The unicorn rant

In biotech these days, I hear a lot of talk about “unicorns.” Sometimes they are rare fancy unicorns … purple, or glittery. At Bio IT World, I found myself moderating a conversation that involved herds and farms of these imaginary animals.

Of course, we were talking about finding and retaining top talent. In the staffing world, “unicorn” is the codeword for an impossibly ideal candidate with a rare mix of skills and experiences. My friends in the recruiting and staffing industries spend their days chasing unicorns. It seems really stressful for them.

Here’s the thing: Unicorns don’t exist.

I’m an engineer by training. I spend a lot of time designing and debugging complex systems. As a rule of thumb, if the plan relies on a continuous supply of something that is either vanishingly rare or (worse) nonexistent – it is a bad plan. When brainstorming, we might joke about knowing a reliable supplier of unobtanium. Sometimes we trot out the old cartoon with the guy saying “and then a miracle occurs.” Eventually. however, engineers sigh and set to work on a better plan.

Not so with many hiring managers, senior leaders, board members, and venture firms in biotech. From what I hear, the plan is to fight harder for the unobtanium, to hope for the miracle.

We need a better plan.

Before going further, I want to first reaffirm my commitment to finding and retaining the best people. Of course people make the difference. Of course we should be highly selective. And yes, of course there are massive, critical differences between candidates. It is a false comparison and a strawman argument to suggest that “making do with a third rate workforce, indiscriminately chosen,” is the only alternative to the unicorn quest.

There are three major pieces to building an organization that does not rely on unicorns:

  • Managers must assume the full time job of supporting and developing their teams.
  • Project plans, workflows, and team behaviors must err on the side of granular, achievable work – with mechanisms to self-correct when the plan is wrong.
  • Recruiting must focus on attitude and enthusiasm, not on finding the next hero.

The non-unicorn plan is straightforward to say, but requires diligent effort and consistency: Divide work into achievable pieces (planning, architecture, and project management are real jobs), hire enthusiastic and intelligent people (give recruiting and HR a fighting chance), and give those people the resources they need (management is a real job).

There’s plenty of literature on this, but you won’t find it in the sci-fi fantasy or the young adult section of the bookstore. Instead, do a quick google on “Hero culture.” You may find yourself reading about burnout, mythical man-months, success catastrophes, and flash-in-the-pan companies.

A more subtle pathology of the unicorn fetish is that it encourages the worst sort of bias and monoculture. When the written criteria are unachievable (unicorn!), then the hiring decision is actually subjective. Rejecting candidate after candidate based on “fit,” or poor interview performance is almost always a warning sign that we’re in bias and blind-spot territory.

As an aside, please recall that interviews are among the worst predictors of job performance.

From the candidate perspective, unicorn recruiting is simple: The best opportunities are only available to the people who have already had the best opportunities (the paper qualifications), and who give favorable first impressions to the hiring manager (bias and cronyism). From what I can see of the startup culture in both Boston and San Francisco, this is in fact the situation. In both cities, we have large populations of motivated people actively seeking work while recruiters work themselves to death. Meanwhile hiring managers make sci-fi/fantasy metaphors to support staffing plans that are based on miracles.

We can do better.

Finally, if none of that convinces you, then perhaps consider the traditional mythology about who, exactly, should be sent to capture a unicorn.

Either way, we’re doing it wrong.

1 thought on “The unicorn rant”

  • To your point, and based on personal situations encountered, I strongly feel that it is VERY vital that the manager ought to be qualified (say in data science, computational biology etc.) to lead. That might not be providing a great deal of technical direction, but at-least one that qualifies to recognize data scientists at various experience/skill-set levels.

    In industry, too many biotech companies have bench-science biologists or people with off-target training in other fields, become ‘Directors of Bioinformatics’ overnight. One cannot expect them to build strong teams and invest in their training, when they do not even qualify to recognize trained computational biologists. I had a biologist manager that became a senior director of bioinformatics overnight, ask me why a training in Machine Learning is relevant to my work, and explain what SVMs are.

    That wasn’t a problem explaining to him at some level, but doing that ‘every single time’ that I want to go off and get some training, is a serious issue.

    We might need to go look for ‘unicorns’ in direct, first-line managers first.

    Thank You for the very meaningful article.

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