Every once in a while, one of these recruiting wisdom re-posts pops up in my Linkedin Feed that tells me to „hire for attitude, not for skills“. I understand why most people like the idea. How awesome would it be, if you could hire virtually everyone and teach basically everything on the job? Unfortunately, this is not how it works. If this is your hiring strategy, your company is the least attractive for tech talents and experts.

Here’s why: Our industry is very complex and diverse. I would dare to say that it is the most complex there is (but I assume everybody says that about their line of work). It takes years to achieve mastery. And once you have, you are most certainly highly specialized in only a very narrow field. Without excellent mentoring and open culture, most people will never even achieve this level.

So what does that mean for your strategy to hire experts?

Skills Almost Always Come With Attitude

… but attitude doesn’t necessarily develop skills. If your company is like 99.999% of other companies, you have neither the capabilities nor the capacities to train the skills. The very few talents you may or may not have, are occupied keeping your business running. Even if they were available, they aren’t necessarily good teachers. Keep in mind, that most people working in tech usually have an „I-shaped“ profile, there are very few that have a „T-shaped“ profile.

Here’s what you have to understand: If we don’t work on the exact same technology, we can barely help each other. A Java developer can’t mentor a Salesforce or SAP developer. Python can’t teach TypeScript. Salesforce can’t mentor Node.js. I would even dare to say someone that only ever worked with Angular will even have trouble mentoring React.

Putting inexperienced people in highly demanding and critical roles can lead to catastrophic failure. And it is completely unfair, too. In my personal experience, guided learning with a skilled mentor is about 5-fold faster than pure „learning by doing“. So unless you can afford massive delays and inferior solutions, don’t hire someone with „only a great attitude“ and expect them to learn the skills on the job.

I had the opportunity to work with a couple of very talented and very knowledgeable people in my career. Every single one of them understood what it takes to become a real professional. By acquiring the skills they had, these people have proven that they possess the right attitude.

You Should Hire For Skills, Not For Attitude

Besides the objective factors, there’s also an emotional side to it. Assuming you are an „IT Expert“ after a 3 months coding boot camp is the same as assuming you are a paramedic after attending your driver’s license first aid course. You are not. You merely started a lifelong journey of learning.

By saying „we can teach the skills later“, a company completely de-values all the effort and dedication an actual expert put into his craft. You may mean well, but what you are actually saying is this: „I could teach anyone in 6 months, what took you 10 years“. Besides the fact that this is flat-out illusional, it is also disrespectful and insulting. All the talented people I know take pride in their acquired skills and knowledge. Most of us put much more than 40 hours a week into our craft.

Telling explicitly or implicitly „anybody could learn your work“ pushes away most people. This comes down to the fact that we are all human beings that want to be acknowledged and appreciated. Some people may waive this away as childish and irrelevant. But in reality, people are way more productive in a trustworthy environment where they feel appreciated. So like it or not: If your employees feel undervalued and under-appreciated, they will leave. It doesn’t matter if you think they shouldn’t feel that way.

Why You Can’t Afford To Teach Skills

Since most tech teams are notoriously understaffed, they are always under high pressure. Especially small teams have too many different technologies they have to juggle. Spoken from experience, it is virtually impossible to build real expertise, if you cannot focus on one technology.

If a position is critical to the success of your business and you do not yet have the expertise in-house already, you should hire a seasoned expert. You can put someone inexperienced on the job, but do not expect the existing team to mentor them. When starting a new technology stack, you should always start with someone that has the capabilities and the capacities to train the less experienced team members.

I once had the opportunity to work with a 10x developer and he was able to deliver a project in less than 3 weeks, where his inexperienced predecessor failed to make progress for more than 4 months. This taught me two things:

  1. If you are clueless in a certain technology, you won’t be able to guide someone to do it. I’m a Salesforce developer and I completely failed at guiding a Node.js developer.
  2. Without proper guidance, that person will eventually fail. This left us with a huge delay in our schedule and an inferior solution that did not satisfy our needs.

If you need something done right, hire the right person.

The Cost Of Learning Something New

I strongly believe in continuous learning and believe everyone should strive for the „T-shaped profile„. I personally love new challenges. However, learning new skills comes at a considerable cost. And it’s not always worth it.

There are situations where it makes sense to learn something completely new. Especially if you branch out into related fields to complement your existing knowledge. But: Starting new slows you down. It would be unfair to expect a Java developer to build JavaScript frontends. You cannot expect a Salesforce developer to switch to SAP and to keep the same level of productivity. However, the phrase „hire for attitude, teach skills later“ expects that very explicitly.

And this is where it gets tricky: You have to pay IT experts usually based on what they can do, not what you want them to do. So if you want someone to learn something new, they are usually not willing to accept a pay cut. But depending on the magnitude of the change, they will work on much lower productivity for years, not only for a few months.

Thoughts About Compensation

In my personal experience, companies that acknowledge the importance of skills over general attitude, are better to work for. These companies acknowledge that actual expertise is very hard to come by. As a result, the overall work experience is usually much less frustrating. Nobody expects you to know everything right off the bat. You don’t get the feeling that you are easily replaced.

No matter if you are applying at a company or already work there, look out for these red flags:

  • They actively look for Juniors but don’t have Senior level positions on the same technology stack.
  • Senior level positions don’t have the capacities or are not willing to mentor Juniors.
  • The company cannot describe an (somewhat) objective career path for your specific technology.
  • Compensations for certain positions and levels do not correlate with the exclusivity of the required skills.

The good thing about a functioning market is a healthy amount of supply and demand and a very low information asymmetry. Both apply for tech jobs (more than anywhere else, in my opinion). Only if a company really values its experts, will they pay competitive salaries and create a working environment that supports continuous learning.

What Can Employers Do To Be Attractive?

Learning from all the mistakes I personally made and have seen in the last couple of years, here are my thoughts on how to build a culture that attracts talents.

  • Create a culture of trust and continuous learning. Expect mistakes to be made. Allocate time to be spent on professional and personal development.
  • If something is business critical, assign it to experienced people. Avoid putting Juniors on those roles. The pressure without proper guidance is frustrating and the risk of failure is too high.
  • Be aware of the diversification and complexity of our industry and hire accordingly. You want to start with a senior position to bootstrap the project and team. Later, scale with junior developers that are mentored by the senior roles. Not the other way round.
  • Find interesting and demanding projects for your less experienced team members. Mentor them, but don’t supervise too much. Let them take ownership so they can develop.
  • Enable the expert career. If team members are dedicated and put a lot of effort into their craft, allow them to thrive and acknowledge their expert role. Tech experts are highly sought after, so expect them to get actively approached by competition. Know what your competitors are offering and adjust your compensation at least once a year.

The absolute last thing you want to happen is this: You hired a Junior with a great attitude, invested years of training, and finally when they start to perform, lose them to a competitor.