Reddit's Entitlement Complex

Posted July 06, 2009

A couple of days ago, I posted a short article on the importance of cover letters in Fog Creek's hiring process. I was hoping it would be an informative glimpse into how our resume screening works. I have to admit, I'm rather surprised and disappointed at the responses I got about it.

Responses seemed to come from two different groups. One, which was mostly held over at Hacker News, generated good discussion on the value of cover letters in various hiring situations. These were the types of responses that I was hoping for. Some people agreed with me, some disagreed, and both gave good reasons why, which I found informative, and I'm hoping other people did as well.

The other group, from the Programming Reddit, was far more hostile. Some people immediately assumed that I was writing the article because something was wrong with our process, that our criteria are completely unreasonable, and that we should be able to determine everything we need to know from a Word-template resume. Some seemed to think that we were missing all the good candidates because of our criteria. The truth is, we've probably passed over a small few that we would have hired. But that's ok; it's better to err on the side of false negatives than false positives.

Others told me that that instead of suggesting that applicants include a cover letter to increase their chances (which any career counselor will tell you is a good idea), that we should change our hiring process to make it easier for people to apply. For some companies, this might make sense; if they're just trying to find warm bodies to fill cubicles it would be exactly the right suggestion. But we like to be a bit more selective. And I'm personally motivated to be more selective. As a developer, I will often be working, directly or indirectly, with the people that I hire. That means the better developers we hire, the easier and more interesting my job will be. So if I have two candidates in front of me, one that included a cover letter about how he hand-rolled his own blog, comments, and feed aggregator for fun to learn a new framework, and another that just sends a resume with a one-liner in the body of the email, I'm going to be much more inclined to say "hire" for the guy with the cover letter, even if the second guy's resume is a bit better. Similarly, I'll be more likely to say "hire" to the Eagle Scout, triathlete developer than a candidate who bludgeons me with all of their "accomplishments".

Another group of commentors seem to find writing cover letters too tedious to bother with. Instead, they'll find jobs through networking, or the jobs will just come to them. Personally, I would be highly dubious of a company that hires simply based on who you know. That seems like the kind of company where you end up working with the boss's nephew who is "good with computers". A company's hiring process is usually a pretty good indicator of what kind of talent it employs, and thus the kind of quality the company has. The higher the bar, the better the talent, the more interesting the company. I'm sure you can find exceptions, but that's all they are, exceptions to the rule.

Both responses betray some sense of entitlement. They seem to think that a company should cater to its applicants, failing to understand the meaning of the word "apply". Sure, we should also advertise why the candidate would want to work for us, and we do. But good jobs are not hand outs. We want the best developers we can find, and we'll gladly pass over a few good ones to find one great one. As an employee, that's one of the best benefits a company could offer.

Overall, I'm disappointed at the end result. But it did expose some interesting differences in communities. Hacker News took what was intended as helpful advice and created an interesting discussion around it, with good points and information on various views of hiring processes. Proggit, on the other hand, jumped into trolling and name-calling, and the community supported it. Personally, I don't really mind; I've been called an idiot on the internet before and I'm sure I will again. But I think an opportunity to have a good and relevant discussion was missed.

This is becoming something of a series. In a few days I'll have another post ready that goes into more detail about the criteria we use, and possibly suggest some things that candidates can do to show us that they fulfill them. Part One: Rmand Cover Letters of "How to Get a Job at Fog Creek (and Other Selective Software Companies)" is up!