Hiring the Right People

Michael Mandel

Just landed on my desk: A copy of a new book called The Pentium Chronicles: The People, Passion, and Politics Behind Intel's Landmark Chips, by Robert Colwell, who was the chief architect responsible for the Pentium CPU architecture (at least according to the press release). I opened up the book at a random page and immediately came up with this very interesting nugget about hiring good people:

I had thought that the higher the interview score (the candidate’s average expertise level across the six technical areas), the more likely they would be to “catch on” at Intel and move on to great things. But there really was no statistical correlation between our interview scores and the odds that a particular person would get a promotion within a few years after having been hired. (All “fast-track” performers get such promotions).

This was somewhat distressing, at least initially. It just seemed so logical that people with higher evident technical ability would be better positioned than others with respect to promotions, but the data did not show it.

This made me suspicious. If my intuitions were wrong about this, where else might they be wrong? Well, surely a higher college grade point average out to be correlated with career success. After all, the GPA is a result of native ability, hard work, and demonstrated mastery of difficult technical material, all of which seem essential to success in industry. But, again, the data did not bear this out. It was clear that Intel did not hire engineers with GPAs below approximately 3.2, but once someone was hired, a higher GPA did not in any way predispose its owner to faster promotions.

I was feeling a bit desperate at this point. If interview scores and GPs did not predict future success, how about advanced degrees? Wouldn’t MSEEs and PhDs be able to exhibit higher levels of mastery as well as the perseverance to tackle something and finish it no matter what? Again, the data stubbornly refused to support even this soundly logical assumption. If anything, PhDs appeared to be underrepresented in the ranks of the newly promoted.

By this point, the pattern was clear, and I was pretty sure how the next attempted correlation would turn out. But I pressed on, comparing the alma maters of the fast-trackers to Intel’s list of preferred “focus” schools. I found nothing. There were unmistakable differences in the education background of students who came from, say, MIT, and those who came from second-tier universities, but focus schools were only slightly better represented in the promotions lists. And even that correlation was questionable, because Intel hires disproportionately more students from its focus schools so, naturally, there would be more of them in the fast-track category.

You know, this is something I also suspected about the unpredictability of hiring.

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