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Apparently the founder of Kayak.com does this, in an attempt to not only prevent poisonous people from destroying teams, but to go in the other direction and create exceptional teams.
Last night I went to the Extreme Programming San Diego meeting (it should probably be called "Agile" but I suspect the group is old enough that XP was what started it). A reader knew that I was in San Diego visiting my folks so he suggested it. I thought I'd dip my toe in the water and see if programming was any more interesting to me than the last time I checked. Especially since Agile practices tend to be more focused on people issues, which is where I seem to continue to drift.
The first thing I noticed was the turnout. I'm guessing there are thousands of programmers in San Diego, but we got maybe 10 people to show up. That's probably a condemnation of the profession, where the majority don't read or learn new things. It could also be a number of other issues, the biggest of which is, I think, the fact that user groups cling to the same old approach that everyone else does: get a speaker to come in and give a lecture. The speaker was fine, and had even reduced bullet points in favor of more pictures. But there's something in my brain that says "nap time" whenever a projector gets turned on. The interaction is primarily one-way and scripted, but you can't fast-forward the lecture like you can on the web.
When asked, I related my interest in people issues, where I've come to believe lie the biggest possibilities for improvement. As an example, I talked about building teams, and how difficult it is to do it well within the business structures we currently have. One of the people there mentioned Kayak.com, and how the founder had hired and fired hundreds of people in order to get the 30 or so that he currently employs.
One way to look at the problem of company-building is that it should focus on creating great teams. I've heard numerous people say that the company could be in various kinds of bad shape but they could be happy in it as long as they were on a great team. If the team is indeed the fundamental component of the company, then it would be interesting to make an environment whose primary focus is to be a culture medium for great teams.
One of the biggest problems in team building can be thought of as a version of the "sunk cost" issue. Although it's better to think of lost investment as just that -- lost -- when making decisions, our brains tend to think in terms of what we've already invested. So if you've invested a lot of time and money in hiring someone, you'll tend to hang on to that person until the pain of doing so exceeds your imagination of what it took to get them in that position. This means that a poisonous person can easily be in a team long enough to destroy it before finally being ejected, at which point it's too late. You've thrown a bass into your team of goldfish, and while the bass is eating up your team, you're thinking "maybe he'll get full."
The other big factor is legal. Some people sued companies for wrongful termination, so every company adapted practices to prevent it. You can't just fire someone anymore, you have to give them a couple of 6-month evaluations to show due diligence.
I suspect the Kayak.com founder has everyone sign a contract that allows them to be fired easily. Producing company loyalty in a situation like that might be tough ... but if you get the right people then maybe that goes away. People might become vicariously loyal to their company because they really want to be in their team.
The real problem with hiring someone for a team is that you can't actually know how well they will work out until they're participating on a day-to-day basis. Nothing in an interview really tells you this. So apparently Kayak.com decided that most of the "interview" would go on by putting the person in the real situation and seeing how they worked out. Perhaps a little unsettling and brutal -- although looking for a job is never a great experience, and maybe having one, even if just for a short period, might be better than a long period out of work and looking -- but from the standpoint of the company it could produce some excellent results.
Does anyone have links to stories about Kayak.com's approach? What other types of practices might help solve the problem of team-building?
|Bruce Eckel (www.BruceEckel.com) provides development assistance in Python with user interfaces in Flex. He is the author of Thinking in Java (Prentice-Hall, 1998, 2nd Edition, 2000, 3rd Edition, 2003, 4th Edition, 2005), the Hands-On Java Seminar CD ROM (available on the Web site), Thinking in C++ (PH 1995; 2nd edition 2000, Volume 2 with Chuck Allison, 2003), C++ Inside & Out (Osborne/McGraw-Hill 1993), among others. He's given hundreds of presentations throughout the world, published over 150 articles in numerous magazines, was a founding member of the ANSI/ISO C++ committee and speaks regularly at conferences.|