Masters and fools.

Photo: Lauri Bonaparte

Whenever I am asked for guidance in hiring, especially for a technical position, my suggestions are always the same.  Hire someone who:

  1. Is smart, flexible and resourceful,
  2. Is a good culture fit,
  3. And who you can afford.

Don’t worry about getting someone with the exact experience you need. Hire someone who is hungry, and who will be excited to grow in their role. This is even more relevant if you want to keep your team small: a more seasoned professional might be picky in the type of work they want to undertake, or in the tools they’d like to use.

During the pandemic, when the labor market was hot, this was golden advice that helped many friends. It always works, as long as the hire is actually smart and hungry, and as long as their manager has a supportive, yet light touch. The one caveat is that it doesn’t work with controlling, micromanaging leadership styles. They can smother the candidate and give them little room for their inevitable mistakes or oblique solutions.

I was first introduced to this wisdom as a kid reading sufi stories. Though the stories are evergreen and take on new meanings every time you read them, there are a few recurring themes, like the search for Truth and Knowledge as a spiritual path, the relativity of space and time, and how wisdom and enlightenment can be present in anyone. I have summarized this last teaching as a phrase I repeat to myself often: we are all masters, we are all fools.

There’s one particular story that illustrates this concept very clearly, called “The man who walked on water.” In it, a very scholarly dervish is practicing a particularly esoteric phrase imbued with mystical powers that might allow its recitant, among other wonders, to walk on water. He suddenly hears, far away, how someone else is reciting the same phrase, only with the wrong pronunciation. He wants to be a righteous dervish, so he interrupts his practice, and rows in a boat towards the voice, to help a brother in need. He finds a very poor man in a dervish robe. The scholarly dervish introduces himself and shows the poor man the correct pronunciation of the phrase. After this, he leaves, only to hear, after some minutes, how the poor man has resumed reciting the poem in the incorrect pronunciation. He starts to meditate on how lowly people persevere in their mistakes, when he is interrupted by a splashing sound. He turns to see the poor dervish, running towards him on the water, asking about the correct pronunciation of the phrase.

It’s not just that enlightenment can be found in unexpected places. There are risks in hiring experts. Sometimes a person’s depth of experience comes at a price. Maybe they are set in their ways. Maybe they are done growing and learning. Maybe they have a hard time emptying their cup.  This advice/concept is especially current in the AI job market: there’s only a few people (a few hundred?) who can build LLMs and who really understand the technology. If you can’t compete for them, don’t.

When in doubt, or when in need, choose the fool.