M-Theory: Hiring an employee? Have the courage to take a risk Melanie Baker June 8, 2017 Columns, Communitech, Featured, M-Theory It’s the age-old conundrum: No one wants to hire you if you don’t have experience, but you can’t get experience because no one will hire you. While plenty of folks can tell endless horror stories about being asked to work for free, that only tends to happen once you’re already established. Issues with hiring are magnified at small companies. An additional salary is a noticeable bite into the bottom line, but there are other costs. From vetting resumes to completing the paperwork for a new hire, it represents a big investment, and that person isn’t even useful yet. Once on board, new hires need to be trained. How long it takes for them to become reasonably competent and independent depends on factors like education and experience, as well as things like quality of training and documentation, and access to mentorship. What happens if that hire doesn’t work out? You’ve just potentially wasted months and hundreds of person-hours that no startup can afford to lose. But what other choice is there? Companies need to hire to grow. Startups need and want to build new things. That includes the people they hire. People tend to like to hire folks they know, or those who come recommended by people they know. It provides a degree of vetting in advance. Plenty of local startups include founders who are friends, who then hire other university friends. It gives you advance intel as to their work ethic, personalities, and backgrounds. Plus, it’s likely cheaper labour. To this point, I’ve likely said little that wasn’t duh obvious. But realistically, this kind of tech experience – university education, friends in tech, accessing entrepreneurial resources, founding a company while in or shortly after school, access to seed capital – reflects enormous privilege. Folks with these advantages were set up to succeed before they even started trying. Hell, even having friends who invite you to work underpaid at their startup reflects privilege. Now, it’s acknowledged that not everyone has a stellar resume by graduation day. So we have a checklist we present to them that supposedly offers ways to level the playing field (they don’t, really). Make your own experience! Start a blog, contribute to open source software projects, join a maker space, or build websites for charities. Solid advice … if you don’t work all day and then have to make dinner, do laundry, mow the lawn, help with science fair projects, finish taxes, etc. after you get home. Or work three jobs and just collapse when you get home. When is this “me time,” exactly, for bolstering your career prospects? What if you have to go to the library or community centre to get access to a computer … if they’re not all in use? Oh, but they’re administratively locked down so you can’t access what you might need. What if you live in a rural area and don’t have your own car and there’s no public transportation? What if you’re a single parent and can’t stick around for foosball and beers until 10 p.m. on weeknights to team bond and build “culture”? What if you’re new to Canada and have a great education, skills, and work experience, but your experience is from somewhere else and you’re still working on your English? What if you have a disability and can’t afford the customized setup you would need for what’s considered average productivity, or just can’t achieve average productivity? What if your partner is in the military and deployed and you’re stuck in one place and single parenting for a while, but later could get moved at any time, many times? What if you don’t have a credit card to provide access to … a lot of the internet? Or, what if you DO have all the good stuff? From the degree to the job experience to the car and plastic in your wallet … But you’re sitting in an interview with people young enough to be your kids. And they already hired a silver-haired C-level type to give them business cred. Everyone’s kind of uncomfortable, and while unspoken, all present know what “not a good fit” means here. For a lot of people, that one big break, that one company taking a chance on them, either at the beginning of or part way through their careers, could change their whole lives. But people embrace the familiar, and hiring is a big gamble. Small companies never have enough resources, so they may not be able to manage the level of investment required to train up someone who didn’t come from the aforementioned privilege. But if you get used to thinking that, when will your company be big enough or stable enough to spare the resources needed to make someone like that valuable to you? And does your definition of “valuable” need tweaking? When will it be considered a safe and solid enough investment to hire outside your network or pool of friends? If your company’s fortunate enough to grow, eventually you won’t have a choice but to hire strangers. When and how do companies explicitly take the risk and decide when they can afford to try out that really intriguing candidate who’s not quite like all the others? Whose responsibility is it and how do you make it part of policy or corporate vision and values? It would change someone’s life. It would also change your company. It would bring much-needed diversity. People who’ve never been in the echo chamber don’t expand or reinforce it. They bring ideas and arguments that would likely never occur to people with completely different experience. It requires risk and discomfort. It requires breaking down concepts of “fit.” Do we really think taking a chance on hiring someone is a bigger risk than playing with millions of dollars of other people’s money? Tech companies always say they want to change the world. They just tend to have rather narrow ideas about the best opportunities to do so. M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached @melle or firstname.lastname@example.org.