Hiring and the AAA Player

In the summer of 2003, before I started my senior year at Georgia Tech, I found myself pitching to a room full of executives at IBM Headquarters in Armonk, New York. I was finishing my internship in IBM’s Extreme Blue, a startup-esque program designed to lure top talent into working for IBM.

Immediately after my pitch an executive walked up and asked if we could meet the following morning.

That next morning he was pitching me. He told me his hiring philosophy and the attributes he looks for in the best candidates. He said, “attitude, aptitude, adaptability, and experience — in that order.”

He emphasized to me that even though “experience” is obviously an important factor in making a hiring decision, it was a distant fourth. And he had seen enough of the first three attributes to make me an offer to work anywhere within his group.

I was taken aback. It meant a lot that a Director of a product group — a 3rd-level manager in IBM — had hand-selected me. I accepted the job a few weeks later even though I had just started my senior year and still had other interviews (including one with Microsoft) pending. I didn’t dare negotiate the offer either as I didn’t want to ruffle the relationship with this executive.

By the time I joined IBM full-time the following summer, he had already moved on to work for another group. Such is IBM.

The AAA hiring framework

Although I never crossed paths with that executive again, his hiring philosophy stuck with me and I think it’s mostly right. Especially the “in that order” piece. Looking back I’d make a couple of tweaks:

  • Pull “adaptability” into Attitude
  • Replace “experience” with Accomplishments

This gives us a simple mnemonic for evaluating hires for any role in any company: AAA

It starts (and ends) with attitude

I think of attitude broadly as how a person approaches things, which then drives their behaviors.

  • How do they approach work?
  • How do they deal with challenges and opportunities?
  • How do they treat the people around them?

The attitude check is as much a check against company culture as it is an evaluation of personality traits that dictate performance. To me getting this right is a non-negotiable: you must be excited about a candidate’s attitude in order to hire them.

Aptitude is essential but comes second

Of course, you have to determine if a candidate has the skills and abilities to do the job. But in this framework a candidates ability is only relevant if their attitude is a fit.

Let accomplishments validate your assessment

We all know that it’s bad form to fill out a resume by only listing the responsibilities you had in each role. Your resume really needs to convey the impact you made. In the same vein, I’d rather think about a candidate’s accomplishments than their “experience”.

Nonetheless, I still put accomplishments last in the order of evaluation. In fact, I’ve learned that you have to be careful not to let a candidate’s past accomplishments override your own evaluation. There’s a lot of factors that go into why a person might have encountered success in a past role, and I believe that you first have to trust your own direct assessment of the candidate. In other words, their past accomplishments should mostly serve as a validation of how you rate their attitude and aptitude.


There’s a lot more that can be said about making a hiring decision. For example, there are a handful of personality traits (from the Attitude category) that I always look for. There are also some factors — like diversity — that don’t exactly fit the AAA acronym, but can be very important and influential when trying to select between multiple qualifying candidates.

But I like the simplicity of AAA as a high-level framework and the organizing principle it provides. Attitude, Aptitude, Accomplishments — in that order.

How to hire an intern for your startup

The first two “hires” for my company were two part-time interns. I was drowning in responsibilities as a one-man-show, and one of my advisors told me, “Stop trying to do everything yourself. Just hire an intern for your startup.” So I did. I remember posting the position and being blown away with 40 resumes within the first day. I was even able to hire my top two candidates. Sounds like #winning, eh?

In reality, I was successful at hiring those interns but did a fairly poor job at orchestrating the actual internship. We’re now on our fifth intern in the past two years, so I thought I’d share some tips to consider when you think you want to hire an intern for your startup.

Tip #1: Don’t hire for an internship. Hire for a project.

More than anything, here is where is I screwed up those first two internships. It’s really tempting to have a smart, cheap, and eager resource willing to help on anything and everything you might throw their way. Don’t be fooled. If you are in a strtup, chances are that you are way too busy to come up with new tasks and projects on a continual basis. You might think that you can hire a intern for your startup to take on all of the stuff you can’t get to, but what you are really doing is just trading work. You’ll spend substantial amounts of time dictating those tasks to them and reviewing the results. It’s also likely that “come up with new stuff for the intern” will keep falling to the bottom of your TODO list, which really ruins the experience for both you and them.

I fell in this trap with those first two internships, and once again with one of our subsequent internships. The internships were not a waste by any means: all three of those interns made huge contributions, and I believe they gained a lot from the experience as well. It was just kinda painful.

The better approach is to come up with a mid-sized project that will last about 6 weeks and can easily be handed off to someone else. Ideally this project will have some high-level goals and requirements, and can be broken down into several sub-projects and tasks. This allows you to invest some time up-front and them mostly guide and delegate the rest of the way. As the intern makes progress, the next set of tasks and projects naturally become obvious. Why 6 weeks? Hey, if you can run about that long with one project, it’s easy to stretch it a few more weeks and end your brilliant, industry-standard “two month internship”.

In fact, I’ve decided that the only time we are going to hire an intern moving forward is when we can identify such a project. It makes sense when you think about it: let the work dictate the need for an internship, rather than the other way around. Starting with a project focus is also critical in determining the exact skill-set you want your intern to possess when you are recruiting.

Tip #2: Poke the career center for an email blast.

Assuming that you are hiring interns from local colleges and universities, it’s extremely helpful to have a contact at the respective career centers. We have some great schools in the Triangle but I particularly have great luck working with UNC. The key is to go one-step beyond just posting the job on the online career center. After the job is posted, reach out to your contact and ask them to email blast the student body. The resumes will start rolling in if the career center is willing to put your job posting in every (applicable) student’s inbox for you.

Tip #3: Sell the startup sizzle.

An obvious tip but it’s worth emphasizing. Chances are that you are not going to offer the best compensation package when hiring an intern for your startup. So sell them on the experience. After all, one amazing experience on a resume can transform a student’s entire career trajectory coming of college. And there’s no better way to get experience than working in a startup.

So back to my original story: how did I get 40 resumes in one day? Well, I was right in the middle of an accelerator program and I made sure I sold the startup sizzle. “We were selected out of more than 100 nationwide applicants for this accelerator, and this is your chance to be a part of it.” “You’ll have direct access to countless startup CEOs and investors.” “You can help define the end-to-end strategy for an entire company.” You get the picture. It was all 100% true, and it was the kind of experience no other internship was offering.