The enemy in HR

Finger Pointing

Right now, depending who you speak with, there is either a shortage or a glut of IT professionals in the USA. Those who maintain there is a shortage tend to say it can only be eliminated by immigration reform allowing more H1-B visas and green cards. Those who see a glut point to high IT unemployment figures and what looks like pervasive age discrimination. If both views are possible -- and I am beginning to see how they could be -- we can start by blaming the Human Resources (HR) departments at big and even medium-sized companies.

HR does the hiring and firing or at least handles the paperwork for hiring and firing. HR hires headhunters to find IT talent or advertises and finds that talent itself. If you are an IT professional in a company of almost any size that has an HR department, go down there sometime and ask about their professional qualifications. What made them qualified to hire you?

You’ll find the departments are predominantly staffed with women and few, if any, of those women have technical degrees. They are hiring predominantly male candidates for positions whose duties they typically don’t understand. Those HR folks, if put on the spot, will point out that the final decision on all technical hires comes from the IT department, itself. All HR does is facilitate.

Not really. What HR does is filter. They see as an important part of their job finding the very best candidates for every technical position. But how do you qualify candidates if you don’t know what you are talking about? They use heuristics -- sorting techniques designed to get good candidates without really knowing good from bad.

Common heuristic techniques for hiring IT professionals include looking for graduates of top university programs and for people currently working in similar positions at comparable companies including competitors. The flip side of these techniques also applies -- not looking for graduates of less prestigious universities or the unemployed.

The best programmer I know is Paul Tyma, 2014 Alumnus of the Year of the College of Engineering at the University of Toledo in Ohio. Paul later got a PhD from Syracuse University and that is what scored him an interview at Google where he became a senior developer, but it’s doubtful that would have happened had he settled for the U of T degree where he learned most of his chops.

It’s very common for the best programmer in any department to have a low quality degree or sometimes no degree at all. This person, this absolutely invaluable person, would generally not make the HR cut for hiring at their company today. Those interviewers from the IT department would never know they existed.

Same for the unemployed. Layoffs are deadly for IT reemployment. If you don’t know who to interview it’s easier just to decide you’ll only talk with people who are already working somewhere. A bad employed programmer is viewed as inherently superior to a very good unemployed programmer. This of course eliminates from consideration anyone who was laid-off for any reason. Speaking as a guy who was fired from every job I ever had (you’d fire me, too -- believe me) if I was trying to find a technical job today I’d probably never work again.

It doesn’t matter why you lost your job. The company moved and you couldn’t move with it for some family reason. Your startup failed. Your boss was an asshole. You were an asshole, but a brilliant one. You were older and dumped (illegally I might add) to save money. It doesn’t matter how smart or skilled you are if HR won’t even put your name on the interview list.

One way around this is the moment you are fired or laid-off go back to school. When you graduate with that new degree or certificate you’ll be desirable again -- in debt, but desirable.

And so we have the appearance of IT labor shortages at the same time we have record IT unemployment. And because the head of HR isn’t going to admit to the CEO that such bonehead policies exist, they are kept secret and the CEO urged to lobby for immigration reform.

Headhunters don’t help, either, because they see the source of their hefty commissions as luring working programmers from one company to another. Unemployed programmers don’t need luring and so don’t need headhunters.

There are exceptions to these trends, of course, but they are rare.

Those ladies down in HR are typically damaging their companies while simultaneously working very hard trying to do what they believe is good work. It’s a paradox, I know, and one that’s for the most part unknown by the rest of society.

The answer, of course, is to either improve the quality of HR departments, making them truly useful, or make them dramatically less powerful, maybe eliminating them entirely from hiring.

I’d recommend doing both.

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