Cheerleaders and Commentators

While the story comes from the world of recruiting software engineers, it is broadly applicable to any sort of recruiting.

In my time running and contributing to engineer recruiting, I’ve identified that pretty much all interviewers fall into one of two categories: Cheerleaders or Commentators. There is of course, a third group of people who are willing to outright lie to candidates to close them but lets just call them “Assholes” and give them the attention they deserve, none past this.

Cheerleaders are unfailingly upbeat on the company they represent. Much like the cheerleaders on the sidelines of a game, they outwardly love and support their team and show no signs of being aware of any problems the team has. In the context of interviewing, they aren’t actually dishonest with regards to their company but they are willing to dance on the knife’s edge of honesty in the hopes of infecting candidates with the same level of enthusiasm for the company they have.

Commentators are different. Think of the hosts from the local radio station covering their home team. They love that team. Many of them would be willing to step on the graves of many loved ones if it meant bringing home a W for the team. But, where commentators and cheerleaders differ is that commentators are acutely aware of, and never shy away from discussing, their team’s shortcomings. It doesn’t mean they don’t love the team. But, they know and discuss, at length, the problems their team has. In interviews, commentators give a very vibe to candidates than cheerleaders. For candidates who don’t look past the superficial, this vibe might even be off putting. Most candidates are not used to the level of honesty that commentators provide. However, the best candidates see right through the facade that cheerleaders promote. For them, the honesty and integrity exuded by commentators can be dispositive in accepting the offer.

Story Time

In one of my evaluations at Atrium, the CTO dinged me for “speaking negatively about the company to a candidate.” At first I was dumbstruck. I could not figure out what in the world this was referring to. Eventually I figured out that this was in reference to a question a candidate asked at a meet-the-engineers lunch.

Eventually, I figured out what this was in reference to. The question asked was something like: “what are some of the problems in working at Atrium”. My answer was something like: “Our CEO is very openly hands off so we don’t get strong product / process vision from the top. This is a challenge is that finding direction can be difficult but it can also be an opportunity since it empowers middle management and IC engineers to do a fair bit of ‘managing up’. Now this is a bit negative, but I felt it was true and at the time one of the largest problems we faced.

The candidate accepted our offer over far more generous offers from peer companies and also I believe Facebook or Google. I asked him a few months later why he chose us. He gave two reasons:

  1. Atrium was a place where, as an engineer, he could put his law degree to use.
  2. The answer I gave conveyed a level of honesty and respect that was completely absent in the anodyne answers he got from other companies when asking the same question.

Conclusion 1

This confirmed something I’ve believed for a long time. Radical Candor starts with the interview. The best candidates see through bullshit like a light saber cutting through soft butter. Don’t punish your reports for honesty. Understand that they are playing the long game with candidates. Closing candidates with false or even exaggerated statements is a small, very short term win with huge long term costs and quite frankly an offense to my personal values.

Conclusion 2 - The Mea Culpa

I am not without responsibility here. I had begun to get frustrated with some aspects of Atrium and my role. I was careful to ensure that that only came out in 1:1s with my manager and not in a way that could adversely hurt team morale. However, I painted an image of myself, to my manager, which was somewhat negative and made it easy for him to believe that I was being negative in front of a candidate. Even though I was ultimately vindicated in this situation, I do accept, under the “all feedback is correct” principle, that I share some responsibility in creating a situation that allowed it to happen.