On recruiting

I finished reading The Socratic Method: A Practitioner’s Handbook.

In a previous post, I wondered whether the book would eventually discuss thinking about extremes more in depth. It does so on the last chapter of the book, but understandably doesn’t use an example as technical as the one I used in the post. All the examples used in the book are generic (and lean politically), so I might decide to come up with more technical examples for the things discussed in that chapter (or even come up with other techniques that help in technical discussions).

Anyway, the book comes with an epilogue detailing 12 socratic rules of engagement, which are principles to be used in arguments and conversations that don’t necessarily fit the socratic dialogue as it is known. This matched some thoughts I’ve had for a while regarding how to do recruiting/hiring for a company (assuming that you want competent people, not just extra heads).

The more I thought about what to look for when hiring people, the more I leaned towards looking for specific personalities rather than specific knowledge. When working in code and with tech in general, often we’ll come across things we hadn’t seen before, so we’ll always be forced to learn new things or fail to become competent (in my opinion, a competent human is always looking to learn new things).

So I broke down hiring scenarios into:

  1. I’m looking for competent people to do work, but the work is not necessarily 100% specified, so I don’t know exactly what technical knowledge it will require (there’s essentially no way to be 100% sure of that).
  2. I’m looking for someone to do a specific kind of work, and I know exactly what kind of knowledge is required.

For scenario 2, I think I’d rather go with a contractor. After all, if the work is already specified (and assuming there’s nobody in the company with time to work on it), it’s much easier to hire a contractor with specific terms than it is to onboard a new employee.

There are certain assumptions with this (e.g. the work has some definition of done and does not reoccur), but these assumptions are based on other things I’ve been thinking about regarding how to run a company. Basically, the way I would organise work at a company would be to design things in a way that this kind of reocurring work won’t need a person to be fully dedicated to it to the point of needing to hire someone just for that.

For scenario 1, since there is no specific knowledge to look for, it makes more sense to find someone who approaches work in a specific way (which is what I call “specific personality”). Depending on the urgency of the work and type of work at the company, the level of technical knowledge to look for will change, but first the person should be probed for the specific personality I’m looking for.

I started making a list of specific things to probe, and after reading the book, I reached a conclusion that what I’m looking for are really the socratic principles. The book’s epilogue does a good job in listing 12 principles, which I paraphrase here, and add an initial principle which is a required assumption for socratic behaviour.

  • Everyone has the intention of improving themselves and the group. Assume good faith, but do not tolerate bad faith when someone consistently acts that way. This is the basis for every other principle.
  • Everything is open for questioning if someone wants to.
  • Questioning is natural and expected behaviour. This promotes progress and eliminates biases. Friends and partners question themselves and each other, and being shown that you’re wrong (or showing that someone else is wrong) is a welcome favour.
  • Aim to reach the truth or get closer to it. Inquiry isn’t useful to make people feel good or bad, to win arguments, or something else unrelated to the subject in question. Inquiry must be used to aim for the truth.
  • Every argument deserves a reply if someone believes so.
  • Reason above all. Arguments must be judged on their merits, regardless of whoever is making them. This also means that anyone is free to join any argument.
  • A common agreement must be found during questioning to support any arguments. It doesn’t make sense to argue about something if no common ground exists. Each side should strive to point inconsistencies in the common ground and between the common ground and what’s under discussion.
  • Each person should be open to changing their beliefs, question them, and be open to others who question them.
  • Each person should question group beliefs. Groups should be open to changing their beliefs, and be open to others who question them.
  • Always be courteous and keep good manners in mind. Inquiry is expected to be rigorous, which may (will) cause strong reactions.
  • There are no punishments for saying what you really think. Saying something unpopular, even if it’s wrong, is a great service towards reaching the truth.
  • Arguments should not aim to personally offend anyone, and everyone is expected to receive arguments without taking offense.
  • Be humble. Conclusions are always temporary until further questioning and evidence proves it wrong. You can only increase the certainty that a conclusion is correct or learn that it is wrong, but you should never hold a conclusion as correct, since this leads to dogma and biases. Understand your own ignorance of the truth, and that of others.

I think any competent human displays these principles most of the time, if not all the time, and so I currently think any sort of recruitment should look for at least these principles in candidates.

The curious thing is that as I thought more about this, I realised that this can be extended to more than just recruiting for a company. I think any great friendship/relationship should display these principles as well. They form the basis for true partnership.

I highly recommend reading the book to understand the socratic method and its principles in depth. It’s something that you’ll surely use for your entire life.