How Testing Helps Hire for a Job That’s Never Been Done Before

Back in 2004 Bill Tancer was presented with a unique problem. He was senior vice president of research at an online metrics company called Hitwise, which had just moved its headquarters from Australia to the U.S. Like many executives at early-stage startups, Tancer was responsible for building a team. But what kind of team?

He needed someone who could dive into the company’s data on the behavior of millions of Internet users, find insights, write press releases and reports and take over some of his press interviews and speaking engagements. The title of the new role, he decided, would be senior research analyst. But he knew he could not hire just any analyst because the job was different than what he had done years before as a Gartner analyst.

“I knew there was no one doing what I needed someone to do,” he said.

He was willing to look for people with skills that he could develop. He knew he could teach someone to write press releases and to speak to marketers, because he learned to do those things on the job.

Prior to his roles in marketing and analytics he had been a Navy prosecutor.

So what was the most important quality he was looking for?

Intellectual curiosity.

“You can’t teach intellectual curiosity,” he said, “and you also can’t do a resume search for it.”

He decided that he would consider candidates with backgrounds in analytics, marketing, and journalism, and developed a test. He would give them access to the database and ask them to come up with story and write a press release.

A recruiter sent him resumes that might be a fit, and he reached out to the candidates whom he thought had good analysis and writing skills. After a phone interview, he asked the top candidates to participate in the test. One candidate, a PhD, refused to take it, thinking that the evidence of his degree precluded him from such endeavors.

Other candidates took the test and failed to write anything compelling. There was one candidate who embraced the exercise with the just the intellectual curiosity he was looking for: a fascination with information. It was October and the height of the 2004 presidential election. The race between George W. Bush and John Kerry was fiery hot and was in the news.

Hitwise data showed which sites people visited before and after a site, what search terms they used to get there and demographic information on who visited those sites, including what state they lived in. Were people visiting more likely to come from red states or blue states? Were they visiting Democratic or Republican political sites before and after? What age were they? There was a wealth of information for someone to discover, and that someone was me.

I passed the intellectual curiosity test, and after another test—a presentation to Tancer and Chris Maher, the U.S. general manager—I was offered the job.

The job came at a time in my life when I was open to something new. I had struggled to make a career in advertising, and after a layoff from an ad agency in the bust of 1999-2000 I landed a job as a consumer analyst at Levi Strauss. Analyzing consumer’s complaints and compliments about pants kept me occupied until downsizing cut the consumer relations department in half. I found myself collecting unemployment once again.

My previous experience gave me a good understanding of marketing, and I was fascinated with consumer behavior. I was a good writer but never thought I would be making presentations to hundreds of people or talking to reporters at the New York Times. But that’s what I ended up doing. I was open to opportunity. The job at Hitwise shaped my career for the three years I spent at Hitwise and turned into a freelance career.

Tancer is still involved with Hitwise as the head of global research for Experian, which acquired the company in 2007. He hired several people after me, always looking for candidates with the same breed of intellectual curiosity that would drive their research. He still believes in the importance of testing, and that it’s the only way to ferret out those intangible qualities that may not show up keyword searches and lists of skills.

As I wrote in, “How to Think Like a Pioneer When Hiring Pioneers,” learning ability is one of the most important qualities to screen for in hiring for newly created roles, and testing is of the few ways for a hiring manager to accurately evaluate the quality of candidate’s work.

For the candidate, testing is a great way to get a sense of the role and decide if the work is enjoyable. If I hadn’t enjoyed writing that sample press release and preparing that presentation for Tancer and Maher, I would have been very unhappy at the Hitwise job because it required writing three or four press releases a month and preparing countless presentations. I had never written a press release before, but the exercise proved I could learn how. Talk is one thing, but doing and evaluating real work is another—and it’s essential for finding a fit in newly created roles.

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