Archive for October, 2015

The hiring dialectic

Saturday, October 17th, 2015

I don’t have much time to blog these days as I launch Pintail Power to solve the Duck Curve with our patent-pending hybrid energy storage systems.  But I have been giving a lot of thought to the people who will help me disrupt the power industry and create our company culture.  I was triggered to write today by Vinod Khosla‘s article ‘Gene Pool Engineering for Entrepreneurs,‘ which closes with this observation:

Great ideas suffering from poor execution can kill companies, while less spectacular ideas coupled with phenomenal teams can quickly swing a company from troubled to a success.

This reminded me of how I led the team that turned around one of Khosla’s investments, Ausra Inc.  By providing a clear vision, I re-focused and motivated the engineering and operations teams to overcome a poorly conceived design for solar thermal power generation.  Together we re-engineered the system to achieve product-market fit by delivering superheated steam, which the industry believed could not be done with the Ausra CLFR technology.  And over the next 21 months of my leadership, we met every cost, schedule and performance objective, and delivered the entire profit on the Venture Capital investment, with the SSG4 Earnout Payment.

But the title of this post — the hiring dialectic, by which I mean the synthesis of innovation from opposing ideas — was inspired by another quote from Khosla’s article:

The more varied the company background of the engineers, the more failures and solutions at disruption they will have seen.

I had begun thinking about the importance of diverse viewpoints to help Pintail Power disruptively transform the power industry after reading the June, 2015 issue of Power Magazine, which focused on training the next generation of power industry leaders.  Executive Editor Gail Reitenbach penned a Commentary and an accompanying article entitled Women Are Essential to a Thriving Power Generation Sector.  These articles made me hyper-aware of the rich talent pool that is often under-utilized, under-recognized and under-promoted. It inspired me to investigate how I could use diversity to achieve more success for and within Pintail Power.

So that month in Montreal at the ASME Gas Turbine Expo I started talking with people in the power industry about these matters. I got some good tactical suggestions on how to create a workplace where tacit knowledge could be shared outside the old boys club, but I also got the message that diversity was not an end in itself.

I found this latter message to be unsatisfying, even if it rang true.  I really believed that a dialectical approach goes beyond collaboration of functional or operational areas (engineering, operations, sales & marketing, finance, etc.), to the essence of problem recognition and problem solving.

Vinod argues strongly for diversity as a competitive advantage and suggests a process, which he calls gene pool engineering,

to manage the risks AND to take advantage of opportunities to create disruption without running afoul of key requirements of the industry.’

But his suggestion to

‘mix the professional expertise and industry understanding of the experienced hires with the entrepreneurial energy and innovative ideas of the founders.’

has to be re-worked at Pintail Power, because our innovative ideas arise from the deep expertise and industry understanding of the founders.  Instead, we need to bring in colleagues who are younger and with less experience, or with different experience, to challenge our views, clarify our vision, and help us sustain innovation.  Because if Pintail Power successfully transforms the power industry, it will then need to transform itself to meet the dramatically changed market we aim to enable.

And this is where our long-term entrepreneurial challenge lies.