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.

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