Part III: An Interview with James Everingham, Head of Engineering at Instagram

Part III: An Interview with James Everingham, Head of Engineering at Instagram
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Quantum Management, Wardialing and Finding Your Passion as a Programmer

Part III: Finding Talent

Jameseveringham

Enigma: James, in our previous interview, we went deeper on the opportunities in the industry that excite you. Let’s talk about programming. We often hear about the challenges finding talent. We’d like to learn about your approach to interviewing and the skills and attitudes you look for to cultivate leaders.

James: Let’s do it.

Enigma: You mentioned that you’d take people with less expertise, but sheer IQ. How do you test that?

James: For new grads, GPA is a great indicator of how smart they are. A new grad with a great GPA from a good school or, in fact, any school is probably going to be pretty smart. That’s it.

Enigma: What do you make of questions like, “how many golf balls can you fit in a 747?” or other probability questions?

James: You hit on a real problem with questions like “golf balls on airplanes.” I don’t believe in them. We don’t believe in them at Facebook. You want real world problems. When you interview someone, you want to assess how successful they would be inside your company, and unless your company is trying to figure out how many golf balls fit in planes...

More senior candidates have deeper resumes. You can see what they did and you can get references that you can call. You should be careful, though—if a senior candidate doesn’t do well in an interview process it doesn’t mean that they are not good, it may just mean that they are rusty at interviewing. You need to use different tactics to get a signal on how good they are. 

You also want to be wary of people who have frequently moved from job to job. Another signal to look for is people who have been at a job for 3-4 years. You need to look for job progression. If they reached the 3-year mark without visible progression and then left, it could be a bad signal. The other indicator of how smart someone is, is who referred them: top performers refer top performers.

Enigma: In an earlier post, we’ve spoken at length about quantum management. In that paradigm, how do you drive team velocity?

James: The first thing I’d do is approach the team with that exact problem—“why are you slow? What could we do about it?” Ultimately, you have to time-bound stuff. If nobody has an idea by a certain time, and you have to deliver, then guess what—the only idea becomes the idea and you work on that idea. It’s important to use this learning to tee up the next experiment. We learn more when we get something out the door and deliver. If you want to learn, you have to ship your product—get your idea out there and then make sure you are monitoring your experiment.

We learn more when we get something out the door and deliver. If you want to learn, you have to ship your product—get your idea out there and then make sure you are monitoring your experiment.​

Enigma: How do you test for these things?

James: Great question. You can’t go directly at “values.” If I were to ask, “what do you value?,” a candidate will say exactly what I want to hear. You have to go about this indirectly. One way is to ask, “who are your computer science heroes, and why?” Or you can ask people about managers who they value, or an experience that they thought was great. Then they will tell you what they truly value.

Enigma: Let’s talk referrals. Data says that referrals make the best hires. How do you structure your referral programs?

James: One thing that does not tend to work is a referral bonus. That’s the wrong incentive. The right incentive is that you want to hire people that make you want to come to work. The compensation should be working with that person. If you give people money you will refer people who are optimizing for comp. You want people who are optimizing for working with that person. We go through all our people and do referral drives. We ask them who they think would do well in our environment. 

The best incentive is shares. Equity. It ensures that your incentives are aligned. Sometimes, though, you need to tell people the full narrative. You have to explain how their shares will increase in value if you build a big, great team—that’s the simple formula to building a great company. Link your success to theirs. James Clark did this at Netscape. He gave away 80% of the equity in the company.

Enigma: What advice would you give to young programmers early in their careers today?

You really have to understand deeply what you value as a technologist. What do you value? Do you want to climb the corporate ladder? You won’t be happy if you do what society tells you, you have to ask yourself deep questions and understand what you value.

James: You really have to understand deeply what you value as a technologist. What do you value? Do you want to climb the corporate ladder? You won’t be happy if you do what society tells you, you have to ask yourself deep questions and understand what you value.

Enigma: How should a young engineer try to answer this?

James: You have to break down your job. Understand what parts of it give you joy and what parts don’t. What do you look forward to most and least?

That’s a reason why companies must build a technical track and a people management track, so people aren’t forced to go down one. If you think you want to be a manager, but you look at your calendar and the thing you dislike the most are all the meetings, you may want to rethink that. 

Enigma: We’ve enjoyed getting to dig deeper, James. Thank you for taking the time to shed some light on your unique background and what gets your blood pumping. To learn more about James, be sure to follow him on Instagram.

James: Thank you! 

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Keep an eye out for our next interview series.

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