When I worked at Yahoo!, our team needed another engineering manager. We didn’t run a hiring process, or even do interviews. Instead, our Director brought on a colleague he’d worked with before. That new manager soon decided he needed a tech lead on his team. We didn’t run a hiring process, do interviews, or consider candidates on the existing team. Instead, our new manager brought over one of his previous colleagues. A third previous colleague reached out to our Director, and without a single interview we’d soon hired a new Chief Architect who would ultimately never write or read a technical specification about our product, nor contribute a single line of code. (In his defense, that’s because the product was canceled shortly after he joined, although to his discredit he did continue to publicly refer to himself as the product’s Chief Architect.)
One of my teammates–one who had joined the team through the more traditional route of interviewing–described this pattern as the flying wedge. “Flying wedge” has been used to describe an American football play and an early fighter jet formation, but its first usage came from a Greek and Roman military formation where soliders formed in a triangular wedge to penetrate an opposing formation. In all cases, it describes a small entry point that expands the deeper it gets. While the flying wedge isn’t relevant in modern warfare, it is a surprisingly common phenomenon in the modern workforce, and I’ve seen folks run this playbook at pretty much every company I’ve worked at. If you wanted a less abstract description, you might just call it “hiring friends” although I’ve seen folks hire friends without committing to the full wedge.
This playbook stands at stark odds with the typical scaled company’s approach. Most scaled companies operate around a structured hiring funnel with dedicated recruiters, well-defined interviews, documented rubrics, and trained interviewers. While they do track hiring velocity and offer acceptance rate, they also measure themselves on representation in their workforce, and the candidates’ successes at the company after accepting.
These are concerns that the wedge doesn’t worry itself with.
In small startups, the flying wedge is common because they lack the team to run the scaled playbook. There are no dedicated recruiters, and often not even a team to conduct a full interview loop. It’s also easier to convince friends to join since early companies don’t have much evidence that they’re going to be successful. Overall, I think that most startups default to this strategy not because they love it, but simply because they have few other available options.
The situation is different in larger companies, where they do have the resources to run a more structured playbook, but the hiring manager decides to rely on their network instead. I’ve seen this happen for a number of different reasons. Sometimes the hiring manager is desperate: they must hire someone as quickly as possible. I’ve also seen some hiring managers who simply don’t know how to operate in a structured hiring process, for example struggling with closing calls, and consequently decide to avoid it. Other times the hiring manager wants to shift the culture to one they find familiar (a cultural cousin to The Grand Migration anti-pattern).
Ultimately, the flying wedge is an effective pattern for clearcutting the existing culture and starting over with the culture that a given leader is comfortable operating within. It makes it clear that the existing team is unlikely to make much progress without shifting their approach, and folks who are uncomfortable shifting have a clear signal that they should opt out of the company.
That said, if you’re asking me, I’d generally recommend against the flying wedge pattern. Most folks who operate this pattern have adopted a closed mindset about the industry’s talent–they already know the best talent–but my experience is that hiring from outside your existing network is not only a great way to find strong candidates, it’s also a powerful way to advance your long-term career. Similarly, it’s been my personal experience that existing teams are usually good, and almost always redeemable with some thoughtful effort. If your immediate thought is to replace the existing team, ask yourself if you’re playing a short-term game where a longer term game might be more interesting.
If I was naming this pattern anew in 2022, rather than following my Yahoo! Coworker’s lead from 2007, perhaps I’d go with “no new friends” instead of “flying wedge.”