Stop Flying Blind - A book by Michael Mace

5. How to recruit competitive analysts

The three perspectives a company needs in order to map the future are competitive analysis, market research, and advanced technology analysis. This week we continue our deep dive on competitive analysis done right, with a look at hiring.

Nobody grows up wanting to be a competitive analyst, and I’m not aware of any university degree programs specializing in the subject. So you’re going to have to find and train your own analysts. How do you do that?

How to find candidates

Look inside first. If you’re in a fairly large company, your best pool of candidates will be existing employees. Look for people who are recognized as smart, but don’t fit in their current roles. I’ve found a number of good people in what high tech calls “sales engineer” roles. Sales engineers are skilled technologists, almost engineers in their own right, who provide technical backup to the salesforce, answering questions and meeting with the technical staff at a customer company. Often they have a good understanding of both customer needs and competitive products, and are boiling over with ideas about what the company should do.

Potential competitive analysts will often identify themselves by asking pointed, politically incorrect questions about company strategy during communication meetings. Or they’ll write long e-mails describing what the company’s doing wrong, and copy them to three levels of management, pissing off everyone in the division.

It’s good to meet these people and talk with them, before they get fired. Often they really are crackpots who need to be purged from the organization. But sometimes you’ll find a bright, intensely passionate person who just happens to be in the wrong job and doesn’t realize it. You should rescue these people, put them to work on the issues they care about, and give them an appropriate outlet for their ideas.

Write a good job description. To attract good candidates from the outside, I’ve found that a properly-written job description is essential. The description gets posted to your company’s website, and is also the thing that’ll go onto any online job search boards your company uses. That means it’s really a recruiting ad, and you need to treat it very seriously. Don’t let a recruiter write this for you — a standard corporate blurb will drive away exactly the sort of mild misfits you’re looking for.

The people that you want may not even see themselves as competitive analysts, so you need to dangle the right sort of bait in front of them:

–A chance to play with products they love.
–The opportunity to tell the company what to do.
–An atmosphere in which they can play to win.

When I was hiring a competitive analyst to focus on the wireless market, I used a description like this:

You are a wireless visionary.

You are deeply familiar with the cellphone carriers, their businesses, psychologies, and strategies. You understand the handset manufacturers and what makes them tick. You have a good understanding of the infrastructure required to make a wireless data solution work, but you are also in-touch enough with users to understand what they’ll actually use (as opposed to what some company will try to shove at them).

You know what the real data throughput of 3G networks will be. You were deeply disappointed by WAP, and you probably enjoy playing with Java applets in your spare time.

Now you are champing at the bit to take all that knowledge and use it to help bring mobile computing fully into the wireless age.

In this role you will forecast the future of wireless technologies and businesses as they pertain to handhelds and smartphones. You’ll identify opportunities and potential partners, help lead the company’s strategy and tactics, and create marketing messages. You will identify competitive challenges and what to do about them. And you’ll generally help to infuse wireless thinking into everything we do.

Your work background may include roles like product marketing, sales engineer, and engineering. We’re not looking for a particular job title as much as we’re looking for a really good thinker with vision and the experience necessary to lead. Although this is an individual leadership position, we’re looking for a very experienced candidate.

Excellent writing, presentation, and influencing skills are mandatory, as is a good amount of technolust (part of your role will be testing products; you need to enjoy that). You need to be willing to travel. Experience in Asia (especially Japan or China) is a major plus. Ten years’ experience in the industry is required, as is an MBA or equivalent experience.

People who have a good load of anger and technolust are likely to see themselves in this ad, and I slipped in enough industry catchphrases and acronyms to give me some credibility with a potential candidate. It’s important to show that you know what you’re talking about, because the right sort of candidate will be judging you as much as you’re judging them — they know a lot about the industry, and probably already classify people mentally into those who “get it” and those who don’t.

Because it’s unusual, a description like this will probably draw a large number of useless resumes. The job doesn’t require a professional credential (like an accountant or lawyer would), so a lot of people can imagine themselves in the role. And because many companies treat competitive analysis roles as entry level positions, you’ll get a lot of resumes that have no qualifications whatsoever.

I haven’t found a way to word an ad or job description so it weeds out these people. So you just have to slog through the bad resumes looking for the occasional gem. There are two types of people you should watch for. The first is people with good industry qualifications who want to explore a different type of job. They may be the sort of vaguely unhappy misfits that you’re looking for. Often these people won’t send you a long cover letter, but they’ll have a resume with good qualifications and a good background in your industry. It’s worthwhile to talk with them. The other type of interesting candidate won’t have a great resume, but they’ll send you a long and passionate cover letter saying what you company needs to do, rather than discussing their own qualifications. A candidate once sent me four documents, totaling about 20 pages, critiquing the company and analyzing its competitors in detail.

If their ideas are good, this sort of candidate often makes an excellent junior analyst. They may not have as much work experience as you’d like, but you can teach them a lot of that. What you can’t teach is passion and insight.

If your company has a staffing team, you’ll need to work carefully with them. Someone who sends a fat cover letter looks like a kook at first glance, and a lot of staffing people would screen them out before you even saw their application. Personally, I like to review every application myself, at least until I can show the staffing rep by example what I’m looking for. Without examples, it’s just too hard to explain what a good analyst looks like.

Look among customers and partners. Sometimes you’ll find a customer or business partner who wants to talk a lot about your company, and has a lot of suggestions on what you should be doing. You can ask the salesforce to watch out for people like that. Or maybe you’ll run across someone like that in a user group or on a web bulletin board, posting insightful comments about your company. It’s worthwhile to keep track of these people and screen them if you have a job opening. If nothing else, you should circulate the job description to your salespeople and user groups, to see if it shakes loose a good candidate.


The hiring process

A good competitive analysis group works together as a team, trading ideas and insights. That means you need to pay special attention to interpersonal fit when making a hiring decision. If you bring in someone who annoys the rest of the group, or who can’t work well with them, it will hurt everyone’s productivity.

I think it’s best to have the whole team interview every finalist, and then meet together as a group to discuss them. This can be tricky — people often have favorites but don’t want to say so, or have strong feelings about a candidate and can’t explain them. I like to make the conversation as objective as possible, and to get people’s gut feelings explained in clear terms. So I have every member of the team fill out the form below, rating each candidate on each attribute. The forms have to be completed right after each interview, when memories are still fresh. I go around and collect them to make sure the forms get filled out immediately.1

Then when we all meet, everyone’s score for every candidate is put up on a board. When there are disagreements, we discuss why. Often the disagreements are the most useful part of the process, because they’ll identify concerns we need to check through references, or differences in perspective between the members of our team.

Even if you don’t get 100% agreement from everyone in the team, this process lets you know what everyone thinks, and there’s much less risk of a nasty surprise after you hire.

Candidate rating form


Your name:_______________________

Please rate the candidate from 1-10 (10 being best) on the following criteria:

Technical skills: ____
How well could this candidate communicate to a technical person? Will the candidate understand technical issues well enough to see an engineer’s point of view and explain things in his/her terms?

Marketing skills: ____
How well could this candidate identify meaningful product advantages? Can he/she explain them in a way that’s easy for the average person to understand?

Communication/influencing skills: ____
This position doesn’t give orders, it persuades people to do things. How well does this person communicate his or her ideas? How effective do you think he/she would be at persuading others?

Insight/vision: ____
Does the candidate think outside the box (as opposed to parroting the conventional wisdom)? How well can this person generate useful new insights and ideas?

Technolust: ____
One qualification for this job is an innate fascination with hands-on use of mobile products. How personally excited are they about our product category? What aptitude for hands-on work did they show you?

Industry knowledge: ____
How well does he/she know the mobile device world, and the wireless world (operators)?

Company fit: ____
How well could this person work with us? Would he/she be comfortable with our culture? How well do you think he or she would fit in? How comfortable are you personally with him/her? Why?


Problems to watch out for in a competitive analyst

Bad intuition. Most Americans above a certain age have heard of the television show MASH, and some have seen the movie of the same name. But very few people have read the books by the late Richard Hooker. The first two are surprisingly good.

In the second MASH book, Hooker describes a character named Dr. McDuff. This doctor has a remarkable talent for analyzing a perplexing medical case, correctly picking out the key information, making a brilliant diagnosis — and then prescribing exactly the wrong treatment. I thought he was just a funny character when I read it, but he actually exists, or at least his business equivalent. I’ve met him, and he’s a serious danger to a competitive analysis team.

In a competitive analysis setting, someone with bad instincts will be able to make a brilliant argument. It’ll be based in fact, very well supported, and quite persuasive. It’ll also be dead wrong. The analyst will make some subtle assumption about how people work, or about what’ll happen in the future, which is utterly out of touch with reality. His whole scenario will collapse like a house of cards. But he won’t be able to see it.

The danger is that because he’s passionate and persuasive, he can lead a whole company astray. So you have to weed him out.

But the weeding is hard, for two reasons. First, the most brilliant ideas often challenge the status quo and make people uncomfortable. The longer you’re overseeing a competitive team, the more comfortable you’ll get with your own conventional wisdom, and the more you’ll be annoyed by challenging ideas. You may start to mistake uncomfortable-but-brilliant ideas for uncomfortable-and-stupid ideas, and dismiss them all out of hand. That’s why you should always hear someone out, listen to their arguments, and think on them for a while, even if they make you uneasy.

Especially if they make you uneasy.

This is the only area in which you have to be smarter than the team. You have to be able to see the difference between uncomfortable ideas that are wonderful, and uncomfortable ideas that are poison. If you can’t make this call, you should hire someone who can, and trust their judgment.

Even if you become convinced that someone has fundamentally bad instincts, it can be hard to weed them out simply because many companies make it hard to fire someone without dramatic cause. I’ve worked at places where you had to compile several months of documented, quantified incompetence before you could get rid of somebody. Even in less bureaucratic companies the fear of lawsuits makes human resources very gun-shy. Telling your HR representative that you want to fire someone because they’re brilliant but wrong-headed is not going to go over well. It sounds too much like you just don’t like the employee. You may face months of argument before you can take action, and in the meantime your group’s productivity will be suffering.2

The much better answer is not to hire this person in the first place. Screen prospective analysts very carefully — get them talking about what they think the company should do, and why. Really probe at their thinking, ask how they reached those conclusions, challenge them with other ideas and see how well they can defend their thinking. If you’re hiring someone from another industry who doesn’t have a lot of depth about your company, find a subject that both of you know, and dig into their thinking in that area.

Maybe you can get a candidate to do a free project for you, or at least a presentation. This became a lot easier in Silicon Valley after the tech bubble burst and the unemployment rate tripled.

Another tactic we I like is group interviews — the entire competitive group sits down with the candidate, peppers him or her with questions, and sees if they could defend their ideas. This can leave a candidate a little bit bruised, but the smart ones tend to be competitive and rise to the challenge. Besides, their compensation is that if they do get hired, they’ll have the pleasure of doing it to someone else the future.

Another very helpful tactic is to find someone else in your company who has good people instincts, even if they work in a completely unrelated department, and ask them to interview the candidate for you. Ask them to probe the quality of the candidate’s thinking. If they approve, it’s a very good sign.

Resist the urge to hire mediocrity. If you’ve put in place the right mechanisms to weed out inappropriate people, you may find that you wipe out the entire pool of job candidates. Suddenly you’re faced with starting the whole recruiting process over again. At this point the pile of resumes you rejected the first time will start to look mighty appealing. You’ll flip through it and come to that guy who’s only marginally qualified, and you’ll start to think of a few important projects that he might be able to handle. You wouldn’t have to put him on the most demanding work, after all, and having him around would lessen the load on everyone else. Depending on how desperate you are to fill the opening, you may even start to feel positively affectionate toward this person. How could you have been so picky the first time around? He’ll be a great addition to the team…

No, he won’t. There are many jobs in which a half-competent person can do reasonable but not spectacular work. Competitive analysis isn’t one of them. A half-competent analyst won’t be brilliant half the time, they will be mediocre 100% of the time. You’ll find yourself double-checking every piece of work they do, and you’ll never be able to trust a conclusion that they’ve reached. In sum, they’ll actually create more work for you. What’s worse, their mediocre ideas may start to infect the rest of the group, and the team will start to question your judgment for hiring the guy.

Suck it up. You need to do a better job of recruiting.


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Next week: How to collect competitive information.

  1. I want to give public credit to Barbara Cardillo, one of my fellow managers at Apple. She taught me many of these hiring techniques. Thanks, Babs! [↩ back]
  2. An alternative, if you’re a very charismatic manager, is to go ahead and fire the person without permission. Get into a screaming match with them, walk them out the door, throw their papers after them, and then go tell HR. Basically you’re daring HR to fire you in return, and in most cases they don’t have enough pull to do it. One of my bosses used this technique occasionally. “Michael,” he told me after a particularly messy firing, “HR’s gonna’ bitch and moan, but when I fire someone they stay fired.” And sure enough they did. I’ve never had the need (or maybe the courage) to use this technique myself. To pull it off you need to have a supportive boss above you, and you’ll use up a lot of political capital that you might need for something else. [↩ back]

4 Responses to “5. How to recruit competitive analysts”

  1. Barbara Ballard said on June 1st, 2006 at 6:49 pm

    I’m finding this entire book very interesting reading, one that helps me understand what some of the people were actually doing at some of my previous jobs.

    It also makes me wonder if I should become a competitive analyst. After all, that’s what my blog is somewhat about. That thought, in turn, makes me wonder about the plethora of “industry blogs” out there, even just the ones restricted to my industry.

    Is blogging a good sign of a competitive analyst? Or would you want to avoid bloggers? If the answer is neither (as I suspect it is), how would you use blogs to determine whether its writer would make a good analyst? Alternately, how could a blogger look at herself and determine whether she would be a good analyst?

  2. Mike Mace said on June 1st, 2006 at 9:39 pm

    Hi, Barbara.

    Thanks for the comment! I’m very glad that you’re finding the book interesting.

    How do you know if you’d make a good competitive analyst? That’s a very good question, and I’m not sure that I have a quick answer. The temptation is to say, “if it’s right for you, you’ll know it.” But that’s a cop-out, so let me try to give some ideas…

    Good competitive analysts generally like solving business puzzles. A lot of the work involves collecting tidbits of seemingly unrelated information and assembling it into an insightful picture. If you don’t like puzzling out things, you probably won’t enjoy the job.

    You need passion for your industry. That’s the “technolust” thing I’ve mentioned in some of my posts. If you don’t have that, you won’t have the patience to study your industry to the extent needed. For example, it would be torture to spend all day testing a product if you didn’t like playing with that type of product.

    You have to be comfortable influencing rather than controlling. Competitive analysts advise and prod and nag galore, but in the end they are staff rather than line management. That drives some people crazy (it’s why I eventually moved from competitive analysis to strategy; I wanted to make decisions rather than just giving advice).

    You also have to be comfortable with people viewing you as a peon. You influence most effectively when people think they came up with ideas on their own. So the more effective you are, the less credit you’ll be given. You have to be able to find your own rewards in the job.

    >>Is blogging a good sign of a competitive analyst? Or would you want to avoid bloggers?

    A good competitive analyst needs to be able to write well. So blogging is a very, very good sign.

    >>how would you use blogs to determine whether its writer would make a good analyst?

    I’d look at what they write from two perspectives:

    1. Does this person analyze the industry naturally? Do they have good jugment at identifying which issues matter and which ones don’t?

    2. How smart are they? Do they come up with interesting and original insights? This is a critical question. There are a lot of people who are passionate about an industry and have very strong opinions, but aren’t all that insightful. It’s very important to differentiate between these enthusiasts and genuine analysts.

    If you answer “yes” to both of those questions, the person is a promising candidate.

    Thanks again for the great question, Barbara. I’m going to add a section on this topic to the finished book.

  3. Avi Greengart said on June 5th, 2006 at 11:10 pm

    Oh, my. This is good, good, detailed stuff. I love the job description.

    Two of the key things I look for in interviews are associative skills and passion. The mechanics of competitive analysis can be taught, and logic can be tested. However, often the ability to tease out strategic insights and market trends depends not just on critical reasoning skills, but the ability to make associative jumps from other contexts. Sometimes teasing this out during the interview process is straightforward, like discussing whether history is about to repeat itself (ex: comparing the mistakes made by early 1980′s PC vendors or early 1990′s software vendors with equivalent mobile players today and seeing if the analogies fit). I also like to pull out standard rumors and see whether the candidate has thought them through (ex: “do you think Apple is launching an [insert ThinkSecret rumor of the day here], and why?”) but then see if they can work through wider implications (ex: “if Apple does that, what should MTV/BMW/Hasbro/Staples/Nokia do about it?”). Really strong candidates are always looking at the world around them from a slightly skewed perspective and can pull insights from retail, airlines, theme restaraunts, gaming, etc. and make connections to mobile devices or Internet services or whatever. If the discussion can bounce around strategic market positions for three different industries and end up with an argument for why company X really should launch an MVNO, you’re on the right track.

    The other thing to look for is passion mitigated by communication skills and objectivity. I know a handful of strong analysts who are not passionate about their subject area, but they are the exceptions. Generally speaking, people work harder and better in areas that deeply interest them, and competitive analysis requires a fair amount of work that is delightful only to people who delight in it. You called passion, “technolust,” which is the right description for competitive analysis of gadgets, but not so much for food services (“foodie”), automobiles (“car guy”), or pharma. True passion cannot be taught, it will not last if it is a recent development, and is usually mistrusted by everyone else in the corporation. That last one is why passion must be mitigated by basic people skills. This person is going to be talking to internal and external customers – there’s a difference between being passionate and being a kook. The ability to maintain objectivity needs to be assessed as well; all too often passion becomes dogma, and while a super-passionate bigot can be a great cheerleader for your brand, you’re actually looking for an analyst.


  4. Mike Mace said on June 6th, 2006 at 7:28 pm

    Excellent comments, Avi!

    I agree with you about associative skills, and especially the term “slightly skewed.” You want someone who looks at the world a little differently, who won’t settle for the conventional explanation.

    This is starting to sound distressingly like an Apple commercial.

    >>You called passion, “technolust,” which is the right description for competitive analysis of gadgets, but not so much for food services

    You’re right, it’s passion.

    passion must be mitigated by basic people skills….The ability to maintain objectivity needs to be assessed as well

    Agreed on both. Between the two, I think objectivity is the most essential. It’s possible to work with a brilliant analyst who has poor people skills (lock them up, feed them through a slot in the door). If you’ve ever watched the cable TV show House you’ll know this personality, although in the real world they usually find a way to self-destruct eventually.

    But an analyst who loses objectivity is just a fanatic.

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