Some people are destined for mediocrity.
Take this guy for example: A college kid, who, despite a semi-decent college showing as an American football quarterback, was drafted 199th by a professional team. You don’t have to be a football or sports fan to realize how terrible that is.
And he wasn’t drafted for anything near a starting position. He was drafted as a fourth-string quarterback. You’ll hardly find any active fourth-string quarterbacks. In the rare occasion the third-string gets hurt during a game, you’ll sometimes see a random player, like a wide receiver who played quarterback in high school, come in. That tells you how valuable a fourth-string quarterback is: about the same as a high school kid who doesn’t even play the position anymore. Fourth-string quarterbacks are often just practice squad dummies – fresh meat for the real players to pound on, maybe they get a few throws in during the last seconds of a pre-season game.
And sure enough, our bottom-rung quarterback, during his rookie season, got to pass 3 times. 1 completion. For a total of 6 yards.
But then things turned around. He moved up to second-string the following season, and the starting quarterback was injured, which gave him a chance to start.
That season, this mediocre quarterback, Tom Brady, won the Super Bowl for the New England Patriots. And not just a win, but he was their MVP. He went on to win the Super Bowl again 2 years later. In his career, he’s made the playoffs a dozen times, been to the Super Bowl five, and won three of them. He might even be on the way again this year.
Tom Brady is one of the best quarterbacks of all time. And everyone almost missed him.
A combine is an intimidating looking machine for harvesting grain. The name is derived from what it does: combines the steps for harvesting – reaping, threshing, and winnowing. Those things are also often metaphors for how we do hiring. Reap the best candidates. Harvest the top prospects. Winnow the resumes.
Professional league sports teams have no shortage of young athletes who want to play for them, so they’ve created their own combines.
For example, the NFL invites about 300 college kids in February for a weeklong trial. They are put through the things you probably assume they are put through: running, jumping, lifting heavy things. They even go through interviews, intelligence tests, and have half-naked photos taken of them for later scrutiny.
That’s why Tom Brady was picked 199th as a fourth stringer. He was terrible at the combine. The 40 yard dash is one of the combine’s tests. Tom Brady ran it in 5.28 seconds – the worst score in the history of the combine. And those photos they take? Here’s Tom in 2000:
Doesn’t scream world class athlete. But fortune would lead to Tom getting a starting job where he could show off his true performance.
Here’s the funny thing, though, Tom Brady isn’t the exception at the combine, he’s the rule. In 2008, Dr. Frank Kuzmits and Dr. Arthur J. Adams from the College of Business at the University of Louisville began publishing their research of the NFL combine. Those physical tests don’t actually predict how athletes perform. Bottom scoring combine players find themselves at the top of the professional world all the time. And top scoring combine players, contain a ton of washouts – top draft picks who you’ve never even heard of because they lasted just a single season.
And it’s not just the physical tests that don’t work. The intelligence tests fail too. Kuzmits and Adams also studied the Wonderlic, which is a rudimentary test of intelligence given to all NFL quarterbacks. NFL quarterbacks have a lot to process. They need to be sharp.
Except, again, no correlation was found for the scores on those tests and the performance of quarterbacks in the NFL. Dan Marino has one of the lowest Wonderlic scores of all time, but Dan Marino is also one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time.
Hockey and basketball scouts have the same problem.
These combines don’t work.
But this isn’t just a problem for professional sports. There’s plenty of other studies showing how tests we’ve created to find top candidates in fields like academic recruiting and finding good teachers fail at predicting anything.
The only way we can judge someone is by observing their actual performance.
Highrise is the small business CRM tool that recently spun out from Basecamp. One catch: As the new CEO of Highrise, I needed to find a brand new team. No one from Basecamp was coming over in the move.
I reached out to some folks I knew, dropped hints we were looking for people in blog posts and Tweets, and the process began. But instead of relying on tests, and multiple rounds of grueling interviews over weeks and months, I just followed my gut and kept what I was looking for simple (inspired by Joel Spolsky):
- Do they do the thing that I’m looking for. Ruby developer? Designer handy with HTML/CSS? Experience doing customer support?
- Are they nice?
- Are they smart?
- Do they get things done?
And after about the first 10 minutes of a phone call, I had a pretty good idea if you fit. But I didn’t belabor the decision. I know I don’t have a test that could accurately predict whether you were any of these things. So I didn’t spend time trying. We immediately went into short term contracts to observe real performance. And away we went.
We saw if we worked well together and if we got a bunch of stuff done. And we did. A lot, very quickly. And with that real world evidence, I had the data I needed to bring together the official new team behind Highrise!
Please, let me introduce you to:
You’ll hear from Chris if you need help with Highrise. He’s head of our customer support. Chris got my attention when out of nowhere he started doing customer support for a software project of mine when I hadn’t even hired him to do so. Then he sent me a job application, when I wasn’t even looking yet, using my very own software to create the application. Chris knows how to communicate and how to help. He’s been an incredible asset to Highrise.
Michael is the new CTO of Highrise. I met Michael in 2011 when we were in Y Combinator together. He was the engineer behind creating an awesome photo application called Snapjoy. Great guy and wickedly smart. We hit it off immediately. Snapjoy was quickly acquired by Dropbox, and you’ll see his handiwork all over what Dropbox has done with Carousel and photo storage.
Wren is our lead designer. After a small test project for one week, I knew I wanted to work with her full time. She’s quickly improved and refreshed many areas of Highrise, including a beautiful redesign of the homepage. You should catch one of the talks she’s giving at a design conference soon.
Zack is the first software engineer and resource I brought in to help me at Highrise. We had a ton to learn and juggle instantaneously, but if you’ve noticed the extremely fast pace of improvement we were able to make as soon as we started, it was because I had Zack.
I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have found such a talented group of people. But it was also because I didn’t rely on a combine of tests and artificial situations to judge these folks. We got nice, insightful people together to work on actual problems. Our performance in the real world did the rest.
Stay tuned, we’ll be using SvN to share a lot more of the interesting things we discover while we build Highrise. Please feel free to say Hi to all of us on Twitter too; we’d love to meet you. And if you want to follow the fast pace of things we’re getting done at Highrise, you should check out our product updates: here.