Tag Archives: human resources

Thoughts on Hiring Processes (aka Starting/Building a Team)

I’ve long been fascinated by team dynamics, on paid and volunteer teams.  This week, I read an article that made me think more about the hiring pipeline and methods I utilized at a previous position, and I decided to brush it up a bit, while I’m at it.  A couple of people have asked me about hiring and team building recently.  Seems like it’d be good to have a blog post to point them at.  😉

I was reading a NY Times article titled “Why Some Teams are Smarter Than Others.”  I take issue with the title, a little — what we think of as “smart” differs dramatically around the world, and is highly context-dependent.  The author of the article pulls the term from the referenced studies, though, basically.  They wrote, “On average, the groups that did well on one task did well on the others, too. In other words, some teams were simply smarter than others.”  Doing well on a task is not the same thing as having higher intelligence, in my opinion.

At any rate, this NYT article discussed two study findings that were of interest to me about group dynamics and what makes for a productive, effective team.  The first study referenced found that there were 3 characteristics of a more productive team: higher collaboration (teams not being dominated by one or two louder voices), higher scores on a test that essentially measures empathy, and higher number of women (a group of people who tend to score higher on aforementioned empathy scales).  The second study referenced in the NYT article followed up with analysis of online versus face-to-face “group effectiveness” (aka team cohesion), and found that “the most important ingredients for a smart team remained constant regardless of its mode of interaction: members who communicated a lot, participated equally and possessed good emotion-reading skills.”  The obvious question then becomes, how do you build a team that functions this way?


Well, I know what that reminds me of!  A few years ago, I sat down to chat with my friend Dan, and he gave me the three best employment requirements I’ve ever heard: CLEVER, COMPETENT, and KIND.  These are required characteristics of anyone I’d like to call a colleague, whether it’s a paid position or volunteer work.  I’ve used these requirements ever since that conversation, and I’m profoundly grateful to Dan for laying it all out for me so simply.

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Reading Now (or Soon), and Psyched For It

On the one hand, telling people what I’m reading or about to be reading is a sure way to start a conversation.  On the other hand, telling the internet what I’m reading when I converse with so many authors is a little worrisome.  If you read this list, and if you’re an author, and if you’re not on this list, please assume it’s because I didn’t remember to list that amazing book you’ve written?  (Always attribute to stupidity before attributing to intention …)

That said, here’s what I’m reading or about to read:

The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson.  Someone I’ve met through Readercon, Alaya’s always seemed very nice in person.  Her book is what I’m actively reading *right this second*.  It’s really, really good so far.  This book is nominated for the new YA Award at Detcon, and I’m a sucker for YA.  Aside from that, though, it’s a novel about future Brazil and technology and a society ruled by centuries-old women.  What’s not to love?

The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson.  Tove Jansson is a famous Finn for her Moomin Family characters, and I love those adventures too, but Jansson apparently wrote several adult novels.  This one was only translated into English this past year, so I decided to grab a copy (and bought several extras to give away at events for Helsinki in 2017).

Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor.  This book is officially not yet available in the US, but it’s already out in the UK, so I was determined to get my copy.  Nigeria and alien encounters — how could I miss this?  I *loved* Who Fears Death (despite the book alternatively scaring the shit out of me and making me cry).  I had the privilege to listen to Nnedi read from that novel when she won the Carl Brandon Award for it in 2010 or 2011.  Basically, after that, I had to read everything obtainable written by Nnedi.

Systems Fail by Hiromi Goto and N.K. Jemisin.  These two amazing women were the guests of honor at Wiscon 38 this spring, and they both had amazing guest of honor speeches.  If you haven’t read them yet, do so now:  Nora Jemisin’s speech here and Hiromi Goto’s speech here.  You can now understand why a book of fiction, essays, and interviews by these two women is high on my list of things to be read.

My Real Children by Jo Walton.  I love imagining the road not taken.  A book about two roads possible, colliding into one reality?  I love this concept.  Can’t wait to read this book.

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine.  I am embarrassed to admit that the only words of Valentine’s that I’ve read are her blog and twitter posts.  I am very much looking forward to this book, a story of twelve sisters, dancing, and fairy tales.

Valour and Vanity by Mary Robinette Kowal.  I’ve been tearing through this series like there’s no tomorrow.  And perhaps there isn’t a tomorrow!  What will happen next to the “glamorous” Vincents?  What new scientific/magical discovery will save the day?  These books are addictive.  Fourth book in the series.  I think I read the first three over the course of four days.

The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord.  Karen was the Guest of Honor at Acon 7  this spring, and I spent several amazing hours conversing with her about Worldcon, science fiction, the universe, and everything.  I am psyched to read her book, and hope it’ll be even half as great as talking with her in person was.  The reading she did at Acon was amazing.

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch.  I know Scott through Readercon and Worldcon, but I’ve been hearing about his books forever.  It’s time to take the plunge!  I look forward to this adventure, and hope Scott isn’t reading this, because then he’ll know that I haven’t yet read his books.  I look forward to having an informed opinion by the time I see him next!

Indexing by Seanan McGuire.  I *think* I’ve read everything else that Seanan has written.  Maybe.  She’s so damn prolific!  It’s hard to be sure if I’ve caught it all.  This book is a new urban fantasy which turns fairy tales into reality.  Totally my cup of tea.  🙂

Mothership: Tales from Afrofuturism and Beyond, edited by Bill Campbell and Edward Austin Hall.  I met Bill Campbell while at Wiscon 38, and we got to talking about Afrofuturism.  I actually don’t know the second thing about Afrofuturism, it turns out, and since my friend Pablo is running the Afrofuturism track at Detcon, it behooves me to read this book very quickly.  So I can hopefully not be an idiot in the future.

The Lascar’s Dagger by Glenda Larke.  I met Glenda while at Worldcon in Australia (I know! I got to go! It was awesome!).  She’s an Aussie author whose Watergiver series definitely hooked me that summer.  I’m psyched she has a book out in 2014, and had to obtain it as soon as I heard.

Ghost Train to New Orleans by Mur Lafferty.  Travel guides for the undead, and New Orleans.  I’m totally there.

Salsa Nocturna Stories by Daniel Jose Older.  I’ve had the privilege of listening to Daniel read stories at Readercon and at a party for Helsinki at Wiscon.  They are creepy, and honest, and completely engrossing.  I’m really looking forward to reading the printed work, although I may have to read it aloud to myself, now.  😉

Three Parts Dead and Two Serpents Rise by Max Gladstone.  He writes interesting things online (his blog is a good read).  He attended Vericon this year and seemed cool.  Plus I offered to have tea with him on Twitter.  That deal probably only works after I’ve read his books.  Luckily for me, his books are about killing gods.  Sounds awesome to me!

Servant of the Underworld by Aliette de Bodard.  Here’s another person whose words I love online (and I talk with her on Twitter; she’s cool!).  I just have somehow not yet read her work in print.  This is going to change, and soon.  I obtained this book last week, and I am psyched to read about Aliette’s Aztec murder mysteries and gods walking the streets.  I just hope she’ll forgive me for not reading it before now!

New Amsterdam by Elizabeth Bear.  This book is from 2008, so I’m almost certainly the last person to be reading it, but I confess my sins and my intention to repent.  Well, inasmuch as reading this book could be considered at all the opposite of sin.  😉

Great People Decisions by Claudio Fernandez Araoz.  I bought this book for professional reasons, and put it aside for a while, but find that the more I work with volunteer teams, the more I’m thinking about what I read in it.  So I need to actually finish the book.  Nonfiction isn’t usually my cup of tea, but this is important stuff.


What else is in my library?  You can always look at my books on Librarything.com, although maybe that’s only accessible if you log in.  Anyway, I have updated the fiction section (tagged “entertainment room” for locating purposes) pretty recently.  The children’s lit section has a few more piles to be added, and the reference and nonfiction books are not really up-to-date at all.  Baby steps, I guess.

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Onboarding Processes that Work

In organizations (professional or volunteer), you hope that you’re gaining members to help add to the awesome efforts going into your goal, right?  This means that you need to have a way of adding people to your organization that gives them the basic info everyone needs to know, and preferably delivers some of it in a fun format that enables people to enjoy learning about the new people they’re working with and the efforts you’re coordinating together.  This is a process called “onboarding.”

According to Wikipedia,

“Research has demonstrated that these socialization [onboarding] techniques lead to positive outcomes for new employees such as higher job satisfaction, better job performance, greater organizational commitment, and reduction in stress and intent to quit.  These outcomes are particularly important to an organization looking to retain a competitive advantage in an increasingly mobile and globalized workforce.”

It is really easy to do this poorly.  It is (sadly) uncommon to do it well.

I want to give a quick shout-out to Runkeeper, however.  My partner is just joining their team, and he’s overjoyed to discover that their onboarding includes a map of the office with everyone’s desk labeled, and a scavenger hunt list of unique facts about each colleague.  By the end of his first week, he intends to know who has a dog named Yaz and who has a fondness for ice luge!

On the Helsinki in 2017 team, we are still ironing out this process, as I’m sure most organizations are.  Now I really want to write a scavenger hunt for our next larger staff meeting, though — particularly as we are such a geographically spread team, internationally.

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“Would you eat a kitten for this job?”

For my job at Luminoso Technologies, I was on a panel the other day at Northeastern University’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business, and I think it deserves a post.  The panel topic was interviewing and hiring perspectives.  Comedy gold occurred, as well as serious work on an important topic.  😉

The purpose of the panel was two-fold, from my perspective.  We wanted to help educate and prepare the students for interviewing with potential employers.  These students spent last week interviewing for six-month internships, in fact. They ran through 30-minute segments of rapid-fire questions and tried to show themselves in their best possible light while still accurately representing who they are with honesty and humility (one hopes).  Goal number one was to prepare the students for that experience.

The second goal of the panel, for me, was to differentiate Luminoso as an employer from the other companies represented on the panel.  On the one hand, that wasn’t hard.  Compare Luminoso, a startup, with established companies such as Lindt Chocolate, State Street, Raytheon, and Harvard Pilgrim Health?  We were different, all right!

I didn’t want the differentiator to be my youth or Luminoso’s, though.  I wanted the differentiation to be about Luminoso as a fun place to work, where people can expect to be on their toes and enjoy the challenge.

How does one encapsulate the essential culture of a startup?  All startups have some characteristics in common.  Running things close to the wire, sometimes by the seat of your pants, is common.  Having a flexible work schedule and a collaborative-but-fast-paced environment are also frequently the case in startup companies.

What’s the essential culture of Luminoso?  We’re a wacky bunch.  We have fun.  We like solving puzzles.  We face unexpected questions all the time, and want our employees to be ready for the unexpected.  Also, we want our employees to be fun and pleasant to work with.   We’ve got a team of 20 people as of this week.  We’re a 3-year-old company with a 100% retention rate.  We do this by hiring people who are clever, competent, and kind.  We hire people we think we’d collaborate well with, who’ll be nice colleagues even if things get hectic and stressed.

So on this panel about interviewing and hiring, I had a great opportunity to highlight Luminoso in a way that would be a big differentiation.  It was a bit of a risk, but I decided it was worth it.  The panelists were asked what their favorite interview question is, and after answering that question, I also told the kitten story.

What’s my favorite interview question?  My favorite interview question is to ask someone what your superpower is.  Not what superpower you’d choose if you could fly or be invisible or run at lightning speed.  What superpower do you already have?  What makes you a great and awesome and unique person?  This isn’t in the usual arsenal of interview questions (or at least, not phrased this way), and it often surprises people (particularly if they don’t follow me on social media).  So it’s also my tendency to offer to tell people what my superpower is, to give them time to think.

My favorite story about an interview question, though, requires more explanation.  Thanks to the indulgence of my co-panelists and the moderator, I told the following story, as well as answering the initial question:

Earlier on in Luminoso’s history, we were interviewing a candidate who had very close personal friendships with some of the cofounders.  She was a very good potential fit for the job, but due to these personal ties, I wanted to be really sure that we made the right choice in whether or not we hired her.  If we chose to bring her on board but personal relationships meant that communications went awry, that would be really detrimental for the company.  If we chose not to bring her on board after an extensive interview process, that could have at least short-term impact on some very established friendships, which would be challenging for the cofounders in question, and possibly cause resentment about the choice made.  So it was a little tricky.

In order to balance out the risks, I decided to have the candidate meet with every single member of the company at the time, and give everyone the opportunity to talk extensively.  It’s possible I went overboard, in my caution.  In addition, we hadn’t yet done sufficient interviewing to have the established patterns we have now.  People were less certain of what questions they wanted to ask applicants in order to know if candidates would be a good fit, here.

So there came a point in the conversation between this candidate and some of the developers where they ran out of steam and weren’t sure what to say next.  Let it never be said that Luminoso employees won’t make something interesting happen when given an opportunity!

One of the developers leaned in, and with a very serious expression, asked the most curveball question I think has ever been uttered during an interview.

“To get this job, would you eat a kitten?”

This is, far as I can tell, a ceramic ketchup bottle with a ceramic kitten head peeking out.

This is the result of a very quick Google image search on “kitten ketchup.” I’m both bemused and horrified.

At the Northeastern panel, the audience erupted in both laughter and awkward looks.  It’s a pretty offputting thought once you think about it, right?  Obviously, there’s a right answer (not to eat the kitten, lest you be uncertain).  And yet, there’s something funny about the fact that it’s been asked, and everyone seems to have a slightly different answers when we tell this story.  Some have asked if kittens are kosher.  Some have stated an allergy.  Some have asked if it’s a question of survival.  Some have simply stated, “no.”  (One answered, “yes,” but the longer explanation was that there are survival situations in which they can imagine needing to eat a kitten, therefore they can’t answer definitively in the negative.)

I was trying to differentiate Luminoso as being a company where the unexpected question is the one we’re often asked, and I explicitly said as much on the panel.  At the time, I could only hope that the right kind of applicants would be attracted by our fun-loving nature.  We were definitely different!  The question was, were we different in a way that drew more people to us?

Long story short, I got home that evening to another 15 applicants for our internship, in addition to the 15 we’d previously had.  The kitten story was the talk of Northeastern’s MBA school for at least a week, or so I’m told.  Several students who weren’t actually interested in a marketing internship still reached out to connect on LinkedIn and other media.  The kitten story was a small risk, but one that paid off for us, at least so far as I can discern.

And now you know the kitten story, too!

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February 13, 2014 · 9:40 pm