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Hiring Offshore? Should You Hire for Brains or Experience?

May 14, 2016 Mike Dershowitz
Hiring Offshore? Should You Hire for Brains or Experience?

Any entrepreneur or employer, looking to grow and hire, must at some point confront an essential but very scary question: should my new hire have the skills and experience I want at the start?  Or, should they be easily trainable and smart?  Can I get both? Many organizations fight this war both internally and offshore to varying degrees of success when hiring new folks.

I’ve seen this war happen many times when I was in corporate America and then at my own companies.  It’s kind of fascinating.  I’ve even experienced it myself as the job seeker.  I really didn’t have the skills that JPMorganChase wanted when they hired me as a user interface designer, but I had enough, and I guess they thought I was smart enough and could learn.  In the end, they were right, I won 4 Webby awards for design while there, even though I had no formal design training.

Which one works?  Experience or Brains?  Regardless of your chosen orthodoxy, I think the answer is quite simple: it depends.

By now you’re saying: “Whaaat?  It depends – what kind of sh*t is that?  Hey Mike, I’m reading your post to get answers to my problems, not leave more confused, f*** this!” (Note to self: maybe not a good idea to write business-oriented posts while listening to vintage Biggie Smalls.  Result: prodigious profanity in prose!)

Okay, okay. Sorry, but really, it does depend on what you want your new person to do.  And it’s actually much easier to figure out if you need Brains or Experience if you take a look at your tasks and evaluate them for two important characteristics: their relative complexity or uniqueness.

When evaluating whom to hire for offshore, this question is crucial.  More than anything else, it helps the hiring organization to set their expectations (a crucial piece of any offshore engagement) when they approach their hires in this way.  Knowing the complexity and/or uniqueness of what you want them to do will help you understand if you need Brains or Experience.

Let’s take a quick diversion to think about how we become educated.  When you hire for Experience, what you’re really doing is hiring that person’s education and past experiences as a proxy to help you evaluate the level of complexity they can handle in a particular task.  Additionally, the tasks required are maybe in a field that has a particular set of rules, customs, or best practices, and their particular education should provide them the necessary knowledge to be able to complete these tasks within those norms.  That’s what hiring for Experience generally means.

Evaluating the converse of this idea, theoretically, you could take someone with no experience, and (assuming you have the knowledge yourself) you could train that person to do that task.  It would take longer and cost more, but it’s possible.  Then, when looking to do these tasks offshore, you have to add the language barrier and the timezone difference, (which naturally deprecates communication speed and clarity between colleagues).  No matter what you’re hiring for, things are going to take longer.

But what if you have tasks that are unique to your organization that you want to offshore?  Things that are required by only your company, that was developed internally, and that is unique to support your particular business?  In these cases, Experience may not matter, because the reality is that you’re going to have to train someone how to do this thing, just like the person that’s doing it today learned it, and what you really want is someone who has the Brains and attitude to consume the training information you give them, and apply it to the task as completely and rapidly as possible.  In this case, Brains wins out every time.

Before we launch into specific examples, it’s going to be important to keep this next thing in mind: anytime a new person joins your organization they are always going to have a learning period when they have to get familiar with the culture of your company – its norms, processes, communication rules, etc. There’s no difference with offshore here, folks joining your organization anywhere have to learn this stuff.

So now onto some specific examples.  This list is by no means exhaustive and is meant to give you a few examples that you may be able to apply in your own organization. If you’d like to suggest more, please leave them in the comments, and I’m happy to riff off what you suggest and give my thoughts.

Bookkeeping and Accounting: Experience

As the son and son-in-law of CPA’s, I can tell you that at its core, bookkeeping and accounting are really two things: setting up systems for a business that helps account for its money; and two, understanding local laws and regulations related to the same.  As you can see from these two things, hiring for the right education and experience is key.

Accounting at the lower level (what is typically offshored) is rarely a matter of interpretation. And if an interpretation is needed, you typically want someone very senior to do that interpreting for you.  So here, hire for experience – someone who has reconciled accounts, entered transactions, prepared reports.  You will still need to train a bit on any account systems that may be extant in your company, but at its core, you’re relying on their Experience to do the job that you need; hire accordingly.

Data Mining or Research: Brains

In most research or data mining engagements I see, the requests are all very unique and specific to the business requesting them.  In data mining, the “where” to find what’s being looked for is rarely obvious and only gets easier and faster with experience. Research is the same thing: looking at disparate sources of information and trying to pull out the similar elements is usually only done through experience – no matter how smart the person is.

Both are really just pattern recognition tasks, and as we know, the human brain is probably the most sophisticated pattern recognition engine we have.  Interestingly, the smarter the person the faster this pattern recognition happens, but the patterns still have to be recognized.  But the conclusion is the same: hire for Brains. (NOTE: there’s a variation on this theme which affects your cost: if the patterns you’re trying to recognize are more predictable or rote, you may not need genius level at all times: even average human brains are still killer pattern recognition engines.)

Server or Desktop Support: Experience

Computers were originally devised to be machines to help the human brain conquer the ever increasing complexity of our world. This is why our first computers were tabulating machines.

Now that they’re everywhere, interestingly when one human is trying to help another with a problem with their computer, it’s not brainpower that wins out, it’s experience.  And that’s because there are so many things that can go wrong with our computers, that the person doing the helping must have two essential pieces of experience to be useful: 1) they would have had to have seen a lot of the problems that people face on their computers, because this helps them figure out where to look first, and 2) they have to be good at talking to another human and figuring out what’s going.

The reason why experience, and not pattern recognition brain power, is so important is because of the complexity of the patterns attempting to be recognized.  The patterns of what could go wrong with your PC are so complex, that a person must have a good amount of prior experience with a wide variety of patterns simply to figure out where to start, then brain power takes over.  The same is true with how they explain it to someone.  If they haven’t explained problems to someone a lot and lived the affirmative responses when the problems are solved, they won’t have the confidence to replicate this situation.  Experience wins out.

CAD drafting: Brains

My opinion of this one may start some flame wars in the comments, but let me explain why I think I’m right.  There’s no doubt that there are professional norms and best practices in all of the ways CAD is now used globally in our economy, but at its core, the folks that are best at CAD are just really smart folks. CAD inherently is a visualization and abstraction tool – both in the way the CAD operator interacts with the tool, and the deliverables produced, where an abstracted visualization of something has value for the consumer of it.

The ability to visualize and abstract something is a pure pattern recognition exercise. But unlike standard pattern recognition, the constructs that are created with CAD so often have a particular nomenclature, and the tool itself is complex, that the best CAD operators are also those that have great memories.  Take someone with great visualization skills and a good memory, and they’ll quickly learn whatever design rules may apply to the particular abstractions they’re creating, and boom, you’ve got a great CAD operator.  Brains wins out!

The one caveat here is that a degree in various engineering disciplines in your offshore staff can of course help, but when a CAD operator has that, it simply means that they’ve taken the time to memorize a lot of the stuff that can happen in CAD, so while it gets someone to do more complicated CAD work, it doesn’t mean that a really smart person can’t get there as well without the formal education.

Customer Service: Both

I thought it was fitting to end with one example that I believe truly takes both Experience and Brains.

In most cases, people thinking about offshoring customer service underestimate the language skills level that is required for their task. From a cost perspective, cheaper always sounds better. And so, many customers go for the lowest cost option. That’s okay. Cost reduction is necessary for business and a primary driver for offshore.  But at the low cost of offshore, this is definitely not the case (especially since a mid-level CS person speaks so much better than a junior – and usually at a difference of $3-5/hour, at least with Rethink Staffing). In fact, that couple of years experience between a junior and mid-level CS person can make a world of difference.  Consider the following:

I can tell you that any language, foreign or otherwise, is hard and takes the average brain a while to learn. I say this not only from observing offshore CS folks for several years now but from two broad personal experiences:

First, as a father of a 5-, 3- and 1-year-olds, it’s fascinating to see the difference in sentence structure, clarity of speech, and sentence composition between my 5- and 3-year-olds; those precious two years between them really make a difference in how they speak, even though I judge they have similar levels of intelligence.

Second, as a polyglot myself (I speak French and Spanish fluently, and I’ve studied Hebrew, Arabic, and Chinese), I’ve had my own experiences where studying a language for several years, and then living in the language for several months, is really what’s needed to get up to fluency.  You simply near to hear the language regularly.

Therefore, a CS person must have lived in that language for some time (in this case, on the phones talking to native speakers) to reach any level of fluency and sentence structure sufficient to be judged by a native speaker to speak English “well.”  And that’s the Experience factor that’s needed.

BUT, most companies, the support that’s provided to their customers is unique to your company.  And that’s where the Brains comes into play: they’ll have a lot of information to consume and apply quickly to be able to support your customers, especially if you’re doing something fairly unique.  Without good Brains, they’re sunk

As I said: Brains and Experience.


So, as you can see from all of these examples, thinking about what you need from your offshore person will help you understand if you need to hire for Brains or Experience, and ultimately, will make you much more successful in your offshore engagement.

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