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The Engineering Mindset Overreliance Error

In my previous startup life, I built a web application which purpose was to help companies screen applicants during the recruitment process, so that they could recruit employees that were the best fit for them. Our product was quite innovative in the sense that it matched the personality of applicants with the culture of the recruiting company. In order to do that, we would first send questionnaires to the current employees of the company to determine its culture, and then we used statistics, machine learning, artificial intelligence to compute a fitness score for applicants, based on their answers to their own questionnaire. The idea was well-received and we got a few clients pretty fast.

Problems began we started improving our solution. Reading the scientific literature on recruitment, it soon appeared that IQ was the single most important factor for predicting future performance of employees. As our goal was to help companies recruit the best people for them, it seemed logical for us to add an IQ test to our questionnaires, which we did. But surprise, none of our clients used it. Quite the opposite, they pushed back so much that we decided to remove it entirely from our software.

Another problem was that some of our questions were judged too simple. To our clients it seemed like there were of low quality although, based on our statistics, they were the ones that were the most reliable. As we prided ourselves on being scientifically minded, it was heartbreaking to have to lower the quality of our tests. But the pressure was high enough that we had our psychologists design new questionnaires that seemed more elaborate, albeit slightly less reliable (our psychologists were happier too!).

Engineers want to be recognized for being scientific, rational, for being able to solve problems. Unfortunately, we sometimes become hell-bent on solving the wrong problem. Our clients didn't want to have a tool that would help them recruit the most performant employees. They wanted a tool that made them look good during the recruiting process, that showed to their future employees that they cared about humanistic values. Because, you see, the trick about recruitment is that screening is in most cases the easiest part of the process. The most difficult part is convincing applicants to apply in the first place!

As engineers, we tend to adopt a problem-solving mindset, looking for efficient solutions. But it is too easy to miss other perspectives: in a sense being completely right on some dimension of the problem, but ultimately wrong as it is not the dimension that counts.

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