The future of smart hiring

Yesterday’s post about the two NASA engineers reminded me of the excerpt from Stuart Brown’s book Play which I’ve mentioned a few times before.  (Here’s a link to the most recent mention.) Brown tells the story of how the managers at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (the lab behind the Mars landing) noticed in the late 90s that graduates of top engineering schools were often unable to solve the kind of problems JPL needed them to solve.  The hiring managers started asking candidates how they spent their childhoods, looking for those who’d done a lot of tinkering, taking apart, fixing, building… playing.  If Brown has his dates right, this JPL realization came before Steltzner and Ferdowsi were hired.

It can seem, given the competitive job market and the competitive college admissions realm,  as though it doesn’t matter to employers whether or not you can actually do the work they need you to do, as long as you have the right alma mater and the right grades.  But employers who really want to do the best possible work are changing their ways, which means it’s no longer a good idea to forsake genuine inquiry, investigation, and relevant training for the sake of toeing the academic line.  Like I said yesterday, the Curiosity guys didn’t make it to the control room just by building things out of blocks and gazing up at the stars.  But the fact that they were driven by their connection with these experiences not only made it possible for them to conquer the obstacles that surely came up in the course of their training and education, it also made them appealing candidates for the extremely complicated work they were interested in doing.