[SEQ RERUN] You Are Not Hiring the Top 1%

by Tyrrell_McAllister1 min read2nd May 20111 comment

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Today's post, You Are Not Hiring the Top 1%, was originally published on 02 March 2007. A summary (taken from the LW wiki):

Software companies may see themselves as being very selective about who they hire. Out of 200 applicants, they may hire just one or two. However, that doesn't necessarily mean that they're hiring the top 1%. The programmers who weren't hired are likely to apply for jobs somewhere else. Overall, the worst programmers will apply for many more jobs over the course of their careers than the best. So programmers who are applying for a particular job are not representative of programmers as a whole. This phenomenon probably shows up in other places as well.

Discuss the post here (rather than in the comments to the original post).

This post is part of the Rerunning the Sequences series, where we'll be going through Eliezer Yudkowsky's old posts in order so that people who are interested can (re-)read and discuss them. The previous post was Just Lose Hope Already, and you can use the sequence_reruns tag or rss feed to follow the rest of the series.

Sequence reruns are a community-driven effort. You can participate by re-reading the sequence post, discussing it here, posting the next day's sequence reruns post, or summarizing forthcoming articles on the wiki. Go here for more details, or to have meta discussions about the Rerunning the Sequences series.

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Define "top 1%". Many programmers may be "top 1%" at some programming domain in some sense but they will not be "top 1%" for every programming domain. It is conceivable that there are enough specializations in software such that half of all programmers are "top 1%" at something, even if that something is neither very interesting nor very important in any kind of grand sense. It is not just by domain either, many employers value a particular characteristic within that niche e.g. speed versus thoroughness versus optimization. Most employers are filling a small niche.

The rare kind of programmer is one who is top 1% across a broad swath of domains. These programmers are rare, highly valued, and very difficult to find; for these it is probably more like 0.1% and they are more likely to select you than you them. The closer you get to a truly general "top 1%" the rarer the specimens become.

So the question becomes, are employers hiring the top 1% of programmers as an average of their skill and performance across hundreds of metrics or are they hiring the top 1% for the narrow set of skills and characteristics they value? In my experience, it is usually the latter.

Anecdotally, I hire on a slightly different critierion than either of the above. I hire people who can become a top 1% in any particular domain required very quickly; I've met candidates with little domain expertise and an extraordinary aptitude at acquiring it. My reasoning is simple: given enough time and exposure, they will become that rare generalist top 1%.