I like to hire on enthusiasm and fire on ability

Believers are wonderful people. I hire less talented believers over talented heretics every time. Three-star ability with five-star drive is how you want it. The other way around leads you to hell.

Paul Barnett, Creative Director, EA Mythic

I missed the talk, but Sulka told me about it afterwards. I’ve just seen that Scott’s commented on this too, and a lot of people are complaining that this is a Bad Thing. The thing is, how many people have actually tried it?

I met someone a long time ago, a business owner in his sixties, who proudly stated that the reason – the only reason – he had consistently built a succession of businesses from scratch, and grown all of them to be huge (as opposed to just one or two big successes, like most entrepreneurs) was that:

Most people hire on ability and fire on enthusiasm; I hire on enthusiasm and fire on ability

I think this is a clearer way of describing the same concept that Paul was referring to. In particular, that last three words is critically important (I’m saying this based on thinking about this for a long time, ever since I first heard it). If you’re saying up front that you’ll “fire on ability” then you’re making an informal contract with the unskilled, enthusiastic employee: you’re not good enough, but we’re giving you a chance to *make* yourself good enough before you reach the limits of how far you can get just on your enthusiasm. Of course, it also helps a lot when you’re hiring from a limited pool of people and having trouble finding enough candidates who are good enough to give job offers too.

But this *obviously* doesn’t work for all positions in all companies at all times. It’s an insult to people’s intelligence to think that it would. There is no such thing as a hard and fast rule for anything to do with personnel, especially hiring or firing – the world is not a simple, one-dimensional, logical place. There are positions – especially the people architecting a project, or planning future activities – where skill massively outranks enthusiasm. Where you need your experts, skill is essential. Bear in mind that “Project Lead” could be of either type – if you’re leading a project that’s plunging into the unknown, so that planning is going to be a bit of a shot in the dark anyway, then enthusiasm is probably going to outrank skill.

When it comes to “why” this works, I think this statement is really about the people who have potential and haven’t reached their peak yet. This isn’t about recruiting Directors, it’s about recruiting the people who are going to mostly be doing directly productive work. Over the years I’ve noticed a strong correlation between the extremely enthusiastic people *who also had good potential* and those who went on to fulfil a lot of that potential. I’ve noticed practically no correlation between skilled people going on to fulfil greater potential – many did, but many got worse. I’d still hire very skilled people – you know they’re useful – but … and this is a reflection of my own interests … in a startup environment, I’d tend to look for the enthusiastic ones by preference.

In a startup, for the benefit of anyone who’s not tried it, no-one is ever good enough, and no-one ever gets to do “only” their own job. You simultaneously require two things: firstly, that on many occasions it’s “all hands to the pump”, so – frequently – everyone must do lots of things that are way outside their comfort zone. Secondly, because “a startup” is only a transitional phase before becoming “an established and powerful company in a new space”, any startup that remains a startup for a long time is actually “a failure” – so the challenges each staff member faces today will be different by this time next year, often massively different. And the skills and experiences that were directly relevant today will be at best indirectly relevant then – and vice versa. Someone who was only “a moderately good fit” for the role now may well be “the perfect fit” for what that role has morphed into 6 months down the road.

Those changes aren’t predictable – if they were, you’d do it the other way from the start – and every business has them, but the difference with startups, and any company undergoing major growth, is that they are much more frequent / probable. Hiring on enthusiasm *can* work in a normal company, but it’s much more likely to bear fruit in one undergoing rapid change, or where the product is undergoing rapid change.

Which makes it (probably) also highly applicable to any development studio who’s making a new AAA computer game. If you’re making a sequel, skill may be more important, but with the first game there’s so much that’s changing every single week, even in the core design (this is a fact of life; it’s what you do to make sure the game is “fun”; fun cannot yet be “designed from day one”).

So, when that businessman made his statement, he wasn’t just providing a simple way to make it easier to hire people, nor just making a threat to people who failed to step up, and to teach themselves on the job. He was neatly summarizing some fairly deep ideas on the hardest challenges faced by businesses that are changing heavily, and a general tactic that goes a long way to meeting them.

4 thoughts on “I like to hire on enthusiasm and fire on ability

  1. Andrew Crystall

    *deep breath*

    I hear what you’re saying. I just wish that more people believed it. I see a lot of… let’s call it “hiring to a specification”. I came into the games industry via RTS and RPG games rather than via shooters, then promply got hired into a company which made shooters using their own engine.

    My current unemployment issues (without too many details, I got hired by a games company who didn’t pay me and whose employees have subsequently badmouthed me) stem in part because I don’t check the nice tickboxes for background…

  2. Chris

    This is a fascinating perspective, which I think is helping me to understand my most recent employment situation a little better. I am working for a company that is transitioning from true start up to young and highly successful. The culture is very geared towards extremely motivated workers doing as much as possible in whatever area is necessary. Contrary to the implication of your original quote, these people are all extremely bright and capable. There are many PhDs from good schools etc. I came to this company a couple of years ago to be the first in house developer. I have 9 years of experience and am primarily interested in architecture and designing high volume distributed systems. I happily pitched in on redoing the website and lots of other small applications that greatly improved other people’s productivity. I began to get somewhat frustrated, however, that when I made proposals for large architectural modifications that there was little interest in hearing about it. For me, I was being a team player by thinking about the long term success of a company that needed to start worrying about that kind of strategy, but to they looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language. I think I now understand that, to them, I was the one guy not rowing in the same direction as everyone else. So instead of banging my head I think I need to spend some time figuring out how to help the company and to put my ideas in terms that make sense to someone with the perspective of a all hands on deck atmosphere. Thanks for something interesting to ponder!

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