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Hiring people with the same ideas as you does not generate new ideas

A couple of months ago, political advisor Dominic Cummings decided to put out a job ad (on his personal blog) for data scientists, project managers, policy experts, and assorted weirdos.

It's a pretty strange blog post, which abandons the usual structure of a job ad in favour of stuff like this:

People in SW1 talk a lot about ‘diversity’ but they rarely mean ‘true cognitive diversity’. They are usually babbling about ‘gender identity diversity blah blah’. What SW1 needs is not more drivel about ‘identity’ and ‘diversity’ from Oxbridge humanities graduates but more genuine cognitive diversity.

We need some true wild cards, artists, people who never went to university and fought their way out of an appalling hell hole, weirdos from William Gibson novels like that girl hired by Bigend as a brand ‘diviner’ who feels sick at the sight of Tommy Hilfiger or that Chinese-Cuban free runner from a crime family hired by the KGB. If you want to figure out what characters around Putin might do, or how international criminal gangs might exploit holes in our border security, you don’t want more Oxbridge English graduates who chat about Lacan at dinner parties with TV producers and spread fake news about fake news.

If his goal is to get different kinds of people working in government, ranting about diversity is not a great way to go about it. Somehow gender diversity (which is actually measurable) is not "genuine", but "cognitive diversity" is? It's also telling that he is generalising his own experiences of Whitehall (SW1) to the whole of the civil service (even though 80% of civil servants work outside of London).

Despite saying that he wants to see less "Oxbridge humanities graduates", this blog post is littered with cultural references, as if you are expected to have read all the same things as Dominic Cummings and share all his interests. Some of the roles explicitly dictate the age of the ideal candidate and the experience they are expected to have (e.g. "We want to hire some VERY clever young people either straight out of university or recently out").

Here's the problem: you won't get cognitive diversity by hiring a bunch of people with identical backgrounds.

He restricts the pool of candidates even further with ridiculous constraints like "you will not have weekday date nights, you will sacrifice many weekends — frankly it will hard having a boy/girlfriend at all" and "don’t apply unless you can commit to at least 2 years".


His admission that "by definition I don’t really know what I’m looking for" shows that he is letting his own personal biases guide hiring decisions instead of holding candidates to some objective criteria.

Selection criteria matter

It's not just one stupid blog post. Unfortunately, in tech it's very normal to be extremely selective about who to hire. Making a "bad" hire (or even not hiring "the best") is seen as something to be avoided at all costs. This might sound reasonable on the face of it, but it's a clear sign that either the organisation isn't good at learning and development, or they don't expect employees to stick around a long time.

Qualified candidates should avoid organisations that expect them to know everything up front. Software development is constantly changing, and learning new things is part of the job. Someone whose skills are in demand should not settle for a job where they are treated as a resource to extract as much value as possible from.

For selection criteria to be effective, they have to relate to things you actually care about - i.e. how the candidate would approach the actual job. In my experience many things people are asked at interview are only about as predictive as a fizz buzz exercise, which is literally designed to catch people who have never done any programming at all.

There are so many badly written ads for tech jobs that people have written scripts to filter out the bullshit. People are so sick of pointless whiteboarding exercises that they created a list of companies that don't use them. If you are a hiring manager wondering why it is so hard to find good people, listen to what they are saying!

What to do instead

If you really want to increase the diversity of ideas in your organisation, and attract good candidates instead of driving them away, there are a ton of things you can do about it. Here are just a few ideas:

  1. Create the conditions for ideas to be listened to (at all levels of the organisation). There is no point hiring people with brilliant ideas if they can't influence anything.
  2. Completely anonymise names, gender and educational backgrounds in CVs you review. None of this stuff really needs to factor into your decision making.
  3. Decide your assessment criteria in advance and structure interviews so that all candidates answer the same questions/complete the same tasks. Don't base an advert on the skills of someone who has just left, or your own experience. Define the outline of a role and expect variation within that. If you hire a lot of people, regularly review your hiring criteria and work out which ones are actually influencing hiring decisions.
  4. Unambiguously tell candidates what you are looking for and how they can demonstrate that. If you don't know what you are looking for, then seek out advice before advertising the role or hire a consultant! Don't waste candidates' time just to get information.
  5. Don't expect candidates to work for free. If candidates have to complete a work sample as part of the hiring process, pay them for their time. Don't make assumptions about how long a task takes if you haven't personally completed it or observed someone doing it.
  6. Be flexible about working hours and allow people to have lives outside of work. Support people to work remotely if they need to.
  7. Don't suggest that candidates have to fit into your company culture rather than the other way round. Don't use language that alienates people. Don't use trick questions in interviews. Don't be proud of your "high pressure" or "fast moving environment". Don't limit your talent pool with arbitrary rules.

Top comments (1)

helleworld_ profile image
Desiré 👩‍🎓👩‍🏫

This is pure gold, thank you. Really well explained and detailed.