Discrimination means missing out on hiring the best sysadmins

Rikki Endsley posted to Google Plus this week:

I saw this tweet today from a hiring manager: "Just interviewed for a sysadmin. I'm struggling since she has no social footprint. Is that wrong, or should social be key?" What are your thoughts on a 'social footprint' requirement for sysadmins? link

I'm very disturbed hearing a hiring manager say this. "Social Footprint" means how visible the person is on social networks like Facebook, G+, Twitter and so on. What does that have to do with whether or not the person is a good system administrator?

It could be a bad thing if it means the person is anti-social or doesn't keep up with the latest innovations. It could be a good thing if it means the person has privacy concerns. In fact, if someone has a background in security and has kept themselves invisible in light of all the social networking stuff that is out there, I'd say that indicates a particular skill. Guessing wrong in this area will result in a bad hiring decision.

The reason that this really struck me, however, is that the candidate is a "she". Is this a judgement we'd make about a male candidate? Take a moment to think about how you'd react differently to a woman saying she's not on Facebook vs. a man.

While discrimination in certain categories is illegal (this varies by state and country) let's talk about the broader definition of discrimination: Turning away a candidate because "they aren't like me".

The goal in hiring is to hire the absolute best person for the position. Discrimination is bad because it means you end up missing the best candidate. Put another way: Discrimination results in you hiring people that aren't as good as you could be hiring.

Let's look at some subtle ways that we discriminate that leads to bad hiring decisions:

Example 1: Candidate doesn't have a home network: I've heard this used as a "red flag". "How could they be a serious sysadmin if they don't have a network at home?" Here are a few reasons why this is terrible criteria to use:

  • The candidate can't afford one. Why discriminate against someone for being poorer than you? For most of my career my "home network" was paid for by my employer (either partially or substantially.... whether they knew it or not). Are you discriminating against someone for working for a cheap employer or are you discriminating against them from being too broke to buy equipment and too honest to steal from their employer?
  • The candidate has a huge lab at work and doesn't need to experiment at home.
  • The candidate has children at home and doesn't want them to break things. Are you discriminating against someone for having children?
  • The candidate keeps a good separation between homelife and worklife which is something that many fine time management books recommend. Are you discriminating against someone for having good time management skills? A good "work-life balance"?
  • The candidate just doesn't need one. Not everyone does.
  • The candidate has one, but doesn't call it that. When I began writing this article my plan was to point out that I don't have a home network. I don't think of myself as having a home network. However, my Cable TV provider's box includes a WiFi base station: my laptops, phones, Tivos and Wii connect to it. ...that's not a "network", is it? Well, ok, I guess technically it is. I don't think of it as one. I guess you wouldn't have hired me.

The issue of whether or not a candidate has a home network comes from the days when having a home network was difficult: it meant the person had experience running wires, connecting hubs and switches, configuring routers, setting up firewalls, and, if this was before DHCP, it meant knowing a lot about IP addressing. That's a lot of knowledge. While it is a plus to see a candidate with such experience, it isn't a minus if the candidate doesn't have that experience. It just means they have an awesome internet provider or are smart enough to buy a damn pre-made WiFi base station so they can spend more time having fun.

In the chapter on hiring sysadmins in TPOSANA (yes, there is a chapter on that!) we make the point that some people (often women and minorities) downplay their own experience. Quote...

Asking candidates to rate their own skills can help indicate their level of self-confidence, but little else. You don't know their basis for comparison. Some people are brought up being taught to always downplay their skills. A hiring manager once nearly lost a candidate who said that she didn't know much about Macintoshes. It turned out that she used one 8 hours a day and was supporting four applications for her department, but she didn't know how to program one. Ask people to describe their experience instead.

Which leads me to the next example...

Example 2: Candidate didn't grow up using computers: I hadn't realized that was a requirement for being a sysadmin!

  • The most obvious reason this is invalid reasoning is that some candidates were born before having a home computer was possible. Age discrimination is illegal in all 50 states (though the age range is different).
  • Many people just plain weren't interested in computers until later in life. Two women I know both tell the same story: it wasn't until sophomore year in college that they took a computer class and realized they had an aptitude for it. Soon they had changed major and the rest is history.
  • Many people grow up too poor to have a computer when growing up. Discrimination again people for being poor is just stupid. Not hiring someone because they were poor or are poor is helping create the problem of poverty that you so obviously dislike! Duh!

There are many other ways we turn down perfectly good candidates because "they aren't like us". It is an easy trap to get into. It is our responsibility be critically aware of our thinking when making hiring decisions and do our best to hire based on criteria that relates to job performance and nothing else. Hire the best.

Posted by Tom Limoncelli in Management

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At risk of being called a misogynist, I think you are overreacting.

I take "social footprint" in the context of hiring for a technical position to mean the following (in no particular order)

* LinkedIn profile
* Github/Gitorious profile
* Newsgroup/Google groups postings in technical subject areas.
* Bug reports on various bug trackers
* Technical blog posts
* Tweets of a technical nature
* Technical Meetup group membership
* Presence noted at various technical conferences
* Commits to open source projects

These aren't hard requirements and obviously you can substitute things like Github for Free Online SCM provider X, but they are all good hallmarks of someone actively involved in the OSS community or at least in public technical circles. I wouldn't rule out someone without a "social footprint" in this context, but it certainly makes recruiting easier.

If you are looking for an action point for how this social "evil" may be eradicated, perhaps we might like to look at why, within the dwindling female numbers in the technical arena we see even fewer of them having a significant online presence. Valerie Aurora comes to mind, which allows me to draw a conclusion that perhaps the Internet is not a friendly place for women be it in personal OR technical circles (based on various stories she has brought to light).

I'm no closer to an answer but it's certainly an interesting topic worth putting effort into.

Beginning a question with "what" almost always generate answers more interesting beginning them with "do" (or any other word that requests a yes/no answer).

Plus, asking a "what?" question forces the questioner to consider the scope and content of the question in more detail.

"Do you have a home network?" Feh. "What is your experience setting up and maintaining an IP network?" Tada!

So as the person that started the tweet a few comments. Whether I said She or He I think has gotten way more attention than it deserves. I have the same question with any candidate actually, including the "He" ones.

And actually I agree there are a lot of really good sysadmins that don't have a social footprint (if you only include facebook, twitter, linkedin)

But for us social is key. You can't really do a google search on Enterasys and not pick up on that. Our chief customer officer is in Forbes talking about social and how important it is. We have received several (not sure I can say dozens yet) of awards for our products and how we integrate social into managing networks, and our CIO was recognized as one of Boston's best CIO.

My point is we are progressive and all in when it comes to social (as well as cloud and mobile).

For us social is more than having a twitter account. It's about engaging with our peers, customers, partners and in come cases competitors to help make IT better.

Frankly just having a twitter account isn't enough either. Not having a twitter account doesn't exclude someone either, but I only want candidates in IT that are innovative, open, collaborative, focused and driven. Social networks aren't the only way to demonstrate that, but it does help separate you from the crowd.

I've almost missed out on some great candidates in the past and I'm sure I've missed out on some great ones that I never got to learn were great. I've also hired some really great ones. Some of my stories are http://it-ops-trench.blogspot.com/2012/06/more-hiring-thoughts-and-stories.html

It came up in our recent search committee training, that we're not allowed to google candidates....because it can be discriminatory.

Though my now $boss admitted to googling me when I had applied for this job. Though back then, I had also been asked to provide links to myself on the Internet (showing my participation in open source projects) by other prospective employers.

OTOH, some candidates are blessed with hard to google names....like our Security Compliance officer's name is "Elizabeth Shannon".

I've also gotten into trouble for having too much of a social presence. Admins in other units had been looking to me to provide details on why something was down.....

Though it was responding that I'm not allowed to respond to them through social networks anymore, that lead to threat of termination.

The amount of fickle reasoning that goes into hiring decisions truly amazes me.

I recently lost out on a job that I was well suited for because I was considered too shy, by one of the 12 people who interviewed me.

I actually point the finger a bit at Google for causing a lot of this mess, it seems to be very trendy to run a candidate through a gauntlet of interviews. This I think in turn can lead to too much information.

One other thing that I have noticed is a worrying trend towards only accepting people like ourselves. This is a challenging one, we tend to associate with people who act or think like us, but outside perspectives and challenges are very, very important. We can't hire the opposite of what we want, but we also shouldn't always be looking for someone who is exactly like us.

I for instance have chosen to walk a very different path in life, sure I have a social presence, but privacy is important to me. I live in a remote area, and I do mean very remote, it is a challenge for me to come down to a city, let alone run through a gauntlet of interviews. Perhaps these choices by me are overall bad for a company, but my technical skills are pretty darn good. However, technical skills seems to matter less and less these days and the person they think I am and how I would fit aspect seem to matter more and more.

There is a good article that covers some of this here: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2012/06/19/working_on_wall_street/ The article talks a lot about the finance sector but I think the valley is pretty close.

Gathering enough information about candidates in this field is very hard, I wish it were easier to hire and fire quickly without huge repercussions for the person being fired (loss of healthcare, other benefits, pay etc.) because ultimately just trying a person out seems to be the only way I have seen so far to figure them out. 12, 24, 36, interviews probably aren't going to get you there and they probably are going to increase your chance for fickle bias creeping into the system.

As for the gender issue, well that is a whole separate matter, for other days :).

-Erinn

Sigh,

Tom, I would rather higher a less capable but more personable candidate than one with high technical chops but fewer team skills.

The rest of your article is a straw man. Last time I checked, my social economic status was not on resume or part of my job interview so none of it can be used to discriminate.

We all discriminate every day. We just call them choices. I discriminated against the few billion other women on the planet when I chose my wife.

If I'm hiring for someone to manage and app or server I sure as heck want them to understand the human side of what that technology provides. Isn't that what it means to be “social”.

I've been through gauntlet interviews at numerous places, Yahoo! Mail was my first....and also at a few smaller companies. In fact, we do interviews like that here. Which often includes an open interview session, where any random person on campus can come in and grill the candidate (though sometimes its useful to go to them to learn what other people/units do around here.)

I heard in the end, that my ex-$boss didn't consider me capable of doing the job...now I have sole responsibility for many of the things ex-$boss didn't think anybody was capable of doing, and then some. Including something where we kept being asked when we would do something, and ex-$boss kept saying we need to upgrade X first. And, then when it got upgraded, there were new excuses. Now I'm the expert at doing that thing....and I could've done it on the old system, but we wanted until it was nearing end of support to bring new system online and rush migrate to it.

But, the way I pushed through my clearly being extremely shy and to go through all the grillings, one of the other system administrators (now my $boss) spoke out for me and got me hired.

At one time there were two kinds of people in our unit....people that worked well with other people and mostly have high technical chops, and the people that only worked on what they wanted...weren't interested in self-improvement or consider SA a career. (even though most of them have ended up elsewhere doing SA jobs.) All that remains today, are the people that work well together. When ex-$boss was to be reassigned, they offered to put them under the new $boss...but $boss didn't feel that they'd be capable of the technical needs of the position or taking direction from new $boss. (even though they had worked up through the unit, and when the $boss position opened up...asserted affirmative reasons on top of seniority to get it.)

I remember when I started, how I thought it was nice to be working for a $boss that actually knew how to do the job....but now it constantly surprises me that $boss didn't..... Some how I often get those $user requests.

But, its true...in recent times when we have done searches....the end two criteria have been is the person someone that would fit in here and do they at least seem to have sufficient technical skills and interests to do the job.

Though we've usually run into other issues at the end....usually finding out they aren't legal to work here. The EOE/AA people say its discriminatory to ask their work status during the search process. Even if we want to ask all our applicants....regardless of their race or nationality, etc. Because some positions here can be H1B'd....except that we can disqualify an applicant if they won't be available to start immediately (or within a few weeks) of offer. Since they say an H1B would take at least 6 months....

But, we don't require our applicants to hold advanced degrees in Unix Systems Administration....which is needed for H1B.

Though we did a search...where an applicant's resume/cover letter had no information to support that they had ever worked in the country...or any other country. And, the search chair was struggling with the urge to use google searches that seemed to show the didn't. He went back and forth with counsel, EOE/AA, HR....trying to find out how to ask if the person was even in the country, let alone be legal to be here.

Eventually, the candidate was disqualified for failing to respond to questions to clarify his technical experience. (IE: the position calls for 4 years experience with Solaris 10....in the past we didn't specify version. A candidate has threatened legal action....because we didn't hire him for personabiliy reasons, even though he did have technical requirements...though hadn't touched Solaris since 2.6....he also wanted to sue his own reference, for tipping off the search committee off that he wasn't very personable....)

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