American business culture:
Think about where credentialism first appeared: in selecting candidates for large organizations. Individual performance is hard to measure in large organizations, and the harder performance is to measure, the more important it is to predict it. If an organization could immediately and cheaply measure the performance of recruits, they wouldn't need to examine their credentials. They could take everyone and keep just the good ones.

Large organizations can't do this. But a bunch of small organizations in a market can come close. A market takes every organization and keeps just the good ones. As organizations get smaller, this approaches taking every person and keeping just the good ones. So all other things being equal, a society consisting of more, smaller organizations will care less about credentials. [bold added]
I suspect that Graham is correct about the freer parts of the economy, but wrong about those under a greater burden of government control.

-- CAV


: Corrected a typo.


Brian Phillips said...

A concrete example regarding job skills can be found in today's Chronicle Sports section--Rice football player James Casey. Casey was a professional baseball player in the minor leagues. He decided to pursue football, and wound up at Rice. He has played at a variety of positions (7 in one game alone). He's a great student too, with a triple major.

It appears that he didn't have the "qualifications" for any particular position. This didn't deter Rice-- they "hired" him and then decided how he would be most valuable to the team. Employers should do the same.

Gus Van Horn said...

Some do, and they are the ones I hope to find by networking.

Thanks for that inspirational example, by the way. (Link again, due to an extra character that slipped in above.) I either didn't know or forgot that he's entering the NFL draft!

Anonymous said...

I'm glad Scott has a blog, but where's his RSS feed?


Burgess Laughlin said...

I wonder if Human Resources departments are under legal pressure to advertise jobs by stating "objective" (concrete-bound) criteria.

"Do you or do you not know how to do X?" That is a yes/no question not bringing up doubts of racism, for example.

But "Do you have talent?" may be too abstract--and open to prejudice--to qualify.

I don't know. I am wondering, based on lower-level management experience decades ago.

Gus Van Horn said...


I doubt he has one, based on the absence of individually-linked (or even anchored) posts. I haven't exactly scoured the web for it, though.


I have heard off and on that firms are under some kind of legal requirement to advertise positions, and even that when they do, they already have someone in mind of the job.

Like you, I do not know whether that is the case. Corcodilos seems to chalk it up to lousy management and laziness. I suspect all three, along with the rule-of-thumb that it never hurts to try.

People can and do get hired by Monster et al., although in terms of individuals finding jobs, I think 40% of people do so by word of mouth and south of 3% do by online ads.

I'll occasionally apply, if I can't find a contact and the job looks good, but I'm not pinning any hopes on finding a job that way.


Jim May said...

Credentialism is a substitute for judgment on the part of HR managers; hiring someone who has all the appropriate papers is how HR people punt the effort of judgment over to whoever issued the diplomas. "It won't be my fault if he turns out to be a dud, look at what X University thought of him!" These tend to use "psych 101" style questions designed to find flaws, by tripping the candidate up on something irrelevant, or asking questions where the answer is ignored in favor of noting "how" the candidate deals with it (body language etc.) "Tell me about yourself" is one of those questions.

If it's bad enough, I will end the interview and leave. A company that treats candidates as psychological subjects ("lab rats") will likely extend that approach to their overall management style. Not good.

Hiring talent, on the other hand, is *work*; it takes good judgment of people and knowledge of what the position actually requires -- and puts the hiring manager's ass on the line if the candidate doesn't pan out.

Fortunately, in my line of work, interviews are usually conducted by the team leader under whom you would be working, and their questions consists mainly of the "Can you do the job?" kind that I would rationally expect. I do well in those interviews, especially now that I have a solid body of experience in my field.

The most interesting, if potentially exhausting, approach I've ever seen was when I applied for a job at Blue Sky studios in New York ("Ice Age"); I was interviewed nearly all day, by everyone on the Effects team, in groups of three (out of about fifteen). Each person had their own approach, in some cases just a single question, and I could tell that they had preplanned it to some extent ("You ask him about fluid effects, and I'll quiz his scripting skills.") I'm proud of the fact that I was able to do very well in that format, enough to make it onto the short list despite lacking experience in one key area. (Had I made it, my name would be in the credits for "Horton Hears a Who").

Gus Van Horn said...

"If it's bad enough, I will end the interview and leave. A company that treats candidates as psychological subjects ("lab rats") will likely extend that approach to their overall management style. Not good."

A good point among several. You sound almost like you've been reading Corcodilos yourself, both in terms of what bad hiring practices mean and in terms of what to do about them.

Martin Lindeskog said...


I have mentioned about the feature of an unique permalink to Scott. ("I do wish there were a way to link directly to individual posts. But that is a problem for the blogger, not the casual reader....")

I will interview Scott on my podcast show in a near future. You are welcome to send me questions regarding movies and other things.

Gus Van Horn said...

If I'm not too swamped, whenever that is, I might have a question or two.

Mo said...

this is a very useful post indeed. I'm currently in the process of finding a job. The only issue is how do you get to know contacts who work for that X or Y company.

Gus Van Horn said...

There are many ways, and Corcodilos discusses them. One example that springs to mind is the following. Say you're interested in company X, but your network can't help you. You recall a particularly good article about Company X. Call the reporter who wrote it, and see whether he can help you connect with the people he spoke to.