Who to hire: a domain expert or a “best athlete”?

You just got funding for an aggressive new project, and are looking to fill some mid to senior level open positions.   You have written the job specifications (don’t even think of starting the hiring process until you have that in hand).   Who are you looking for: someone who has done the job before in a relevant domain, or a talented generalist who can be trained to do anything?

My answer is that it depends. There is a time for everything: a time to hire domain experts, and a time to hire best athletes.  I have hired, and have been hired, as one or the other at different points in time.  The question is how much of a tearing hurry you are in.

I once had the privilege of hiring several best athletes to build up a cross disciplinary research and advanced development team from scratch.  This team was not tied to mission critical product releases.  The most important attribute I looked for, other than their respective functional disciplines, was creativity and versatility.  I needed quick studies who enjoyed being stretched.  My team sported some of the best problem solvers I ever met.  None of them had domain expertise, and it didn’t matter.  I had plenty of time to teach them what they needed to know.  It was great fun working with this team and we were very successful in our pursuits.

In another instance, my company had just landed a $1.5M funded development project with an aggressive schedule.  We started a targeted search to staff the project, where we screened out anyone who didn’t have experience in an obscure branch of computer graphics.  We rapidly ran out of people who met our stringent screening criteria.  The last addition to the team was a “best athlete” – an excellent programmer who didn’t know computer graphics.  For all his stellar track record, he simply couldn’t keep up.  There was no time for him to learn what he needed to know to succeed.  The fault was ours for forcing a fit.  In the end, we regretfully parted ways when his contract came up for renewal.

Training someone to do something they’ve never done before is a transformational experience for both the mentor and the mentee.  But you must have the time and space to do it properly.  As a hiring manager, I feel that it is a breach of trust to the employee to put them in a position where they neither have the necessary skills nor have enough time to learn it on the job.  It is equally a breach of trust to the company and its shareholders for spending valuable time and resources attempting to cross-train someone who is not right for the job, when deadlines loom and a project delay or failure has catastrophic consequences to the business.

Generally, if time is of the essence, I err on the domain expert side.   People who take the time and energy to become experts in their fields frequently turn out to be fantastic all-around athletes too.  That would be the best of both worlds.

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