Part 2: 10xPrinciples on Identifying Latent 10x Talent

The first part of this series, Defining the Principles of 10x, establishes that 10x performers are awesome problem solvers. Typically, these uncommonly productive employees are senior-level because this performance requires a degree of judiciousness and skill that comes from experience. Although one may be tempted to build a team composed entirely of senior-level 10x performers, they’re hard to hire and they’re expensive. Furthermore, it’s healthier for an organization to have diversity in its workforce, not just with a range of seniority, but also with variety in ethnicity and gender. This post focuses on identifying potential “diamond in the rough” employees who may one day, with proper corporate care and feeding, become 10x performers.

High performing employees exist in every team across a company. Most commonly, 10x performance is associated with software engineers, but it’s more because the technical field is great at ginning up jaunty monikers than the absence of capability in other disciplines. The approach in this post is discipline-neutral and can be tweaked to address a specific role.

How does one separate the wheat from the chaff in the interview process to identify superstar potential? Job seekers are often asked to complete assigned challenges to demonstrate competence, creativity, and interest. Sometimes, these tests are required for a candidate to merely get her foot in the door. Candidates who can reel in great offers without completing coding exercises will choose to forgo these qualifying tests. That is, a company may lose great candidates by requiring them to complete a test. It’s a much better approach to ask candidates to point to a piece of their work in Github, a project, a portfolio, or a website, and explain it during an interview.

A discussion of a candidate’s submitted work provides a terrific basis for the technical portion of an interview. For a programmer, aside from determining her software writing skills (looking at things like code readability, neatness of presentation and design, conciseness without terseness, etc.) there’s much to be learned from how the candidate discusses her work. The primary purpose of a technical interview is to ascertain that the candidate possesses the aptitude or skill set that the position requires. A technical interview can also reveal the candidate’s potential for greatness. The interviewer should use this technical session to tease out the following:

  1. Why is the candidate proud of this work? There’s an element of salesmanship on both sides during an interview. Although it’s unlikely that a candidate would submit work she isn’t proud of, listen closely to the answer for humility and honesty. Also, note the presence of the candidate’s unprompted interest in alleviating customers’ points of pain.
  2. Is the candidate capable of cogently explaining the work? If a candidate hides behind a jargon-heavy answer without specificity, it’s another red flag. Nowadays, no one in a company should be sequestered in the back room and shielded from other co-workers and customers. It’s important for a candidate to speak and write about her work using common words and correctly gauging the level of detail that’s appropriate for her listener.
  3. What are the shortcomings of the work or what improvements does the candidate envision? The answer reveals the willingness of a candidate to accept criticism and strive for excellence. Beware the candidate who refuses to self-evaluate her work.
  4. Is it a technology-first approach or a customer-first approach? Employees can become perfectly good performers working against a specification produced by someone else. However, those without an intrinsic hunger to understand and solve customer problems will never become super performers.
  5. Does the candidate consider teammates? Software is not delivered by individuals, but by teams of people who work collaboratively. Candidates who are interested in elevating teammates are the keepers.

The behavioral portion of the interview process should be based around a problem like the one that follows.

This type of problem is similar to one that might be presented to a product management candidate and can be repurposed for different roles. Although this is just an example question, this particular one has several benefits:

  1. It focuses on two customers who have several points of pain. The problem provides an easy opportunity for a candidate to demonstrate customer-first skills, or a lack thereof.
  2. It’s a familiar issue but one that most candidates probably aren’t old enough to have addressed directly. However, they may have witnessed parents/grandparents facing this issue and have some indirect insights.
  3. It’s a non-technical problem and one that’s easily understandable by just about anyone.
  4. Although there are technically no right or wrong answers, there are certainly some excellent approaches and terrible approaches to this problem.

A candidate with latent 10x potential might approach the problem like this:

  1. Asking questions about Cheryl and Joseph. Questions like these differentiate this couple from a generic, elderly couple and demonstrate the candidate’s curiosity about and interest in her customers.
    • What are their ages?
    • How do they like to spend their time?
    • What are their health issues?
    • What is their financial situation?
    • Why do their adult children want them to move?
    • What is it about retirement communities that turn off this elderly couple?
  2. Breaking up the problem into its constituent pieces to build a framework around the problem. This shows orderly thinking and an acknowledgement that this problem is too multi-faceted to address holistically.
    • Safety concerns
    • Day-to-day living concerns
    • Emotional/Social concerns
    • Health concerns
  3. Focusing on each piece of the problem and developing an action plan for each. This approach also enables the candidate to prioritize and schedule the pieces separately. For example, it may be most important to first address safety and health issues before tackling everyday living and emotional/social issues.
  4. Weaving technology into the solution without insisting that technology alone will solve the problem. We live in an age where technology can be deployed as part of an aging in place strategy.

Although we may say there’s no right or wrong answer to such a problem, here are a couple of particularly weak responses. If the candidate dives in and suggests a chain of app-centric solutions with no attempt to understand the problem more deeply (“It’s easy to age in place. Just set them up with Peapod for groceries, Lyft for doctor’s appointments, Amazon Prime for general needs, Blue Apron for meals, Online banking …”), they are seeking a quick fix and neglecting to consider the complexity of aging and the spectrum of needs and wants of humans. If the candidate refuses to play the game and answers, “It’s just a matter of time. They should listen to their children and move out while they’re young enough to settle into a retirement community,” she may lack a willingness to think through a problem or just lack empathy.

If a candidate has superior technical skills, possesses the behavioral characteristics of a empathetic problem solver, and is a great cultural fit, not only is she a good hire but one who demonstrates potential for 10x performance. Encouraging and nurturing capable employees to reach 10x potential is the topic of Part 3 of this series.