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Cultural Fit is Bullshit January 23, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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This post has spent months (maybe years) in the making. And yes, I like the rhyme of the title.  I revisited it yet again after reading this article on minority hiring in Silicon Valley in Bloomberg News.

I am not a mainstream techie. I earned two degrees in psychology before turning to programming and technology in general, in my late 20s.  I am not a very good techie.  I have a solid foundation to understand and explain concepts (I was a university professor at one point), but never more than an average coder.  Nevertheless, I’ve made mostly a decent living in technology, though not in Silicon Valley.  Just so you know where I’m coming from.

I used to believe that cultural fit was the preeminent job requirement. Now I understand that’s what the employer would like me to believe.  They could hire or fire on a whim, rather than what they actually need.  In fact, whether or not I could do that job has no impact on my hireability.

So minorities (and almost certainly others who don’t fit into pre-established norms) are at a disadvantage because they didn’t start coding when they were seven? This is where the bullshit starts.  Does that make them better coders?  Possibly, although certainly not provably.  Does that make them better contributors?  Now there is the rub.  I would argue no.

But we are befuddled by candidates who are savants at placing bits of data into processor registers and making it do backflips. That is a worthwhile skill, but it’s not the only skill necessary to succeed, as an individual, as a part of a team, and as a company.  Even in Silicon Valley.  If your teams are all A-list coders, you are missing out on some essential skills.  Yet you seem to be fine with that.

In my health issues over the last year, I was fortunate to encounter a couple of doctors who treated me as a person, rather than as a collection of symptoms. I challenge Silicon Valley to do the same.  Understand at a deep level what your teams need, and interview and hire based on those needs.  Understand not only the technical skills, but the social dynamics and complementary skills that are necessary for any team to succeed.  You are not doing so.

The mantra of cultural fit has enabled Silicon Valley to ignore deeper issues of team dynamics, skills needs, and what drives people to be successful. You hire people like you.  Or people that fit into a predetermined slot.  I get it, but you refuse to get out of your comfort zone to look at what might make you successful.  You are blind.  And, in the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king, if I may quote Desiderius Erasmus.

I have no right to do so, but I challenge Silicon Valley. Yes, you.

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1. Graduating and the Cult of Organizational Culture | Cutting Edge Computing - April 12, 2016

[…] incorrect concepts that are unquestioningly accepted in many tech companies regarding culture. Cultural fit is probably at the top of that list.  Dan cites the “culture code” that Netflix published in […]


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