Building the right team is hard. What’s more challenging is hiring for several roles at once and trying to determine how all the pieces will come together in the end. You’re trying to assess individual performance, how the team will gel, and where the gaps will be. It’s like drafting a full basketball team all at once and hoping you have the right balance of scoring, rebounding, and defense. And when it’s a single hire, it often feels that much more critical.
When we founded our company in April, our objective was to build a team from diverse backgrounds, expertise and sectors to create an exceptional foundation for our business. The added challenge was doing it in a very condensed amount of time. To say it was (and is) like using our draft picks early in the season when the team is still trying to gel is an understatement.
What I’ve taken from my own hiring experiences — both when hiring at my previous company, Carbon Black, and now at my current company — is that the power of hiring is based on several key principles. Incredible teams are built when those who are hiring truly understand what qualities are key for their success. While yours may differ, many of us have embraced the powerful yet simple-to-remember dogma: passion, capacity, humility.
Passion is a subjective measure, but you know it when you see it. Even then, there are extroverts and introverts, those who wear their emotions on their sleeve, and those who are consistently calm and cool. Even when passion is a little harder to identify, there are still signs you can spot.
One of the first things I look for is whether or not the candidate is looking for a job or for this job. Are they looking to join your specific team, work on your specific problems, and embrace your organization? It may be difficult to detect initially, but there are signs throughout the process that will reveal whether the candidate is making a deliberate move toward a position and company they feel intensely about or if it’s just an attempt to get a job.
Passion alone is not enough. Alongside the excitement and drive you must understand the scope of this person’s capabilities. You must understand the capacity of every individual you add to your team to maximize the broader team’s performance. Capacity is a good indication of how much you can expect of a new hire off the bat, how versatile he or she will be, and how much turbulence they can withstand over time.
In this area, what’s more important to me is how they’ve done versus what they’ve done. Regardless of whether or not they know the exact tech stack or programming languages, your opportunity for them will be different. It’s more important the candidate has a track record of success and can quickly jump on board (with passion) to start contributing.
Capacity leads to someone who can grow, who can be trained. Whether that is on-the-fly training through their tasks and duties, or whether it’s a more formal program, training is critical. It’s your responsibility to ensure resources are available to set that person up for success.
Furthermore, set both clear and vague expectations. You’re probably saying, huh? Yes, employees need to have certain skills and concrete objectives, but don’t restrict them. You don’t know what their ceiling is. New hires often learn faster than you expect, so giving them a vision for where they should aim but letting them plot their own journey increases their ability to contribute. It also provides more autonomy and encourages creativity, which means a greater number of minds working on how to grow the business.
The other aspect I tend to look for is humility. You want to avoid assholes, plain and simple. We all have egos, but will this candidate be willing to receive feedback, to hear criticism, to want what’s best for the team, product, company, and customers?
Coaching is how you get these strong contributors to the next level. It’s not about coaching in the sense that every day you are giving them tips, modifying their shot, or telling them what to do. It’s about setting a higher bar for them to reach and the willingness to help them reach it. Coaching is your investment in someone’s ability — often delivered through constructive, actionable feedback that keeps your team on track for optimized performance.
I had the fortunate opportunity to interact with James Wetherbee at a recent security conference. He said many things that I will remember, but one of his core principles really stuck with me. He mentioned a NASA creed: “Individuals disappear on high performance teams.” This is a great horizon to aim for in today’s teams. Can you get to the point where even great performers are outshone by the success of the team? Is everyone pulling for each other? To use a cliche, is the whole greater than the sum of the parts?
Let me reiterate the first point I made above: Hiring is hard. What’s harder is keeping the integrity of a team as you scale. But the good ones are out there and willing to invest if you can offer them exciting challenges and rewarding environments.
There are many sayings about how culture beats strategy or culture is the strategy, but the point is the same — you need people willing to do battle, who have each other’s backs, and who all remember one thing: It is all about the team.
Find the right attitude and passion, then find the spot that plays to the new employee’s strengths. Coach them to be optimal, and pass the lessons on so they can continue the hiring trend. It’s a fight to get the right people on the bus, but it’s possible.
Ben Johnson is CTO and cofounder of Obsidian Security. He previously cofounded Carbon Black and most recently served as the company’s chief security strategist. He has also has been a lecturer at University of Chicago’s Masters Program in Computer Science and a cybersecurity specialist at the National Security Agency (NSA).