Technology

The American View: The Missing Blinks

Not everyone is cut out for a career in IT. Business Reporter's resident U.S. 'blogger Keil Hubert shares one technique that he uses to evaluate potential new hires.

Imagine walking into a theatre where the feature film is already half over. The story’s plot, context, and characters have already been presented, so all that’s left is the resolution of the main arcs. For the latecomer who wants to understand what’s happening, there’s immense pressure’s to catch up entirely by inference and guesswork while new clues and plot twists unfold chaotically on the screen. It’s maddening. If you have some understanding of movie making, narrative structure, plotting, and the actors’ preferences for standard role, then you stand a reasonable chance at interpreting the main thrust of the story. If you don’t … good bloody luck. It’s all a confusing, jumbled mess.

It’s pretty much exactly like that when young adults who have never worked a white-collar job in their lives try to find work in corporate IT. They might have some basic technical chops, but they have no operating context to leverage. The sharper ones may pick up on a few clues – like consistent hardware brands or written performance standards – but they lack a nuanced understanding of the users’ and the technicians’ history. They don’t know how in blazes things got to be the way they are. That’s a huge deficiency for a job seeker. Not only do they not have the required years of experience called for on the job advertisement, but they can’t get a handle on the company culture either.

I used to see it all the time when I was the head of a military IT unit. Young men and women come into the recruiters’ office full of enthusiasm, verve, and a hunger for success, but without any semblance of a clue about what they were asking to do. That was all right; if they had a positive attitude and an aptitude for learning, we could usually get them up to speed.

It always seems overwhelming at first. It usually isn’t. People just like to make their jobs seem complicated in order to impress their friends and family.  

Our IT department prided itself on giving people from all over the professional spectrum a fair fighting chance to reinvent themselves. We took former cooks, engine mechanics, cops, engineers – anyone that had the aptitude and desire, really – and re-forged them into competent IT techs. This was a point of pride for our organisation. Instead of insisting on accepting only fully-qualified workers with years of experience (who didn’t need any help to find work in IT), we took chances on good-hearted young people who couldn’t otherwise catch a break. It was immensely satisfying for us Old Tech Geezers to watch one of our ‘kids’ grow into their role.

The thing is, it’s more accurate to say that we re-forged most eager applicants most of the time. It wasn’t a guaranteed process. When we failed (and we did fail fairly regularly), we tended to hold out hope for far too long. Our stubborn refusal to give up on people, in turn, prevent other – more qualified – young people from getting in. We learned that there’s a threshold below with you just can’t afford to take a chance on someone, no matter how badly you want to help them. It was a bitter thing to have to tell a well-meaning young graduate: ‘Kid, I admire your moxie, but it’s clear that you’ll never make it through training. I can’t afford to take a chance on you.’

In many cases, it was downright painful to watch. To abuse the middle-of-the-movie metaphor just a bit more, some of these kids didn’t just walk into a story already in-progress … they barged into a silent movie where the dialogue cards were all written in a language that they couldn’t read. They had no reasonable hope of catching up, and – worse – seemingly no interest in trying. They expected the entire plot to be handed to them, and couldn’t be bothered making an effort to draw inferences from the available clues. Try as we might, there were some hires that just wouldn’t meet us halfway.

I hated having to turn people down. It felt elitist and foul. Other departments in the organisation regularly discriminated against new hires based on race, national origin, sexual orientation, criminal background, and the like. In IT, our people prided ourselves on being open to everyone who had the interest and aptitude to do the job regardless of non-work-related characteristics. We didn’t care what a person looked like, where they came from, who they dated, what sort of trouble they’d gotten into as a wayward youth; all that mattered was ability. Even then, we hated to screen people out because of inability, since tech skills aren’t natural talents. They have to be taught, and almost everyone can be taught IT skills.No one is born understanding Microsoft Windows, TCP/IP, or cryptic printer error codes. Anyone who says different is yanking your chain.

Almost everyone, that is. Not everyone. That’s the kicker. Some applicants were never going to get it, no matter how hard we tried to help them. After several years at the helm of IT, I invested some time and thought into working out why our failures were failures. What should we have noticed during the initial interviews that would have alerted us that they might be problem children? What did these non-starters have in common?

It took several weeks of late night conversations with my senior managers to isolate a common cause. We eventually came to the conclusion that the most common characteristic these failures had was a disinclination to question. [1] That is, the applicant passive waited to be fed an answer of explanation, and then didn’t bother to challenge what he or she was told if it seemed squiffy. That, we realized, was a sure sign that a candidate wasn’t viable IT material.

Here’s the thing: far too much of how we use and support IT comes from decades of compromises, poor decision-making, idiotic ‘holy ways’ over platform preferences, management interference in solutions development, corporate screw-ups, and a whole host of other misadventures. One of the earliest lessons that a new tech learns is that we often don’t do the most logical thing available to us because of reasons. That’s when the war stories get trotted out. Little by little, the new techs learn about our industry’s (and about our companies’) sordid histories, and – thereby – gain a sense of operating context. We are this way because of these things that happened. Without that foundational knowledge, a tech is bound to be confused by the policies, procedures, standards, and practices that the average company has in place to govern IT.

That’s why it’s absolutely crucial for a tech’s development that they have both the ability to recognize a ridiculous situation when they see one, and the willingness to ask why the ridiculous solution is ridiculous. Without that spark of intellectual curiosity, a new tech will never develop the overarching understanding needed to function effectively.

Most new techs’ moment of epiphany occurs while reviewing the department’s org chart. Top responses include: ‘How did we get this way?’ ‘Are you sure this is correct?’ and ‘Were you all drinking when you came up with this monstrosity?'

Since coming to that conclusion, I’ve tried to find various ways to explain the problem. The ‘middle of the movie’ analogy helps, but I found that it wasn’t completely conveying the issue. Let me share a different way of introducing the issue and see if it resonates:

I found a curious anomaly a few weeks ago while looking up film titles for a different column. [2] While browsing the Internet Movie Database, I found an entry for an obscure 1916 silent crime film called The Missing Links that legendary (and controversial) director D. W. Griffith produced under the pseudonym ‘Granville Warwick.’ The film itself is lost; there are no known copies of it left, so we only have incomplete and misleading documentation about the film.

That’s where it gets interesting. In IMDB’s page for Links, the anonymous author who wrote the full plot summary gave us this declarative statement: A pair of handcuffs are the primary clue to the killer's true identity. Without context, there’s no reason to doubt the author’s word. There isn’t much in the way of detail in the write-up, though. There’s a bank, a murder, and some handcuffs.

Hal Erikson’s summary over at AllMovie.com, though, tells a completely different story (literally): ‘Set in a rural community, the story gets off to a decidedly non-comic start when a murder is committed. Two brothers, … are the prime suspects. Each man believes that the other committed the crime, so each man tries to protect the other by confessing. The truth is revealed by a rustic detective, whose manner is as relaxed and easygoing as the story itself.’

That entry immediately struck a discordant note. Was this movie supposed to be a gritty crime drama or a light comedy? Two separate sources, two completely different interpretations. Also, what in the hell does a set of handcuffs have to do with identifying the real killer? Was someone already arrested for the crime in the film and escaped? Was the victim in police custody? What the heck?These are the sort of questions that derail staff meetings, because the answers to weird murder mystery stories are almost always more interesting than the slides being presented, especially right after lunch.

Digging further into the dusty corners of the Internet, I found this much more detailed summary over at Turner Classic Movies: ‘Angry over his stepdaughter's elopement with Henry Gaylord, a son of the town banker, Jasper Starr, the justice of the peace, starts a rumor that the Gaylord bank is insolvent, which causes panicked depositors to withdraw all of their savings. Crushed by this disastrous turn of events, Henry's father dies, and Starr takes over the bank. While reviewing the bank's files, Starr finds some forged bank notes and accuses Henry of the crime. Furious, Henry goes to Starr's home and, after the two men argue bitterly, Starr is found murdered and Henry is arrested. Although he suspects that Henry is guilty, Horace, his brother, hires Chris Tompkins, an amateur detective, to investigate. Using a pair of cufflinks that were left at the scene of the crime as his primary clue, Chris determines that the culprit is the note forger, a former bank cashier, who confesses his deed in time to prevent a fomenting mob from lynching Henry.’ [3]

Several things come to light there: first, the film sure as heck doesn’t sound like a light-hearted comedy. It sounds like a serious crime drama. Also, there aren’t any handcuffs mentioned in this synopsis. Instead, it calls out a more reasonable clue – a pair of cufflinks – that tie directly to the title of the film, lending this version of the story considerable credibility. Missing Links = missing cufflinks. That tracks.

Given that we can’t go back and watch the original to sort out what is and isn’t true, we can draw reasonable inferences from the stories that we have. The first two articles were certainly plausible, and there was no compelling reason to doubt them, but something about each one seemed … off. It didn’t take much effort to keep chasing down data on the film until a more plausible explanation came to light. What it did take was motivation to keep searching. Even though the stakes were trivial, the not knowing factor gnawed at me.

That right there is what we’re hunting for when the people I’ve trained and I interview new potential IT candidates. We need people who recognize potential inconsistencies in what they’re told, who respectfully challenge the status quo, and who refuse to stop digging for concrete answers until they find the truth. Curiosity is a crucial characteristic in a future tech, since the obvious answers to any given technical problem are rarely every complete answers. A poor tech listlessly accepts the first answer he’s given; a good tech pays close attention and questions everything. Constantly. Insatiably.‘Why would Henry bring handcuffs with him when the ticket said to reinstall Windows 7 on Jasper Starr’s laptop? This makes no sense.'

The easiest method that I’ve found to test a candidate for this attribute is to causally mention a situation, problem, or issue that the organisation is having in between questions about the candidate. Most job seekers are charged up to answer questions about themselves and their qualifications; they’re not coming into the interview room primed to ask questions about anything other than the particulars of the gig. When I inject a seemingly amusing anecdote about Issue X in between interview questions, it’s a subtle way to see if the discrepancy(-ies) in the story trigger the candidate’s natural instinct to pounce on apparent errors. If a candidate interrupts and asks me for clarification, I can be reasonably sure that I’m dealing with someone teachable. Usually, I can tell from involuntary reactions that I’ve triggered them before they ask. They blink. They frown. They raise a hand to interrupt. They go silent as their mind starts to race, chewing on the problem. They look at me as if I’ve lost my mind. Conversely, if I say something deliberately barmy and don’t trigger a physiological or emotional reaction at all … I suspect I’m dealing with a nonviable candidate.

It’s not a sure-fire method; don’t get me wrong. Most young applicants get so keyed-up over an interview that they can barely remember their own names. That’s perfectly natural. Even older workers who have all the confidence in the world can get anxious at the interview table. That’s why the secondary purpose of my seemingly-casual asides is to make the candidates laugh, relax, and feel more comfortable. I realize that it may take several subtle passes before I get a definite ‘bite.’

Most of the time, though, I can confidently pick up on a candidate’s intellectual curiosity – or lack thereof. Oftentimes, I can trigger the desired ‘what the heck?’ response just by answering the candidate’s questions about the company, the department, or the role. There are usually lots of opportunities in an average interview to break through an interviewee’s façade and draw out the naturally curious nerd within. If I can’t find evidence of that inner nerd by the end of an hour-long discussion, well, odds are good that it doesn’t exist … and that there’s nothing much I can do for the candidate. No matter how much I might want to.


[1] In case you’re curious, other significantly common negative characteristics included braggadocio, disrespect, evasiveness, and obsequious flattery. All very good warnings signs that the applicant was likely to get drop-kicked out of the unit before completing his or her contract.

[2] Getting side-tracked by interesting diversions on the Internet will likely be the death of me someday.

[3] Emphasis added.

Title Allusion: D. W. Griffith (as Granville Warwick), The Missing Links (1916 Film)

Photographs under licence from thinkstockphotos.co.uk, copyright: unhappy woman, STUDIOGRANDOUEST, drawing business concept, Peshkova, businesswoman computer training, Highwaystarz-Photography, office woman facing computer, SebastianGauert, Dissatisfied businesswoman, zoff-photo, worried businesswoman, AntonioGuillem


POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.

You can buy his books on IT leadershipIT interviewinghorrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil-Hubert-featuredKeil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).

Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. blogger.

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