The good ones

Finding your best employees: Stories from my experience

From January 2016 through October 2017 and onwards, we built a team of 12 all-star engineers and designers. But to find and develop 12 great people, we had to sift through many, many more. So what set out these people, from all the rest? Did we just get lucky, or is there more to it?

Over this past week, I have thought through every star/lucky hire we have made, trying to find some common formula that can predict success based on initial behaviour, either at the interview stage, or in the first couple of months of employment. No surprise, I couldn’t find anything waterproof.

Instead, what I did come across was a bunch of anecdotes, where they displayed similar traits. I am listing them down here, in the hope that it will help some of you identify your best and brightest, or perhaps even hire better.

The good ones have craft

They have one or more ‘crafts’, and they hone it. They are the best at it, and everyone knows it too. For example, one of my engineers is an absolute genius at “hacking it”, while another is amazing at building out future-ready architecture. One of my designers is our “make ANYTHING look good” guy, while another can deliver good work across media, inside whatever deadline we throw at her. (If you have worked with designers, you’d know how rare that last part is…)

They are the best at X, and everyone knows it too.

Do note, that these aren’t born geniuses — it is just that they have worked on (and continue to work on) honing their craft so much, that they seem head and shoulders ahead of the rest in those specific areas.

The good ones are proud

They understand that their work is deep and complex. And don’t like it when others don’t. Belittling a part of their work, or a step in their process, is inviting trouble.

Obviously, how they express this displeasure depends on their personality. I have seen people reacting instantaneously, with the kind of classy sympathetic detonation that Aaron Sorkin screenplays bring us. I have also seen people express these issues only in their review meetings, and that too after a lot of prodding. Nevertheless, while the mode of expression is individual, the grouse itself seems universal.

The good ones fight you

Some of my best days are when someone in my team pulls me up for a not-quite-thought-out input or decision. A hastily approved mockup that breaks from the unified design language, data structures that are unnecessarily complex, gaps in analytics event lists — the list is long and embarrassing, but gratifying.

The good ones care about how their work ends up.

The good ones care about how their work ends up. In other words, they care about your complete product and your business. So they will find your mistakes, and fight your suboptimal decisions.

The good ones show up when it matters

A. They care about how their work ends up. B. Decisions are made by those who show up. Put A and B together, and you have your star employees showing up at meetings, places, and events, where they have no need to be.

To be sure, this is not about turning up for every off-hours hack/sprint you plan, but about showing up and staying till the end whenever it is a release, demo, etc. which includes a significant portion of their work.

This is one of those traits that are easy to spot — simply because these people are present where they aren’t expected. Side note: this is also one of those things that may look like office politics, but isn’t.

The good ones respect their own time

The good ones don’t try run out the clock. Unless they have to be in office for work, play, socializing, etc., they leave.

“Do you have anything else for me?”

There are exceptions, like when someone doesn’t have working internet at home :), but mostly, this is true. I still remember one of my designers, fresh out of college, in her first week with us, at 4pm on a weekday: “Prashanth, do you have anything else for me?” “Nope” “Okay, bye!”. No politics, no ramifications-driven decision making. Just straightforward respect for her own time. When you get people like this, hold on to them.

The good ones don’t need to be asked to learn

For a standard employee — you carefully articulate their skill gap, presenting it as an “area of improvement”, and suggest a course, a learning project, or time with a senior or mentor.

You simply ask them to do, and they will learn how.

For the good ones — you can simply tell them where they are lagging, and give them a project that needs them to learn. In other words, you don’t have to ask them to learn — you simply ask them to do, and they will find a way to learn how.

The good ones go beyond their role and function

This is going back to how they care about where their work ends up. The good ones understand that, to shine through to potential, their work needs work done by other people. They don’t mind rolling up their sleeves and doing something beyond their role and function.

Case in point — I have seen a designer sit and explore image compression methods until 2 am. Cos when we compressed his designs, there was a small reduction in quality. Most of us couldn't even see the difference, but he went on to remove gradients and patterns from the entire collection so the images would compress without loss.

The good ones want praise to be fair…

The good ones don’t always ask for praise. Though this might not be a traitas much as a result of circumstance — they probably got plenty of praise, unasked-for.

But when you do dish it out to their peers, it had better be fair, or they’ll confront you. This is not about insecurity — this is about why their work wasn’t worthy of said praise, and what that implies in the bigger picture — is it good work that isn’t useful to the bottom line? Is it a fringe feature that isn’t central to long-term plans? etc.

Whew! That’s it for now. I’ll try to add some more as and when I find common traits/anecdotes. In summary, your star employees, “the good ones”:

  • Have craft
  • Are proud of their work and processes
  • Fight you when you don’t bring your A game
  • Show up when it matters
  • Respect their own time
  • Will drive their own learning
  • Want praise to be fair

Hope this helps. If you have more to add, or differ with the above, please comment, or write in to me at