The Stuff We didn't Know
When I was accepted to Berkeley (a long time ago), it was in the college of Engineering, for a relatively new discipline called bio-engineering. I had spent a summer working at a bio-engineering firm before college and thought I knew what I was getting into. Even though I changed my major a couple of times at Cal, I can assure you one thing for sure: no one knew then what bio-engineers would be doing today.
More Stuff We didn't Know
When I graduated a few years later the Internet was still something we connected to with dial up modems. We used networks like CompuServe and AOL to get a glimpse of the public web. I started working at a government research lab, trying to build applications for the web, and the hard core software engineers I talked to couldn't even comprehend how you'd build an application that didn't hold state. A stateless, disconnected environment made no sense. Nothing in their background prepared them for web applications. Nothing prepared me either.
The Stuff We All Know
The last 18 years have had one thing in common, when it comes to my work in the tech sector: every year there's something new to learn.
So how does this apply to hiring?
Because if you're in a position to hire someone, you're liking describing the perfect combination of skills and knowledge to help you out. Especially if you're starting something new. After all, we all want our new staff to hit the ground running.
So here's my claim: None of that matters.
You're about to interview an expert in your field who is willing to work with you (at the price you can afford) and I'm saying he or she is exactly the wrong person to hire. Don't hire an “insider”.
Before you raise up and quit reading, let me tell you about a web site and a company called Innocentive (www.innocentive.com). The company powers a web site where companies can post a challenge. These challenges come from all sorts of companies, including those with tons of PhDs on staff (like Kraft and GE). So when you hear that Kraft posted a challenge about a kind of chocolate that won't melt at outdoor temperature, you might think, like me, that there's no way anyone else will figure this out if they can't. But folks say that between 30-60% of the challenges get solved. Harvard studied it and found one interesting thing we can all take away from the experiences of companies like Kraft and GE. The final answers didn't come from insiders, from experts in the field of the challenge. They came from people just outside the space. So a micro biologist might solve a physics problem. Or a physicist might have an idea for the next floor mop. Outsiders, smart ones, who could offer something that was transferrable into the space of the insiders.
When we were building the first web apps at Berkeley Lab it wasn't the computer scientists that helped us figure the stateless stuff out. Graphic designers, game programmers and more got involved. And in the world of bio-engineering and nanotechnology, it was more than my Cal brethren studying mechanical engineering who figured out those circuits. Outsiders who were flexible in their thinking with the ability to apply their thoughts across industries were the ones that made everything work.
Don't Get Caught Looking the Wrong Way
So as you think about hiring, are you looking for an outsider? Someone who has demonstrated an ability to jump across domains, applying a past-learned lesson in a new way, in a new space? Skills and knowledge can be transferred. I'm still not sure the flexibility I'm talking about can be developed. So doesn't it make sense to start there? I'd love to hear your take.