Hiring Technical Talent

Football & Why Hiring The Right People Is Important

Written By Ammar Mian | July 14, 2014

In the 1974 NFL draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers selected wide receiver Lynn Swann as their first-round pick. Swann was immensely talented, destined for greatness in a league quickly gaining popularity. He also happened to have the most feared agent in all of sports representing him. Howard Slusher was a rare breed, cut from a Machiavellian cloth; he loved playing villain if it meant that his clients got better deals out of it. Slusher was the total package– a PhD, a law school graduate, former professor, a “philosopher turned jock representative.”
After a drawn-out negotiation process, Slusher had gotten Swann a much better contract than a lot of experts had predicted. At the press conference announcing the signing, Art Rooney (the owner of the Steelers) pulled Slusher aside and pleasantly asked him:
“You think you screwed us, don’t you?”
Slusher remained quiet, but the answer was yes, he privately did think he screwed them.
Despite the silence, Rooney continued, “My son says [Swann’s] not just a good football player, he’s a great football player. Probably the best draft we’ve ever had.”
Still, Slusher hadn’t said anything. Then the legendary owner of the Steelers said:
“Let me teach you a lesson, young man. You can never overpay a good player. You can only overpay a bad one. I don’t mind paying a good player $200,000. What I mind is paying a $20,000 ballplayer $22,000.”
Ten years later, no one remembered how Lynn Swann, the rookie wide out, got more money from the Steelers than management had hoped. Instead, everyone remembered how he was a three-time Pro Bowler, an integral member of one of the most successful teams ever. Over those ten years, the Steelers won the Super Bowl four times. To put that into perspective: only three other teams have won that many in history, let alone in a span of ten years.
In sports, doing whatever you can to get the best players on your team at the same time is what often differentiates the big winners from the almost-but-not-quite’s. Even a team with a lot of money to spend won’t bring home trophies if it spends it on paper lions and has-beens.
The same holds in the startup world, where the winds shift quick and the competition learns fast. Which is why bringing the best possible people on board is essential. And from the story of Swann and the Steelers, we can make two suggestions:
1. Figure out what “best” means for your team.
In just a few years, Uber has grown from a small startup to a multi-billion dollar freak of nature. Head of Operations Ryan Graves claims this would not at all have been possible without changes they made in their hiring process. Uber didn’t just copy what other tech giants were doing; instead they developed a system that “zeroed in on exactly the right people to fuel its growth because they have the skills to solve the challenges Uber faces.” Toss out the silly brain-teasers and come up with something that actually helps you and the candidate see if it’s a mutual fit. Like the Steelers, know what a “great player” looks like instead of relying on uninformative proxies.
2. Pursue top talent relentlessly
The ROI on talent/fit is nonlinear — mediocrity breeds increasing mediocrity, in both business and in sports. Art Rooney did not mind paying Swann top dollar because he knew regardless of how much more he paid him, the Steelers were very likely to reap big rewards from the investment– whereas settling for a cheaper player (of less promising caliber) might have led to a cascade of lowered returns for the team.
Matt Mickiewicz of startup Hired also agrees that teams should take recruitment very seriously. “20-25% of your time should be spent interviewing,” Mickiewicz told FastCo Labs. “It’s a really good metric as to whether you have a hiring culture. If you view hiring as a core competency you need to develop in the business, then you’ll do whatever it takes.”
We at HackerRank are passionate about connecting the top tech talent with the top teams. As Andy Dunn of Bonobos once wrote, “A lot of brands don’t make it because in the process of trying to get many things right, they don’t get anything right.” Recruiting the right people should be a non-negotiable; it should be one of the first things companies get right.
Our mission is to make it easier for the best developers in the game to stand out from those simply waving their CS degrees with nothing to show for it. On the flip side, we want to make it quite simple for innovative tech companies to find the next superstars to join their teams.

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