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  • davegreten

The Albatross

A long time ago, I made a bad career move. A really bad career move, one that would follow me for an unexpectedly long time. I hope you will read this as a cautionary tale. I think a lot can be learned from it.

I was working for a small tech startup that would later be acquired by a well known company on the west coast. It was an intimidatingly smart outfit, when I joined there were eight employees and half of them had PhDs in Computer Science from Harvard. Anyway, we were growing rapidly and I was put in charge of finding, interviewing, and hiring another person to help us in tech support.

I'd done this before and the person I hired was a rock star. She was smart, talented and well liked by everyone. So people within the company trusted my judgment. Oh, how I let them down.

After much searching, it came down to two candidates. Candidate A was a young guy, a recent graduate of BU. He seemed ambitious and capable without being a merciless stair-climber. He was earnest and eager to hit the ground running. I could tell right away he would go far.

And then there was the other guy.

Candidate B was kind of weird looking, the word "dorky" springs to mind. Everyone who saw him remarked he looked like Newman from Seinfeld. He was a little older than me and he'd held a good amount of jobs in a short amount of time. But he was impossibly friendly and good-natured. He gave a great interview.

So I was faced with the choice between the two. And I'm ashamed to admit, I made the bad choice. I chose candidate B. I chose candidate B because I was threatened by candidate A. I thought there was a possibility that candidate A would later outshine me. I rationalized this to myself by thinking, "I just want to hire a monkey who will answer the phone."

But it didn't take long for me to regret the decision. Within a week, I wanted to fire candidate B. He had an almost preternatural ability to fuck up whatever he was working on. One of the engineers had put in a feature to delete client accounts. The feature had a warning screen, "Are you sure you want to do this?" and he wanted to add the line, "If this is [Candidate B], click 'No.'"

Candidate B was also, errr, strange. The kind of guy who plays Dungeons and Dragons and decorates his cube with Star Wars figurines. Now, I have nothing against these people, I saw my fair share of them working in Silicon Valley. But they usually have some marketable skills to make up for their social failings. Candidate B had none. No skills. The guy could barely pick up the phone without cheerfully screwing it up. I later learned he gave a great interview because he'd taken a class in it. And his resume had been puffed up with skills he obviously did not have.

But I was not able to fire him. Our COO wanted to sell the company and turnover looked bad for potential acquirers. So I was forced to shuffle Candidate B into some role where the damage he inevitably caused was minimized. The role was so pointless I'm not sure he did much of anything outside of sit at a desk and play World of Warcraft. As long as he stayed out of my hair and people forgot I hired him, that was fine with me.

Little did I know this thing, this horribly inept, impossibly friendly person would follow me, haunt me for the next three years. He would follow me after the acquisition, traveling 3,000 miles to the west coast to work in a cube a few doors down from me. Always skirting being fired and shuffled from manager to manager, Candidate B made a career of finding the role of least significance and hanging on for dear life. I was not fully rid of his presence until I left my employer in 2001. He was still there when I left.

I don't know for the life of me how he held on for as long as he did but, somehow, he did. He outlasted me. And always people would say, "Why did Dave hire that guy?" As a result, I was not entrusted with interviewing and hiring people for a long, long time.

Which is too bad because I learned something from hiring Candidate B. It's a simple rule, may you remember it forever - don't be afraid to hire someone who is smarter than yourself. I learned that lesson a thousand times over. You are much better served being the dumbest guy in the room than to be surrounded by fools. Seek out the smart people and learn from them.

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