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Why You Should Invest in Unconventional Talent

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Debbie Ferguson and Fredrick (“Flee”) Lee for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

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What do an administrative assistant, exercise physiologist, and music composition major have in common? They are all among our top hires for software developer roles.

Many stellar engineers have no formal certifications or degrees; some didn’t go to college. We believe that there’s no single “best” route to a role. Often, less-traveled roads can provide invaluable experience and unexpected perspectives.

We’ve walked these unconventional paths ourselves as a self-taught hacker and a first-generation college graduate. We’ve worked at companies where we were the “only” on a team — the only Black engineer, the only trans engineer, or the only woman — and we’ve been told, implicitly and explicitly, that we don’t fit the mold. We’ve been in the room when hiring committees passed up qualified candidates in favor of those with more traditional pedigrees.

Those experiences fueled our passion to hire differently and to encourage other leaders to do the same.

The importance of building diverse organizations has been well-established. Diversity is linked to greater innovation and performance; McKinsey recently found that more diverse companies had higher profits than their more homogeneous counterparts.

In contrast, a lack of diversity can lead to convergent thinking. People who share training and experiences tend to reach a consensus faster because they view problems the same way. However, the long-term impact is less harmonious, resulting in narrower thinking and products that don’t meet their potential.

Building teams with different skill sets and life experiences requires intention. By designing inclusive hiring practices — and letting go of the notion that there’s one ideal candidate type for a role — we can create more opportunities for a range of candidates who are more than capable. Here’s how.

Focus on potential rather than pedigree.

We asked developers at Gusto to talk about their backgrounds and noticed a common theme: many discovered a passion for building software through a mix of self-study, experimentation, and formal classes. Others found their love of engineering through seemingly unrelated jobs, including being a paralegal and a video editor.

Building Tomorrow’s Workforce

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We both began our careers with different toolsets than we use today. Many, if not most, skills can be taught on the job; what matters is the desire and core capabilities to succeed. Jobs are changing so rapidly that adaptable learners are in high demand. Many top companies, including Google, Apple, and Bank of America, now focus less on “official” qualifications — many are no longer requiring traditional degrees — and we’re excited to see this trend continue.

The truth is that the skills that seem ideal for a role today may no longer even be a fit in a year. When you’re screening and interviewing candidates, look for ways to explore the capabilities that will enable the individual to thrive as everything around them changes. Consider asking questions like the following:

  • Describe a problem and how you contributed to a solution. A candidate may exhibit problem-solving abilities in unexpected ways. They may have maximized yield in their garden or reorganized a charity event to be more impactful.
  • What were you doing the last time you looked at a clock and realized you had lost all track of time? An open-ended question like this can help you uncover intellectual curiosity and understand what motivates someone.
  • Describe a project you’re proud of that involved working closely with other people. Give candidates the opportunity to demonstrate self-awareness and teamwork; for example, by discussing how they raised up their team and vice versa.

Look for the sparkles in your talent pool.

Unconventional hiring is an exercise in holding up diamonds to the light. You’re training your eye to spot what glitters, which might be someone’s volunteer or advocacy work, music, writing, or an insightful Twitter thread.

One of our most prolific interviewers bases her questions on a candidate’s LinkedIn profile — but not the section you might think. She jumps to interests and the people they follow, rather than starting with education, endorsements, or even experience. Those sparks can be more telling than a job title.

Events and contests can also help you expand your talent pool to people who may not yet see themselves as experienced professionals. We find coding competitions to be rich sources of passionate and unconventional talent. One of our best hires for security engineering was a financial analyst who excelled in a cybersecurity contest. In these contests, sparkling doesn’t necessarily mean winning. Runners-up often make strong candidates because they’re less focused on rushing to complete a challenge and more interested in methodically solving a problem.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Debbie Ferguson is head of foundation engineering at Gusto, the people platform for 100,000 small businesses nationwide. She was previously a senior engineering executive at Google, an early leader at Facebook, and founder and CEO of Ignite Logic.
Fredrick (“Flee”) Lee is chief information security officer at Gusto, the people platform for 100,000 small businesses nationwide. He previously led security at Square after holding senior security roles at Bank of America, Twilio, and NetSuite.

 

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