In the Valley of Fakers
If you last long enough in technology, you meet a lot of fakes. This is to be expected. On the one side, you have a large number of companies who need people with technical knowledge. On the other side, you have a small number of people who actually possess that technical knowledge. In the gap between, you have a perfect breeding ground for liars. When I call them “liars” I mean that descriptively, rather than judgmentally. Everyone needs to make a living. If someone is willing to pay you a great deal of money to pretend to understand technology, then that’s just the invisible hand of the marketplace doing its invisible hand thing. I’m not judging you. I just don’t want to work with you. The harm that fakers do is rarely obvious. That’s why they keep getting impressive-sounding jobs with impressive-sounding titles. How do you measure the cost of technical debt, especially since it must be weighed against a counterfactual? They hire the wrong vendors, use obsolete technologies, outsource the work to Pakistan and then, when the timeline and budget are blown and the codebase is crap and the user experience is dreadful, they shrug their shoulders and blame someone else. It’s the car mechanic problem. You hire them to be your digital expert. So you don’t have the technological knowledge to evaluate their performance. As a vendor, I wish there was some kind of digital technology board issuing certifications and standards and best practices. But there isn’t. I have noticed some characteristics that the fakes seem to share. It’s not a foolproof checklist, but it should at least give you some criteria for evaluation when you are evaluating a vendor or potential hire. I hope it’s useful. If you have other ideas, feel free to share them in the comments. 1. Impossibly Broad Expertise Are you an expert in Search Engine Management and the Facebook API and React.js and programmatic media buys and UX and .Net applications? No, you’re not. And neither is anyone else. I suppose it is possible that there is some kind of polymath who has peerless knowledge of all those disparate technologies. But he (or she) is working at Facebook or Google. I don’t trust anyone in technology who seems to know everything. How do you catch this? Ask them what gaps in their knowledge they would want to address in order to accomplish the job. The best answer would be highly specific and technical. The worst answer is “nothing.” The more specific their description of what they have to learn, the more serious thought they’ve given to solving your issues. A faker is always going to try to assure you that “everything’s cool, I’ve got this.” 2. ill-defined previous roles What does a “Technical Advisor” do? What is a “Consulting Director”? Do you know anyone’s business card that lists their job title as “Executive”? If someone has a LinkedIn profile that looks like it’s been dropped in from an alternative reality where the job titles are all different, they are faking something. They’re gambling that you won’t actually call any of those companies to find out their past job titles. I recently got a call from a company recruiter asking if it was true that one of my past employees was a “Lead User Experience Engineer.” Umm… no. How to catch this? Call the companies and ask them about the job title of the candidate or vendor. If the title is anything other than what they have listed on LinkedIn then run, don’t walk, in the other direction. Someone who is willing to lie a little is willing to lie a lot. 3. Nine to Sixteen Months Any major technical project is going to take nine to sixteen months to complete. If someone is continually leaving jobs after nine to sixteen months, they are walking away from a project just at the moment when everything should be perfect. That doesn’t make any sense. Coincidentally, nine to sixteen months is also time enough for a broader organization to become aware that a digital project is a total mess. If your candidate or vendor has a work history that always seems to last nine to sixteen months, they probably left a lot of broken systems, blown budgets and missed deadlines in their wake. How to catch this? Ask them about the length of their tenure. A faker is going to tell you that they’re “always looking for a new challenge” because that sounds impressive. We all want new challenges. But if you did a really good job somewhere, wouldn’t you be tempted to hang around and soak up the praise and adulation for a while? That’s what I would do. The lone ranger wouldn’t really ride into the sunset, he’d let the townspeople buy him drinks for a few weeks first. 4. Charm I have met many charming people and many people with amazing levels of technical knowledge. But that’s a Venn diagram without overlap. Someone who does really well with digital systems is literal and blunt to the point of rudeness. Because that’s the only way you get digital technology to work. You don’t charm an ecommerce system into working. When I interview developers, I want them to be impatient with my ignorance and quick to correct my mistakes. That’s not charming, it’s direct and effective and useful. How to catch this? “Are you a people person?” Someone who knows technology will find this question strange. They’ll struggle to answer. “I mean, I like people.” Or, “it depends on the person.” The more awkward their answer to that question, the more I would trust them. 5. Flawless Somewhere at Facebook or Google, the greatest programmer on earth is working right now. And they are making mistakes. Because that’s how technology works. It is complicated and it is very difficult to get it to work in just the way you intend without bugs. Everyone worth a damn in technology is making mistakes every day and some of those mistakes are really, really big. If someone cannot admit error or always finds someone else to blame for problems (like a vendor), they are probably incompetent. Because a competent person has a strong enough sense of self to admit error without falling apart. How to catch this? “Tell me about a time you made a big mistake and how you went about fixing it.” A great answer involves a very serious mistake and then strenuous efforts to fix the error. A terrible answer is “It’s my job to make sure that mistakes don’t happen.” (Fakers always answer interview questions like they’re a Navy Seal in a Jerry Bruckheimer movie.) 6. Pick Three There’s a saying: “You can have it cheap, fast, or good. Pick two.” If you’ve worked for very long in technology, you know that “pick one” would be a lot more accurate. Fakers are just looking to get the next high-paying gig, so they are happy to promise all three. After all, they plan to be gone by the time that you realize that what you actually got was “none of the above.” Unfortunately, a lot of companies don’t want to hear that their budget or their timeline or their feature set is unrealistic. This makes them a prime mark for the fakers. How to catch this? Be honest about what you are hoping to do and what the budget and timeline are. If they push back, you can trust them. If they don’t, chances are they don’t plan to be around when the feces hits the fan. I don’t claim that this list is exhaustive. The best thing you can do is give any potential hire or a potential vendor the smell test. If they seem a little off, trust your instincts. And always remember that if someone seems too good to be true, they aren’t.