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Recruiting talent: will problem-solving games replace resumes?

Recruiting talent: will problem-solving games replace resumes?

Posting in Education

Your next superstar may not have stellar credentials -- at least not in the traditional sense.

Most companies have fairly rigid standards for seeking out the best talent, which usually includes educational level achieved, the institution at which it was achieved, grade point averages, and past work history.

Throw all that stiff, conventional thinking out and make a game of recruiting, says George Anders, author of The Rare Find: Spotting Exceptional Talent Before Anyone Else, a newly published book that looks at the recruiting techniques of such fast-forward companies as Google and Facebook. (Excerpt published here in BusinessWeek.)

Anders relates the experience of Facebook, which, starting in its early days in 2006, published "gnarly programming challenges and invite engineers anywhere to solve them, involving "multi-hour tests of coding prowess." As Facebook engineer Yishan Wong put it: "We developed this theory that occasionally there were these brilliant people out there who hadn’t found their way to Silicon Valley. They might be languishing in ordinary tech jobs. We needed a way to surface them."

Google, for its part, initially sought out the best and the brightest from top Ivy-league and technology schools. However, the company found that "some of these geniuses weren’t quite as effective as it had hoped," and worried that it was missing out on true talent. The company's HR team began making a point of looking at the bottom of candidates' resumes, where some hidden nuggets of interesting life experiences may pop out.

Now, a range of organizations are turning to non-traditional, or seemingly off-the-wall techniques to attract the talent that best fits their needs, Anders relates:

"A new era of talent hunting has begun. It’s happening not only at high-tech companies such as Facebook, but also at Army bases, ad agencies, investment banks, Hollywood studies, corporate boardrooms, college admissions offices, and even at nanny agencies. In all these fields, experts don’t just sort résumés. They pick people and build teams in a profoundly different way. Traditional measures of past achievement, such as test scores and academic degrees, are losing power, and companies are getting better at looking for those future superstars who deliver many times the value of someone who is merely good."

Ironically, over the past decade, resume scanning systems have become the norm, and as a result, jobhunters are learning to do a form of "search engine optimization" to get key words up front in all the right places. This mechanized approach may be causing potentially great talent to slip between the cracks. At a time of heightened global competition, the companies that adopt the more innovative approaches to identifying and attracting talent will gain the edge.

Facebook's problem-solving puzzles are one such off-the-wall approach. Anders reports that by 2010 about 118 of Facebook's engineers -- 20% of its technical workforce -- came on board as a result of their ability to solve the company's online puzzles. It became an "easy, fast, and cheap to evaluate entries automatically."

(Photo: National Science Foundation.)

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Joe McKendrick

Contributing Editor

Joe McKendrick is an independent analyst who tracks the impact of information technology on management and markets. He is a co-author of the SOA Manifesto and has written for Forbes, ZDNet and Database Trends & Applications. He holds a degree from Temple University. He is based in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure