Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Hire the Nerd

I recently completed a search for a finance role and had an interesting discussion with the client about a candidate (let’s call him John). He said, “You won’t appreciate this, Chris, because you’re not a finance person, but I really liked John. We had a long discussion about expense reports, and we were really on the same page.” My client figured that I wouldn’t appreciate the arcane details of expense reporting. (Little did he know, but that’s a separate story.) His point was that only finance people could spend an enjoyable half hour discussing accounting for employee expenses, and that non-finance people would rather have their teeth cleaned.

There is some truth to his statement. However, as a recruiter, I look for enthusiasm as one of the differentiators among candidates. And one of the best ways to assess enthusiasm is to see how jazzed the candidates get about their area of expertise. That is, are they nerdy enough?

As a technology nerd myself (with academic training in math, computer science, biology, psychology and neuroscience), it would be very easy for me to drift into technical discussions with candidates. I have trained myself to focus on the management skills of the candidates, but I do allow and enjoy the technical discussions, and purposely cover that in the process.

Why? For two key reasons. First, I have long argued that all roles in a technology company are technology roles. Everyone in a technology company needs to have some level of grounding in the technology. As an example, I’ve often heard CFO candidates argue that numbers are numbers, and they should be considered for life sciences opportunities. Well if you’ve never heard the term “third party payer,” or don’t understand the long development timelines and capital requirements, or don’t know what a “burn rate” is, you’re going to have a tough time in a life sciences company. It’s the same reason you wouldn’t hire a CFO for your public company who didn’t have post-SOX public company experience. There’s even a recent example. Jolene Varney was hired from The Dr. Pepper Snapple Group to take the reins at Mylan Pharmaceuticals last year. Hunh? What were they thinking? It’s true she did the heavy lifting on the $4B demerger from Cadbury Schweppes, and I’m certain she’s very talented, but she had no experience in the life sciences! Not surprisingly (to me, anyway), she lasted three months. Now of course it’s possible that she took a look under the sheets and didn’t like what she saw, but at least one analyst wrote that “…Varney's departure was driven primarily by fit issues, as compared to something more serious. As a reminder, Varney had been with MYL since May 28 and had no prior CFO or generic industry experience."

Second, I want to hear the candidate’s level of enthusiasm about the technical requirements of the role. In John’s case, I was glad to hear that he got jazzed talking about expense reports. For a CTO or VP, R&D role, I want to hear excitement in the way they want to drill into the technology. In a Marketing role, I need to feel the excitement about their last campaign. You get the picture.

Having said all this, too nerdy isn’t good either. I once walked into a lunch interview and knew in about 7 milliseconds it wasn’t a fit. The candidate was way too nerdy for the culture at the client company. (Of course, I gave the candidate the benefit of the doubt and diligently conducted the interview, but it was only further confirmed by the time the check arrived.)

So hire the nerd. And in a shameless plug, it’s why you’re always better off with a recruiter who understands the client’s business. The life sciences industry is just different. Trust me.