If you walked down the street and ran into Wes Welker, you likely wouldn’t have any idea that he’s one of the premier receivers in the National Football League, having caught 122 passes in 2011 for 1569 yards, second only to megastar Calvin Johnson. Welker is 5’9″ and 185 pounds, not exactly your prototypical size for a wide receiver. He went undrafted coming out of Texas Tech 8 years ago so you wouldn’t be alone in assuming he wasn’t a football player. He signed with the San Diego Chargers as an undrafted free agent in 2004, was cut by the Chargers and picked up by the Miami Dolphins to play special teams. Playing for the Dolphins, he made his way into the starting line up by 2006, catching 67 balls for 687 yards. He returned 48 kickoffs for 1,048 yards (22.2 average) and 41 punts for 378 yards and a touchdown (9.2 average).
In 2007, the New England Patriots traded second and seventh round draft picks for Welker. In the Patriots system, he has thrived in the slot receiver role, highlighted by his 2011 season stats listed above. He doesn’t have prototypical size. He has average speed. How is it possible for Welker to not only exist but thrive in a sports league where guys 50 pounds heavier and faster than him are trying to kill him on every play? It’s a combination of the intangibles he possesses and the system he’s in. Welker is exceptionally tough. Playing in the slot, he regularly goes into the middle of the field on routes putting him in the midst of the biggest and fastest defensive players. He has exceptional hands, rarely dropping balls. He’s very good at reading defenses and finding holes he can slip into.
None of these qualities are measurable in the ways most people judge football players. No matter how many times he ran the 40 yard dash at the combine, no one was going to be able to see that he was unbelievably tough. No matter how many times he benched 225 pounds, no team was going to find out how good his hands are. Welker possesses qualities that only appear on the football field.
The Patriots realized all this and developed ways to get Welker the ball. More conventional teams would have kept Welker as a special teams contributor, never thinking that a guy who is willing to catch punts and run at full speed into the oncoming defense might be useful as a slot receiver. Because the Patriots have a system that is unconventional and willing to take chances on players, Welker has become an extremely successful professional football player even though on the outside, he looks nothing like one.
Intangibles are by definition slippery and difficult to pin down or determine but when someone one has them, they typically far exceed the expectations of potential employers. Of course, because they are difficult to measure or determine without actually working with someone, people with intangible qualities often go missed in hiring decisions because it takes a very experienced and careful person to be able to tease those qualities out of a candidate. Modern hiring, especially in technology, will almost always miss people who make very good employees but who don’t fit the stereotype of a particular position.
I recently applied at LivingSocial for a developer position. I’ll be the first to admit I was and am horribly under-qualified for the type of work they do. Normally, I never would have considered applying for such a high profile company but several people I know work there and thought I had a chance at getting on in a junior position. Part of the LivingSocial process is to complete a coding challenge which I did (you can see the code here if you’re so inclined). Apparently, based on that code, whoever reviewed my application felt that I would require too much mentoring to be offered a position. However, they had a program starting called Hungry Academy. It’s basically an apprenticeship program where the members of the program will undergo five months of training to become a LivingSocial engineer. My recruiter at LivingSocial said they thought I’d be a good fit for that program so I applied. The application process was twofold. You had to submit a video answering some predetermined questions and point them to some code that you had written.
Yesterday, after three weeks of silence, I got my rejection letter saying that the process was very competitive (it was, they got 560 applicants for 24 positions) and that they couldn’t extend an offer for this session of Hungry Academy. I have no idea what the criteria were for the selection process (the entire thing seemed to be rather opaque) but obviously, whatever I had wasn’t what they were looking for. On one hand, this is understandable. As I said, I knew I was horribly underqualified from a purely technological standpoint. However, I have a long history of far exceeding the expectations of people who take a chance on me. So I felt like a program like Hungry Academy might be a perfect fit, one where the intangibles I have might shine through.
Alas, it wasn’t to be. I didn’t get so much as a phone call to discuss my application leading me to assume it fell somewhere in the bottom 500 of all applicants. In many ways, this isn’t surprising. My history with canned hiring processes is dismal. I have been to several interviews over the course of my technological career and none of them were what you’d call spectacularly impressive. I don’t interview well because I don’t have prototypical engineering attributes. I didn’t have a Commodore-52 (yes, I know that’s not a real computer) when I was a kid, programming games as a teenager. I can’t readily write code on a whiteboard to determine the position of a chess piece. And yet, for 12 years, almost everyone I’ve worked with has said the code I write and the way I go about my work is of the highest quality. When interviewers call my references, references they often know personally (Dallas is a smaller tech community than you’d expect), they find out that I do things like create build servers and processes that cut 45 step compile and deploy scenarios into the click of a button. They find that I go out of my way to do things the right way instead of cutting corners. They find that I love to teach and spread information, instead of hoarding it as career protection. They find out that I implement and maintain wikis with organization knowledge that was once spread across multiple departments and people.
None of these things ever come out in an interview, even in one as atypical as the Hungry Academy one. And so, another opportunity that seems like would be a good fit for everyone involved is lost. I’m not going to say I’m not upset (the original title to this essay was “Dr. Bitter Disappointment (How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Fact that I wasn’t going to work for LivingSocial”). However, I understand why it was such a long shot for me to get into Hungry Academy. I know that hiring at a top company like LivingSocial is exceptionally difficult and that a bad hire can cost them dearly. Taking a chance is almost always frowned on in engineering hiring because a bad hire isn’t just a matter of poor output. It’s actually a net negative, a situation where another body actually makes you less efficient.
Still, it’s hard to swallow when it seemed like a situation tailor made for getting past the normal barriers to entry. As it is, I’m going to take a day or so to get that behind me and go on about finding a job. I’ve learned a ton of things, not just about programming and writing in the past 8 months but about myself as well. I’m looking forward to getting back to being a productive member of a team, doing those intangible things that help make me a great employee.