Domain Expertise – a Must?

3-monkeysA common hiring mistake is to insist on finding someone who has significant domain experience. While such a hire – if one can be found at all – has its merits, the drawbacks often outweigh the advantages. The common belief, to paraphrase an old meme, is “no one was ever fired for hiring a candidate with domain expertise”. Hiring managers think they play it safe by ignoring “foreign” candidates whose career path did not cross their specific domain. To their defense I can say that it is, indeed, easier to vet candidates who have domain-specific keywords on their resume. It just feels right. But is taking the easy route the right way to go?

The perceived upside:

  • Shorter learning curve – in reality, it depends on the individual. Some people are faster learners, others are slower on the uptake. Regardless of how many years they spent in the industry, your specific business is different than the competition and a new hire will have to learn that. Dogmatic thinking – “been there, done that” – may actually make it more difficult for them to learn your business.
  • Someone who “speaks our language” – most tech businesses are not rocket science. If you invest in training your new employees (and you should), it would not take them more than a few weeks to speak your lingo and understand the mechanics of your business.
  • Industry contacts – this is a real advantage, mostly for sales people. But remember that a rolodex full of contacts may actually be full with very loose connections – people the candidate have met briefly in a tradeshow, for example.
  • Bringing big company know-how to a smaller one – there’s value in that, but the skill set required for succeeding in a big company is very different than in small ones, so the candidate’s  other skills must be carefully vetted.

The downside:

  • Needlessly limiting the number qualified candidates – this is particularly significant in small, niche markets, but holds true in wider segments as well. If you want to find the best, why limit your choice from the get go?
  • Maintaining stagnation rather than introducing out-of-the-box thinking – hiring a guy who “knows the market” out of your nearest competitor may run ripples of excitement down your spine, but is not likely to be a game changer unless this particular candidate actually made significant contributions in taking that competitor to the position your company wants to be in.
  • Hiring yet another yes-man rather than someone who will ask tough questions and make things happen – if the candidate hitched a free ride on the competitor’s success and is now hand-waving vigorously trying to demonstrate his competence, you’re in for a major disappointment.
  • Compromising on a sub-par candidate after giving up on finding one with domain expertise – this is the biggest risk: being dazzled by the candidate’s experience while turning a blind eye to their drawbacks.

What you are really looking for (in tech, at least) is someone who can learn and evolve while applying their horizontal experience to grow the business. A myopic approach to hiring is not going to make your company great. If you are a middle manager and are just trying to protect your turf and survive another day before your promotion is due, this may be the right approach for you. Any other hiring manager should take a step back and think carefully before writing a line like “Domain expertise – a must” in a job description.

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