Don't Look For Unicorns: They're Mythical Creatures (and mythical creatures don't exist)

May 06, 2021

Disclaimer: This is a SoC (Stream of Consciousness) Post. This means that any and all structure is incidental.

Unicorn Knight

Ok Ok (Ok!). I know, unicorns really do exist in terms of tech. However, I’d much rather have a dog sled team.

Ryan Holmes (HootSuite CEO) describes a unicorn employee as: a member of the staff who possesses a unique set of qualities that make extremely rare and valuable.

There are two operative words here that make this a risky proposition: unique and rare.

Something that is unique or rare is hard to replicate or repeat. This is counterintuitive to one of the basic properties of scale: isolation of homogenous tasks that can be scaled easily.

As much as I would like to copy the entire first chapter of Scaling Teams: Strategies for Building Successful Teams and Organizations (David Loftesness, Alexander Grosse), I’m fairly certain that the authors and O’Reilly Media would frown on such a thing.

One of the concepts that they drive is that of “best” employees. “By ‘best’, we mean the employees that can contribute the most to team success over the long term”.

When I look at unicorn job descriptions, there are characteristics that jump out. Typically, the individual skill sets aren’t what makes the role or position hard to hire for, but rather the combination of skill sets. The role has been poorly decomposed, the skills improperly prioritized, and we end up trying to hire for “skill soup”.

Workable has an excellent high-level FAQ of the hiring process. In my experiences as a hiring manager, this has provided a fantastic framework from which to draw inspiration for hiring strategies, and to fine tune my approach. Celarity provides a complement to this by discussing the approach to identifying and building a case for increasing headcount.

If employees grew on trees, then increasing headcount could easily be driven by a want to do so. However, we have to pay them (with money), so making hiring and scaling decisions are typically driven by a justifiable and dependable need to do so. If you haven’t done this before, hit the Celarity link above. Most people don’t have an inkling of what goes into this process. Heck, even if you do this every day, hit the link. It’s a quick read, and you might just learn something.

Nonetheless, if we have successfully navigated this process there is one thing for certain: we need to hire.

There is a tradeoff between “hiring the best possible talent” and “satisfying our need for additional headcount as soon as possible”. You have to be the best judge of your situation.

A good analogy to this is seeking medical attention. If I’ve torn a ligament, and I need surgery, I’m going to do a fair amount of research in advance of selecting a doctor and pulling the trigger. There is an investment, because the quality of the surgeon will impact my future quality of life. However, at the same time, I’m not playing in the NFL or NBA, so a torn ligament isn’t necessary for making a living. I don’t need to find the best surgeon on the planet. I just need to find the best surgeon in my area. Wow. That doctor is booked out for 8 months. The next best has an opening to meet with me next month. Good enough. In other words, we aren’t looking for “the absolute best”, we’re looking for the “best available in a timely fashion”. On the other hand, if I’m bleeding profusely and losing consciousness, I’m dialing 9-1-1. I need help now .

Need is a spectrum.

If it takes too long to fulfill a need, then there are negative impacts. Generally speaking, if you need increased head count, it is either because you have more work than you have people to complete it or you have work to perform that no one is capable of completing due to a skill gap.

In either case, until you fill the need, you have to live with a volatile balancing act of decreasing your value to your customers and over-working the existing team.

Rare/Unique skill sets are hard to find. This means that the aforementioned balancing act is going to be a long-term engagement. The longer it takes to resolve, the greater the impact becomes on your team and customers. Employees will become despondent and disaffected leading to turnover. This exacerbates the same problems we were trying to address in the first place, which can accelerate the decline of our employee culture and customer relationships.

This isn’t a novel concept, but the hiring process should fall under the shroud of continuous improvement. Technological value streams are focused on constantly refactoring the way we work so that we can stay ahead of the curve and avoid the penalties associated with general temporal entropy associated with technological evolution. In order to do this, we focus on creating order amidst chaos through repeatable, reusable processes.

Hire like you want to work. We all want to hire the best possible employee. Based on the definition of unicorn employee I cited above, they do exist, but they are rare. That’s fine. Let them be rare, and if we stumble into one, that’s awesome. However, staking our business on something that rare isn’t a very good business plan. Evaluate what you are trying to hire vs. your needs as well as what you have. If work is organized and distributed in a manner where there are appropriate redundancies, a gradient of leveling and seniority, we extend our talent pool through flexibility.

Distributing tasks across a team has a number of benefits. By sharing skills, we create a well rounded team, we eliminate single points of failure, we eliminate bottlenecks, and we create work with enough variance to prevent stagnation.

A level gradient or “Seniority Staircase” (my lame term) is the concept of hiring a perpetual pipeline of mentoring. The team is a mix of junior, mid-level, senior, principal, tech lead, etc. This provides growth and mentorship opportunities. By putting junior engineers with senior engineers we are investing in their skills on a daily basis. As much as I love seminars, conferences and scheduled training, there is no substitute for hands-on experience, especially when it is folded in to the day-to-day activities. Likewise, we are providing trust and leadership opportunities to the senior members, by trusting them with the growth and evolution of what becomes our skills and brain trust of tomorrow.

When we construct a team that has these concepts of communication and collaboration wired into its DNA we don’t need a unicorn. We’ve got a dogsled team. They are capable of working together in some of the most challenging situations, because they are the sum of their personalities, their skills and their experience beyond that what is possible by a single contributor.

Interviewing for rarity can also be challenging. Skill soup style job descriptions are often not prioritized, making the goals of the hiring effort too ambiguous to be effective. The more content that we stuff into job descriptions, the greater the chance that recruiter, hiring manager and interviewers will be misaligned.

(As an aside, a strongly recommend some degree of templating for job descriptions as well as internal notes on prioritization of skill sets and the interview process. Stuff happens, and last minute changes can be made to interviewers. We want to make sure that abrupt changes set up both the interviewer and candidate for success).

The only thing worse than not finding talent, is finding the wrong talent.

A bad cultural fit can erode team dynamic. While sometimes we can find someone who is a talented engineer, they might not fulfill the needs we have. We’ve essentially over spent in this case.

Need is (still) a spectrum.

Yes, I know. I said that already. However, we have to address the fact that sometimes we aren’t going to find our ideal situation. Market trends, budget issues, location, competition for skills, and a number of extenuating circumstances are going to wreak havoc on the talent pool. We might not get someone with our highest priority need. In those cases, we try to hire someone with a matching background, a demonstrable skill to learn new things quickly and the desire/passion to do so.

This is another reason it is absolutely critical to construct a repeatable/reusable hiring process and avoid unicorn hiring, because the same types of pressures that constrain a broad talent pool are likely to constrain a small one.

I’m not proposing that we shouldn’t hire a unicorn if we find one. If you find a game-changing, talented candidate who is a phenomenal team fit and fulfills the need that led to the hiring initiative, then pull the trigger. However, plugging gaps has to come first.

I’m proposing that we can’t build a hiring strategy around finding those game-changing unicorns.

Our job descriptions need to be focused, concise, well-thought-out and prioritized specifications of the skills and characteristics we need. Remember, at some point, we had to justify the budget to hire for this position. What were the line items that were actually measured in order to provide that justification? Are they outlined in the job description? If not, you’re doing it wrong. If there are nice to haves, list them as such on the job description. Do as much as you can to streamline or standardize the way you interview and evaluate candidates. Make sure that you can accommodate last minute changes without the need for prep meetings.

I could write an encyclopedia about bad practices in terms of job descriptions. I think too many companies are trying to out smart themselves and find clever ways of selling positions with an excessive degree of wordsmith efforts, keyword stuffing, and literary sleight of hand. Bait and switch practices are not exclusive to agencies, despite the reputation. There are organizations that actively hire for positions with responsibilities that do not match the job description. This is an extremely unethical way to put people in roles. The thinking is that the effort to leave or potential negative of aspect of “short stints” on the resume will prevent the person from leaving.

Sell the culture. Sell the company. Don’t sell jobs. The best outcome is going to come from transparency and honesty. I call this “sell by not selling”. Honesty and transparency go a long way in the recruiting process. As a matter of personal experience, the most invigorating engagements I’ve been a part of were with authentic recruiters, passionate hiring managers and interviewers who treated candidates as peers rather than victims.

Don’t look for unicorns. Build a dog sled team instead.


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Written by Ed Mangini
A Technology Blog about useful stuff.