Hiring, Algorithms, and Criteria

A lot of businesses are pretty desperate to fill open positions.  Pay rates are being increased, and hiring bonuses are being offered.  Yet at the same time, the software that frequently intermediates between candidate and company is often structured and configured in a way that does nobody any favors. (except, perhaps, the vendors of such software)

Over-specification of job requirements is a  frequent problem…some hospitals, for example,  have scanned the resumes of nurses for ‘computer programming’ skills when what they really wanted was someone with data entry experience.  Years ago, the WSJ ran an article on overspecification, featuring the quote “Companies are looking for a five-pound butterfly. Not finding them doesn’t mean there is a shortage of butterflies.”  As an example, it mentioned a company that makes automobile bumper parts and was looking for a factory shift supervisor. They eliminated all candidates who didn’t have a BS degree, even though many had relevant experience, and also insisted on experience with the specific manufacturing software that was in use at the plant. It took six months to fill this job (during which time the position was being filled by someone who wouldn’t ultimately be chosen for it.) Another company, Wabtec, which makes components for railcars and buses, insisted on knowledge of a specific version of the computer-aided design system it uses, even though the differences between that version and the earlier version were not all that great.

It’s a basic reality of life that you can’t optimize everything at once. So, if you insist on a perfect fit for certain things, you are probably getting less of some other attributes–and these may be ones that matter more. I’d personally rather have a salesman who has demonstrated (for example) skill at managing the customer politics in a large and complex sale than one who has specific experience with the Snarkolator CRM system. It’s a lot easier to train for the second than for the first.

Similarly, if a newly-hired mechanical engineer doesn’t work out, the cause will probably not be his lack of experience with the latest version of a CAD system. More likely, it will be a lack of good design intuition…or poor interpersonal skills…or an inability to integrate mechanical design with electrical and electronics aspects of the same product…or fit with the cultural style of the organization. Maybe he comes from an environment where he was closely supervised, and the new environment is more open and requires more self-starting…or vice versa. These things are not easily represented in “checklist” form, as is knowledge of a specific software package and version, but they matter a lot.

But…in addition to the overspecification problem…I think it’s a fallacy to believe that an algorithm, at the current state of the art, can reliably look at someone’s resume to decide whether or not  they have a good shot at meeting the needs of the job. (Some programs are even looking at the applicant’s photograph, which opens the door to all kinds of problems.)  It’s hard enough for a sharp HR person (some of them do exist) to understand the needs of the hiring manager well enough to screen resumes appropriately, let alone expecting an algorithm to do so.

Someone I know recently applied for a job for which she seems to be an excellent fit.  The hiring software used by the organization sucked in her resume, formatted it to meet that software’s standards, and displayed the result.  It didn’t really communicate what she wanted communicated…she had published several articles that were very relevant to the potential employer, but whoever wrote the software had apparently never thought about ‘published articles’ as a potential hiring factor, and she had to wrestle with the software for some time to get them included.

Once a resume passes initial screening, there are also some malign trends related to the interview process itself.  In an seemingly-increasing number of cases, companies are requiring candidates to be interviewed by an unreasonable number of people…as many as 8 or 10, apparently.  Still worse, there are companies which will reject a candidate if any of the interviewers disapproves of them.  This is a guaranteed way to enshrine mediocrity and groupthink.

Employers do indeed have a real problem in dealing with the absolute flood of resumes that they get for just about any position–but need to be careful not to throw the babies out with the bathwater.  Hiring decisions are absolutely critical in any organization–‘personnel is policy’–and have huge impacts on productivity, innovation, and growth.

Labor Day Thoughts

My discussion question for today: In a world with global and highly-efficient transportation and communications…and billions of people who are accustomed to low wages…is it possible for a country such as the United States to maintain its accustomed high standards of living for the large majority of its people?…and, if so, what are the key policy elements required to do this?

Henry Ford did not establish the five-dollar day out of the sheer goodness of his heart.  He did it because worker turnover had become unacceptably high: people didn’t like assembly-line work, and they had alternatives.  Suppose Ford had then had the option of building the Model T in a low-wage country, say Mexico.  Maybe he wouldn’t have needed to bother with the American $5/day wage and the productivity improvements needed to support it. (Although Ford being Ford, he still might have implemented the manufacturing innovations and process improvements even without strong economic necessity to do so.)

America’s premium wage structure has, I think, been historically enabled by several factors:

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Thoughts from a Cosmonaut

Valentina Leonidovna Ponomaryova is a former Soviet cosmonaut: with a background in applied mathematics, she was selected in 1962 as a member of the first group of women cosmonauts.  Never got to fly a mission, though–she’d been scheduled to fly on Vostok 6, following Valentina Tereshkova’s scheduled flight on Vostok 5, but “Ponomaryova did not respond with standard Soviet cliches in interviews and her feminism made the Soviet leadership uneasy” and the crew assignments were altered. She later worked in orbital mechanics.

Interesting interview with her here.  Particularly interesting, IMO, are her thoughts about the respective roles of humans vs automated systems in spaceflight.

In the United States, spacecraft technology developed on the basis of aviation, and the respect for and trust in the pilot, characteristics of aviation, naturally transferred to spacecraft technology. In the Soviet Union, spacecraft technology was based on artillery and rocketry. Rocket scientists never dealt with “a human on board”; for them, the concept of automatic control was much easier to comprehend.


There is no doubt that, despite a large number of extraordinary and emergency situations, the Gemini and the Apollo programs were completed successfully because in the United States from the very beginning manned spacecraft were designed with orientation toward semi-automatic control systems in which the leading and decisive role was given to astronauts. The Gemini guidance system was already semi-automatic, and the Apollo guidance system was designed in such a way that one astronaut could perform all the operations necessary for the return from any point of the lunar orbit independently from information received from the Earth.

The opposites eventually met: semi-automatic systems constituted the “golden mean” that Soviet and American cosmonautics approached from two opposite directions: the Soviets coming from the automatic systems, and the Americans, one might say, from the manual ones.

Applicable to systems of many kinds in addition to spacecraft, I think, and many American organizations seem to be departing from the ‘golden mean’ in the direction of too much dependence on automated systems which are insufficiently understood and supervised.

Social Media and Section 230

A couple of useful links for those following these issues:

From Eugene Volokh, a detailed legal analysis of the proper interpretation of Section 230.  Haven’t read it yet, but I plan to soon.

Vivek Ramaswamy, in the WSJ, offers a favorable view of Trump’s lawsuit against search and social media companies.  Excerpts and commentary at Stuart Schneiderman’s blog.

There are few if any issues more important than the problem of oligopolistic control over information flow.