Geography As The Interview

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Here is an interesting thought: can international borders be a great candidate interviewing tool?

Every company says they want to hire only "A" players. Some even mean it (check their culture and willingness to pay for it). But even those truly committed to hiring the best people have a hard time finding and determining if their candidates are the best. Sure, every executive has his/her own network they can leverage to bring in a few great people. But the world of potential candidates is not limited to those you already know. Many of those are not necessarily willing to leave their current job, and often you need new and fresh blood. Once you find them, though, actually determining if they are a good fit can be very difficult. Mistakes, of course, are only discovered later, and the price is paid in real pain.

Joel Gascoigne, CEO of Buffer, wrote an article called "the Joys and Benefits of Working as a Distributed Team." Buffer is consciously, intentionally, a distributed company. Joel lists 6 reasons why being distributed is great, including Productivity, Customer Support, learning about the world, etc.

I have another reason: working distributed is hard. It requires a lot of coordination among people, but especially strong dedication towards shared goals and building a team. People who are 9-5, who prefer to be lone wolves, who want everyone to accommodate them, will quickly fail in a distributed team. By pure chance, these are exactly the characteristics that make for a great employee, especially at a small company, even more so for one working under the pressures of a startup.

If you interview for the "best" engineer, you will spend time on testing their engineering and architectural chops (fairly easy to do), checking how they get along with the rest of the team (a little harder, since one day of getting along is not the same as a week of late nights), and exploring their dedication to team and company goals (hardest of all, words are cheap). On the other hand, if you explicitly test for their compatibility for working distributed, you have an excellent way to actually focus and test all of those harder to examine issues: cultural fit, and especially dedication to team and company.

Ask a candidate how they would suggest people in the office work better together, and you may get no answer at all, or some platitudes (likely from the latest McKinsey report or HBR). Ask a candidate about to work from Ireland how she will coordinate with a peer in San Francisco and another in Taiwan so that their tough to meet deliverables will be met and exceeded, and you will get some practical solutions, hard effort at figuring it out... or you have the wrong candidate.

I like distributed teams because of the diversity they bring, the flexibility in work-life balance for especially hard working staff, the openness to hiring the best wherever they are, and, as Joel said, it feels like the future. But hiring for distributed can help you find the best candidates even if they were all in the same office.