Thursday, April 16, 2009

Parkinson's Law for Hiring

Cover of "Parkinson's Law"Cover of Parkinson's Law

I read a fair number of business books, particularly as a percentage of pages. One thing you'll notice when you do read a lot of them is that they don't age well. Which is not to say that they're worthless more that business just changes too fast for anything to be true for very long. The notable exception to this rule is "Parkinson's Law" by C. Northcote Parkinson. My dad recommended it to me many years ago. He had noticed the "not aging gracefully" problem as well and so he decided to start with the business book with the oldest copyright, which was "Parkinson's Law".

"Parkinson's Law" is actually grouped with humor books, but like a lot of jokes there's more truth in the jest than in a thousand serious statements. Parkinson makes a lot of points, the best know of which is that "Work expands to fill the time available for it's completion." But there are many others, and it's fascinating to see how true they still are. One of my favorites is that when an organization builds a nice new headquarters the end is nigh. We have a great example of that right here in Salt Lake. American Stores built the tallest skyscraper in downtown (the church office building aside) and six weeks after the opening ceremony they were bought by Albertson's...

Anyway I digress. We were looking to hire an new software developer recently and in the past the methodology which had been used involved giving them a little test project first, getting to know them over the subsequent six months as we gave them increasingly larger project before eventually offering them a full time position. It worked well enough except for the fact that it took SIX MONTHS FROM START TO FINISH!!

Well we didn't have six months, so when it was apparent that we needed to hire someone I suggested using the hiring methodology from Parkinson's Law. What he basically says is that the advertisement should balance the risks and the rewards of the job to such a precise degree that only one person will answer the ad, and they will be the perfect candidate. Here are a couple of examples from the book:

Wanted – Acrobat capable of crossing a slack wire 200 feet above raging furnace. Twice nightly, three times on Saturday. Salary offered $70 per week. No pension and no compensation in the event of injury. Apply in person at Wildcat Circus between the hours of 9 AM and 10 AM.

Wanted – An archaeologist with high academic qualifications willing to spend fifteen years in excavating the Inca tombs at Helsdump on the Alligator River. Knighthood or equivalent honor guaranteed. Pension payable but never yet claimed. Salary of $6000 per year. Apply in triplicate to the Director of the Grubbenburrow Institute, Sickdale, Ill., USA.


He points out that there is no need (in the case of the first article) to insist that the candidates be skilled at wire walking, or that they be sober or free from dizzyness, because the ad has automatically excluded anyone how isn't. And in the case of the second you need not say that the person needs to be mad for archeology, because no one would apply who isn't. The point being that the salary and other benefits should be exactly balanced against the bad parts of the job (of which every job has legion) so that you attract only someone who really fits the position. So here was our posting on Craigslist:

Wanted -- full-time web programmer eager to prove himself as a software hero with mad programming skills. Intelligence, teamwork, and sacrifice will be required. Ideal applicant has read enough programming books to have a publisher preference, has had more computers than girlfriends, and can confidently use closures. Work hours are long but flexible. Starting salary is $40k per year.

About US:


  • This is a full-time position with an proven company.

  • We're extremely technical. Even our sales people are programmers.

  • We are NOT a temp-agency. This position includes health benefits.

  • Our current platform is built with Perl and MySQL. We use Ajax and HTML extensively.

  • We don't have old-fashioned time-cards, cubicles or strict dress codes

  • Employees may listen to music, play games, and surf the web as long as they get their shit done

  • If the word "shit" offends you, you probably won't work out. You don't have to be vulgar, but you have to have a thick skin and good people skills.



About the Job:

When you get here you will be the new guy. You will have to prove your programming kung-fu to everyone on the team. You will have to answer your phone after hours. It will be tough. It will require you to be extremely bright, optimistic, and a rapid learner.

After working for us for 12 months you'll be qualified to be a senior software developer at just about any company. You'll know more than most people do after a four year CS degree. You will discover tremendous new confidence in yourself and your programming abilities. In short, you'll be a bona fide software badass. Salary increase after you have proven yourself to be an equal on the team (realistically this will take you 9 to 12 months, at a minimum.)

You know all those movies that glorify honor, sacrifice and humility, and show people taking a bullet for their buddy? That's us. Only you probably won't die and we'll give you all the Rockstar you can drink.

If you feel you have what it takes, email a brief resume with references to Ross. If you're young and you don't have a lot of references yet, be prepared to impress us with all the software you have written in your spare time.


In the end we got 10 applications, about half obviously hadn't read the posting so they were immediately disqualified. We ended up interviewing three, one of the three was obviously out of his depth, the remaining two got the PERL Camel book and were told to come back in 3 days and show how much they'd picked up. We hired one of those two and we couldn't be happier with how it's worked out. And what's even more interesting is that the one guy we did hire is the one who really responded to the ad. In other words in his initial e-mail he mentioned that his favorite publisher was Addison-Wesley and that he HAD had more computers than girlfriends etc. In other words the idea that if you craft the ad carefully enough you'll get one perfect applicant has basically been born out in this (admittedly) tiny sample.

Another point to make. We had more than one person e-mail and say, I'm not at the stage where I can work for 40k anymore, but if I was young and out to prove myself I would totally have applied for that job, as one of them said it was "absolutely the best job listing/description I have ever seen".

Parkinson for the WIN

3 Comments:

Blogger Fred said...

Great Post!

7:47 PM  
Blogger Brad said...

I am on a search committee for a new History/Media/Humanities faculty member. We had over 100 applicants and begin interviews tomorrow. Reviewing our job posting (after reading your post) I am convinced that we need to use Parkinson's law in all future job searches. Having gone through this process with other faculty searches before, I am not optimistic about the upcoming interviews.

4:52 PM  
Blogger Ross said...

Good luck with your search, I know how it is weeding through 100 applicants. Not fun...

8:35 PM  

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