Reading notes: Talent

Even more than usual, this is a set of reflections and not a comprehensive review. (Although I've made a point of not reading other reviews before writing mine, I imagine it's well- and thoroughly reviewed elsewhere.)

  1. Like Tyler's books generally, this one is stylistically a little ragged--in good ways. It's pleasantly straightforward, and always reminding you that this is primarily a record of things Tyler wants to communicate and only secondarily a literary artifact. Good writing from academics often (not always!) has this feature: the reader is constantly, subtly reminded that the real project is accumulation of human capital in the writer, and that the articles and books are all downstream of that. In a book about talent, I find it to be a subtle, constant reminder of what the authors have done to cultivate their own talent.
  2. Reading this book is strenuous and emotionally challenging--again, in a good way. How do I stack up? What could I be doing to cultivate talent better? It's a book about the assessment of talent and not, directly, its cultivation, but the two subjects are too closely linked for the active reader not to be considering both on every page. An important skill in reading this book properly is not letting your self-judgments and development plans distract you from the lessons about finding and cultivating talent.
  3. The Groucho Marx effect is important: very often you need to be asking why the person wants your company. This is another way into seeing the value of being distinctive and focusing on comparative advantage as a writer. Suppose someone writes to me (I like it when this happens!) about a piece I wrote. Why were they reading, and why are they writing to, me instead of anyone else in the world? If you aren't doing something distinctive, the answer might not be flattering.
  4. I've seen a lot of companies handle Groucho Marx reasoning badly specifically in software. The market for programmers is still very hot (yes, even now), and I have seen many American companies deal badly with the reality that just about anyone they can hire is someone who cannot get one of the X highest-tier programming jobs in America. This tends to be exacerbated by the facts that (i) the absolute compensation they are offering is still quite high and (ii) fully facing this reality tends not to reflect well on the interviewer, either. Hiring programmers is all about making necessary tradeoffs. There are certainly teams of "the X+1th-best-available" programmers working at very high levels and happily producing output as efficiently as teams from the most prestigious firms. But (I conjecture) this tends to be a story of managing, deploying, and retaining talent rather than finding eight programmers who all hate remote work and/or don't know that Google is hiring and prefer your firm to every other local firm.
  5. Relatedly, for a lot of companies, I suspect that a big part of the search for software engineering talent is figuring out how to do things without using software engineers.
  6. I don't remember any discussion of laws governing interviews in the book. I don't think the authors recommend anything illegal, but it's easy to imagine an HR department wincing at it. The gap between the Cowen/Gross picture of talent search and the reality of job interviews might have more to do with regulatory mindsets than they discuss (though I'm sure they're aware of this).
  7. There are a lot of programming jobs where what the authors call a "multiplicative model" is probably correct. Consider (i) implementation accuracy, (ii) implementation efficiency, (iii) dependency management, (iv) persistence management, (v) debugging more straightforwardly logical errors, (vi) debugging data- and persistence-related errors, (vii) documentation, (viii) API construction, (ix) migration management, and (x) team communication. Many software jobs require at least 8 of these. Some require all 10. They're somewhat correlated, but less than many people think.
  8. The discussion of cultivating talent is excellent, and something I spent the first half of the book itching to hear about. There's much more to say about this at the organizational level. Cowen and Gross discuss at some length (i) identifying talent generally, (ii) identifying talent that fits a specific need, and (iii) making organizational room for specific kinds of underappreciated talent. For human capital that grows exponentially, however (and that's the case the authors want you to shoot for), a lot of the person's ultimate output will reflect their growth after they join you. (Whether or not we're talking about hiring for a job or other kinds of talent search.) So there's a lot to be said about figuring out what kinds of talent you're best at nurturing.

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