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Marcus Blankenship
Marcus Blankenship

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Hiring lessons from barista shopping

In my workshop’s I teach people how to spot and capture lessons from everyday situations. Below is an example of that sort of thinking.


I travel about a fair bit. When I arrive in a new place, I always look for where to get a good cup of coffee.

(BTW, I could use some recommendations for good black coffee in Albuquerque, NM. Got any for me? Send ‘em over!)

I compile a list from Yelp, then walk in and check things out – prepared to walk-out if there are red flags.

I’ve noticed some similarities between my efforts to find a good cup of coffee, and your efforts to find good programmers.


Step one: initial impression

It used to be that only “third wave” coffee shops had live edge wooden tables, hipster baristas with sleeve tattoos, and exposed brick walls. These used to be a strong signal I was in the right place… until the marketing people stepped in.

Now every coffee shop has this look, so I can’t trust it anymore. Most shops pass this step, so I head for step two.

Step two: the menu

Good coffee shops almost always simple menus, focused on coffee. So, if the menu has 100 kinds of drinks, 100 different syrups, or they serve coffee plus 100 food items, that’s a red flag.

I know what I need: black, brewed coffee.

Unfortunately, marketing people have ruined this as well, as some awful coffee shops have simple, awful menus. How they stay in business, I’ll never know.

Step three: the equipment

At this point, I’ll scan the equipment. I am a black coffee nerd, not an espresso geek. (Yes Virginia, there’s a big difference.)

I’m looking for Chemex pots, V60 pour-overs, proper pour-over kettles, french press pots, and other accouterments of good black coffee.

Often I see big carafe’s off coffee, which is a bad sign. Who knows how long it’s been sitting in there, and how awful it might be? There be dragons here, so beware the big carafe.

Step four: the beans

Good coffee shops are proud of their beans and can tell you where they come from. They know the history of their beans, and why one region tastes different from another. They also know details about how it is roasted and can guide between dark, light, sweet, sour, etc. (Yes, good black coffee can have wonderful, sour, fruity overtones.)

Don’t know your beans? I’m moving on. They are the building blocks of good coffee.

Step five: the barista

Finally, I step up to chat with the barista. My first question is the same, “What do you like here?” If they say “Oh, I don’t drink coffee.” I smile and head for the door.

See, everything else can be right, but if the person making it doesn’t know good from bad, or hates the taste of coffee, it won’t be great.

Yes, they can learn to do all the steps of a pour-over correctly, but how will they know they’ve done them right if they never taste it? And if they don’t like the taste, why would they care?

Another red flag is when they say “Oh, I love a soy vanilla caramel macchiato!” What they are really telling me is “I love sugar and caffeine!!”, not “I love coffee.”

If I want sugar, I’ll head to the bakery (another adventure in each city!), but I’m here because I want coffee!

Step six: the order

After too many hours of work, I finally order. I wait, nervously. I’m hopeful, excited at how this will turn out.

Then it comes, handed across a live-edge wooden counter in a brick building by a hipster with a sleeve tat of unicorns fighting pirate ships and The National playing in the background.

I smile, they smile, and I’m hopeful. Excited. ELATED!

Step seven: the result

About half the time it’s drinkable. Yeah, all my best efforts only pan out about 50% of the time.

By this point I’m usually so desperate I drink it anyway. Though if it’s awful I’ve been known to smile, take a sip, and drop it in the trash as I leave.

How this might be like hiring programmers

Last week I was going through these motions in Coos Bay, OR and it dawned on me that this feels a lot like hiring programmers.

You assess the initial impression from their resume, social media, and GitHub.

You review their resume to see what they know (the menu.)

You check out what languages and frameworks they’ve used (the equipment.)

You interview them about why they made certain decisions, and the impact it had on the project (the beans.)

You ask about their preferences and passions (the barista.)

If everything looks good, you hire them (the order.)

Then you look for the result, and about 50% of the time you’re happy.

By then you’re desperate, so if it’s not great, you move forward anyway, hoping next time will be better.

What lessons are available to you?

I’m assuming you see some similarities between my attempt to get good coffee, and your attempt to hire good programmers.

Instead of telling you what I see, let me ask what you see.

What ideas/lessons might you draw from this story?

What realizations did you have?

What might improve both our chances?

Write me back or leave a comment on my blog. I can’t wait to see what you come up with!



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