How To Find A-Players In A Downturn

Photo by Razvan Chisu on Unsplash

I recently wrote about why hiring is harder in a recession than it is during an economic expansion. But, just because it’s hard (it is always hard) doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. You should always be looking for A-Players to bring onto your team.

Hiring obvious A-Players is really hard because everyone else knows they are obvious and they will be extremely sought over (and very expensive). That doesn’t change in a recession. 

So, if you want to find the A-Players that are available, you can’t look for the obvious ones. You have to find the diamonds in the rough who don’t look like precious stones.

To find A-Players in a downturn, look for people that other people in Silicon Valley would discriminate against.

You want to find people that were passed over by other tech companies for reasons other than their talent and give them a chance. 

You can start with women and minorities. They are still very much discriminated against. Of course, few people in Silicon Valley will outwardly state that they want to discriminate against women and minorities.  And many companies even have active programs to reach out to them. You might not have an advantage in landing female and minority A-Players because there are a lot of other companies competing for this talent pool.

In addition to women and under-represented minorities, there are a lot of other categories of people who are actively discriminated against in Silicon Valley including:

  • Boomer generation (people born 1946-1964)
  • People that went to third-tier universities
  • Religious people (even slightly religious people)
  • People who are politically conservative
  • People with thick accents
  • People who are overweight
  • People who smoke cigarettes
  • People who are socially awkward

Let’s take a closer look at each of these categories.

Hire people over 55. 

Tech companies tend to be extremely biased against people with grey hair. This is especially true of older people who are seen as “past their prime” or recently part of a company that crashed and burned. It is extremely rare for a tech company to hire an individual contributor that is over 45.  And this trend is likely more pronounced during an economic downturn. 

There are plenty of people who, in 2008, ended up taking the Director-level job at Digg instead of at Facebook (even though they had job offers at both).  The ones who went to Digg are seen as past their prime and the ones that went to Facebook are living on their own private island and serving on the boards of directors of hot start-ups.  Just because the person made a wrong financial choice 12 years ago does not mean they cannot add immensely to your company.

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

Hire super-smart people that went to third-tier universities

Not every A-Player was able to score 1500 on their SAT.

Yes, people that went to Harvard are smarter, on average, than Chico State. But a lot of really talented people went to Chico State over the years.  And they have been consistently underappreciated and passed-over, all because they were a late bloomer and did not have stellar grades in high school.

So, look for people from third-tier schools who have a history of getting promotions in the companies they joined. These are the late bloomers who have the potential to be 10xers. And they are getting looked over because the hottest tech firms in Silicon Valley typically discriminate in favor of Stanford and Harvard. Their discrimination is your advantage. 

Hire religious people. 

Silicon Valley does not openly accept those who are spiritual. In fact, the industry often takes pride in its counter-religious position. 

Photo by Greg Rosenke on Unsplash

This position alienates A-Players who are devotedly religious. Those people who care deeply about their faith have a harder time moving up the ranks at many tech companies and can be passed over for promotions they deserve. 

While your company does not need to go as far as being openly pro-religious, you can make sure it clamps down on the anti-religious rhetoric that pervades many Silicon Valley companies.  All you need to do to attract religious people in Silicon Valley is signal that you have a big tent.

If you can find these A-Players while promoting religious diversity at your company, you have an edge in landing them.

Hire politically conservative people.

Like religious people, most politically conservative people in Silicon Valley feel they have to actively hide their political stance.  

While I would not recommend having deep political discussions in your company (it can lead to a lot of divisiveness), it can be good if you just signal that you are neutral or apolitical.  Since so many Silicon Valley companies have public statements that are left-of-center, just the absence of that will be more welcoming for people on the right.

While I have a lot of deeply held political views, I try to not be public about them and keep them off of social media.  I don’t want any employee at SafeGraph to feel alienated about my views.

Hire people who can effectively work remotely. 

This immediately shifts the game from hiring the best person for the job in the San Francisco Bay Area, to hiring the best person for the job, period. 

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

There are a lot of talented people that want to work from home. Many do not live in a tier-one city (and do not want to live there). Some of the best software engineers in the world live outside the San Francisco Bay Area.  

Further, the work-from-home trend has been dramatically accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic in the first half of 2020. A-Players who previously thought they were only effective in the office have learned they can be just as productive (and sometimes more productive) from home. Find these A-Players and hire them.  

At the end of 2019, SafeGraph made a big shift to hiring a distributed team and it has worked really well for us. (Yes, it is not for everyone). To make the transition easier for SafeGraph, we decided to focus only on people in North America so that everyone is in a similar time zone. This makes bringing people together much easier and people can also work synchronously when that is warranted.

Hire people for small preferences. 

When recruiting, you can telegraph that you are open to small preferences. For instance, while tech companies are overwhelming a Macbook culture, many people prefer Windows. Some of the new Windows machines are gorgeous (and they are a lot less expensive than Macs).

You might be able to attract A-Players to your company during a downturn by giving them a choice.

Hire people with thick accents. 

People with thick accents are often passed over for promotions and often not given the chances that other people get. 

Take two similar people from Chennai: the one with the cool British accent is likely getting tons of job offers and the other one with the thicker accent is getting passed over for promotions.  You are more likely to find the diamond employee in the one with the thicker accent.  

This trend may be breaking, though, as we move toward a “Slack” culture of text over voice communication. One company I know does 100% of their interviewing over text (they never even see the candidate). They find they hire more diverse people and also can recruit fantastic talent that may have more difficulty shining in other organizations.

At the very least, make sure your hiring process doesn’t filter out those A-Players who have thick accents but can effectively communicate over email & chat. 

Hire people that are not super physically fit.

The stereotypical engineer looks like the Comic Book Guy on the Simpsons.  

The Comic Book Guy

Yet the actual Silicon Valley engineer is a champion rock-climber, super cyclist, and is on a fasting-mimicking diet.  

Look at any photo of teams in Silicon Valley and you will be shocked at how skinny they all are … even though they are getting free food (plus unlimited junk food) at the office.  

Most people that are overweight feel unwelcome at Silicon Valley companies. You can improve your chances of landing an A-Player who doesn’t look like the rest of your team by signaling that they will be welcome in your organization.  Just because someone has a big stomach does not mean they are not a superstar.

Anecdotally, this is even more true for women.  There is an extreme Silicon Valley bias against women that are even a bit overweight.  

Overweight A-Players are often passed over and are underappreciated.  You can build a super company by actively hiring them.  

Hire smokers.

Smokers (of tobacco) are incredibly discriminated against in Silicon Valley.  For many in the Bay Area, smoking is seen as a reflection that one cannot take care of oneself. Smokers are seen as a liability.  

Photo by Amritanshu Sikdar on Unsplash

People who went to good schools generally have this bias.  In 2008, Barack Obama was more afraid that the intelligencia would find out that he was a smoker than discover that he did cocaine when he was younger. Once he decided to run for President, he never let anyone snap a photo of him smoking.

Just because someone smokes cigarettes does not mean they cannot be an A-Player.  

Hire socially awkward people. 

While there is a stereotype of people in Silicon Valley being super socially awkward, in reality, most tech companies hire people that seem like they went to finishing schools. 

Really socially awkward people … the weirdos … are often passed over.  And in a recession, these are the A-Players who are most at risk of being let go.

Bosses tend to keep the employees they like the most, not necessarily those who are the best at their jobs. Being socially awkward will not put you into the “liked” category if you avoid playing the “game” outside of work (read: golf, sports). 

Look to hire people who seem socially awkward but extremely competent. They could be the A-Player who takes your business to the next level. 

Those are the places you can look to find A-Players during this downturn. Superstar employees are out there. You just have to be willing to go against the grain of Silicon Valley.

Special thanks to Thomas Waschenfelder for his help and edits.

1 thought on “How To Find A-Players In A Downturn

  1. Eli Safra

    The term A-Players is misleading:
    In my view, being an A player is the energy between the company, the team lead and the employees. Especially the people that are mentioned in the article need special treatment and recognition to bring them to their full potential.

    A company needs to hire the right people. But, it needs first to look at the mirror and ask it self which are the ‘right’ people for its culture and mission and not first look for a specific school or person score.


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