Stuff To Ponder: The Working Job Interview

Earlier this month, I read an interview with WordPress creator Matt Mullenweg about his company, Automattic’s, hiring process. The title of the interview, Hire by Audition, Not Resumes, is what caught my eye.

What Automattic does is pay potential hires to do short term work for them so they can get a real sense of the person they might be potentially working with long term. Mullenweg says they hire about 40% of those who tryout and have very low employee turnover.

During the trials, we give the applicants actual work. If you’re applying to work in customer support, you’ll answer tickets. If you’re an engineer, you’ll work on engineering problems. If you’re a designer, you’ll design.

There’s nothing like being in the trenches with someone, working with them day by day. It tells you something you can’t learn from resumes, interviews, or reference checks. At the end of the trial, everyone involved has a great sense of whether they want to work together going forward. And, yes, that means everyone — it’s a mutual tryout. Some people decide we’re not the right fit for them.

Automattic employs people who work virtually so they don’t care when and how the work get done which allows people who already have jobs to “audition” for a new one on their own schedule.

It might be problematic for an arts organization to include those who are already employed in a short term work interview that requires them to be physically present. But this format does give both the employer and applicant an opportunity to evaluate the reality of each other.

If you are seeking to fill a position where the person is required to be self-directed, having them physically work onsite for the whole period probably isn’t a necessary. You can give a person marketing or financial materials and ask them to come back after a few days to discuss/present the approach they might take promoting events or improving the financial status of the organization.

Mullenweg admits this process requires a significant investment of time and energy, something most arts organizations don’t have an excess supply of. However, if your organization only has 20 people, each which must shoulder a large share of responsibility, it will be better to make the effort and avoid having someone leave and shift the burden to everyone else. Likewise, it is preferable that each person be competent enough to bear their entire share of the load.

Automattic’s process answers a common gripe from freelancers who are often asked to submit a proposal involving a great deal of work without any compensation only to later find that the company which solicited the materials is using all their ideas. Even under this process the applicant can have his work and ideas appropriated, but at least they will have received some sort of payment for their effort.

Imagining Doing Many Things With The Rest of Your Life

It is something of a trope that when you are a teenager without a lot of work experience looking to get a better job, you get creative about how you describe your past experience, claiming to have “coordinated the comfort and appreciation of over 1000 customers daily” when your job was to keep the restrooms clean.

After writing my post yesterday about artists doing a better job of communicating their value, I remembered a post on the Theatre Communication Group (TCG) website this summer about how artists already possess many of the skills needed to be entrepreneurs.

At the time, some of the comparisons seemed a little facile and the same sort of stretch teenagers make to sound more skilled.

For example, the improvisation classes we take develop a sensitivity to imagination and impulses. We learn how to say, “Yes” and to follow impulses without fear, judgment or resources. We find ourselves acting with others in highly bizarre and complex scenarios that we have to “act” our ways through. Entrepreneurs, similarly, often find themselves in such situations and must rely on quick thinking, problem solving and the following of impulses.

Further, the storytelling skills we learn as performers, play well into branding ourselves as an artist, entrepreneur or arts business. The research skills we use to research a play and character can simply be repurposed to research one’s market and competition. Our understanding and experience in collaboration aids us in building a culture around creative businesses that represents values: personal, professional, political, artistic, etc. Just like we cast plays, entrepreneurs hire employees.

After reading over the report assembled by the Brooklyn Commune, I realized that the only reason I felt like it was a stretch is that I haven’t really come across many arts people who are interested in applying the skills they acquired in other areas. I have to include myself in that statement. While I look for new opportunities on behalf of my organization, I generally have no inclination to start a business or apply those skills on behalf of a company in another industry.

I think this gets back to the sentiment many of us hear when we begin to embark on a career in the arts, “if you can imagine yourself doing anything else for the rest of your life, pursue that instead.”

What might be inhibiting some of the progress in the arts is that we have so little desire to do anything else that we don’t give a lot of consideration to how our skills might be of practical use outside our field.

One of the reasons the arts community is having difficulty communicating their value to the public at large may be due to never thinking, much less talking, about how the skills we have cultivated are of use anywhere else, because we have no inclination to employ them anywhere else.

When I went back and re-read the TCG posting from the perspective that people would be intentionally trying to apply the skills they have gained to be entrepreneurs, I became more convinced by the idea of the skills being eminently transferable.

I have written a few posts before about how classes and training in the performing arts confer these skills to students, but in my mind I always pictured these students as people who always intended to pursue careers in other areas and are picking up useful skills to transfer to those jobs.

I never really considered someone who had had a successful career in the arts over 10-15 years deciding they would parlay that experience into starting a company that provided logistical support to construction sites.

Again, because we aren’t supposed to imagine doing anything else, why would someone who was successful want to do anything else? But with a partner with construction industry knowledge, an arts person would already have the skills to sell the services, assemble and direct project teams and find creative solutions to problems.

The simple truth is, while we learn a lot of important skills during our arts careers, we don’t acquire all the requisite skills after we start pursuing an arts career. We bring a lot of skills from other jobs and interests in with us.

After I ran my first music festival, I remember the marketing director asking me where I learned to be so highly organized, anticipate problems and develop plans. She wondered if any of my previous jobs had included organizing large outdoor events before.

The truth was while I brought many useful skills from other jobs, none of them directly prepared me for that experience as well as my mother had. Since we lived so far from the supermarket, she used to have us kids make monthly meal menus and shopping lists.

We would go tent camping a few hours away back when you were lucky to have a running water tap nearby much less power. You learned quickly that if you didn’t pack books or games to keep you occupied or forgot to pack the right clothes, it could be a long, boring miserable week.

If you do intend to make a career in the arts, you really still do need possess the drive that comes from a mindset where you can’t imagine doing anything else because it ain’t getting any easier.

Or maybe that is the wrong approach and will just maintain an long too myopic vision.

Since the definition of what it means to participate in artistic pursuits is expanding, the concept of what constitutes a successful artistic career probably also needs to expand—as will the concept of what a person trained in the arts is capable of accomplishing in other industries.

While not all people who work hard pursuing their art becomes highly accomplished or successful, I do believe that it takes a great deal of effort and dedication to become an accomplished exponent.

If nothing else, you need to surmount all the missteps and failures that are part of the process. This has often meant devoting so much time and energy in the pursuit and practice that it doesn’t leave much time for other jobs. But maybe we need to think more about how working in other areas can provide skills to benefit our artistic practice.

A pianist isn’t going to hone her skills by typing hours a day the way a visual artist can learn about composing images in a space while working as a graphic designer. However working in the trust and estate planning department of a bank might provide the pianist with the ability to speak to potential donors about their giving plans and help her better understand how to market her career.

Artist, Value Thyself

One of the more interesting discussion sessions at the Arts Presenters conference I attended was related to a study/discussion conducted by the Brooklyn Commune Project that was released last month. Andy Horowitz of Culturebot and Risa Shoup of Invisible Dog Art Center reviewed the results.

The report discusses a lot of the factors impacting the arts from Baumol and Bowen’s Cost Disease (which I guess I have been writing about for so long, I couldn’t believe was news to anyone), the idea of public good and a review of how arts funding in America got to the place it is.

In addressing funding by foundations, they noted that it is generally recognized that the best return on investments is realized when you balance investment in “safe” entities as well as entities that are prone to take more risk. However, 90%+ arts funding goes to the safer bets resulting in an environment which hampers innovation.

This is the part of the reports summary which I thought said it best:

We uncovered a treasure trove of lost documents, publications and reports, discovering that chief among the problems of the performing arts is a lack of meaningful documentation and knowledge management, as well as a disastrous lack of intergenerational dialogue and mentorship, not to mention peer-to-peer knowledge sharing.

Most significantly, we learned that we, as artists, are not the problem. We have heretofore accepted the received assumptions about artists—that we are bad with money, that we are unprofessional and insufficiently entrepreneurial. We have heretofore accepted the notion that our labor is not “work”, and as such we should be grateful to labor without compensation, to provide our services for free to institutions who are funded expressly to produce and present our art to the public, for the public good. We have heretofore accepted the notion that the system desires to be equitable and just, that it is self-critical and working to improve itself. Now we know differently.

The issue of artists undervaluing their work and heavily self-subsidizing it came up in the conference presentation. According to the 526 respondents to their survey,

75.00% claimed to make between 0-10% of their income from their art practice.
50% of those polled spend at least $2000-5000/year out of pocket on their art practice.
81% of those polled spend $2000 or more per year out of pocket.
$75,000 was the median annual income to be considered “successful”
$45,000 was the median annual income to be considered adequate for “stability.”
20% is the amount of total current income artists claim to receive from their art practice
95% is the amount of total current income artists hope to receive from their art practice in five years.

The speaker oriented in on the income levels deemed to be a sign of success and stability and the fact that artists hoped that 95% of their income would be derived by their practice within five years.

Since all those surveyed lived in the boroughs of New York City, the speakers cited:

“a February 2013 report released by the office of former NYC City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and titled The Middle Class Squeeze, “middle class” in NYC means a household income between $66,400 and $199,200. Lower Middle Class would be $53,120 to $66,400 and Low Income would be anything below $53,120.

What people deemed stable was actually classified as low income and successful fell on the lower end of the middle class income bracket for NYC.

The report goes on to ask, “Why do artists think there even is an “enough”? Maybe it is because we do not work in a sector where extreme wealth is likely.”

Both the report and the speakers at the conference conceded that artists aren’t in it for the money and often view the “psychic income” derived from creating art to be more rewarding than earning cash.

The end of the report contains separate recommendation sections for presenters/producers, funders and artists. Among the suggestions for artists are to redefine the vocabulary and sense of an artist’s value, skills and products both for themselves and others. Part of that requires learning basic business skills like budgeting and finance so you get a better sense of your value.

“At the same time develop practical skills for the knowledge and creative industries (such as graphic and web design, video and audio editing, programming, copywriting) that will support the financial demands and flexible time requirements of your artistic practice.”

My overall impression was that the report was attempting to strike a tenuous balance. While the writers claimed that the problem isn’t the artists’ fault in the introduction, the recommendations say they have to contribute to rectifying the diminished view of their value by being better communicators and actively seeking productive partnerships.

While artists may be misperceived as not being business minded enough, they are enjoined to gain 21st century skills. That might be one of the toughest recommendations to make. They outright say to get a real job to support your artistic pursuits as a practical matter because it is difficult to support yourself otherwise. They note Philip Glass (who received an award at the APAP conference) drove a taxi for three years after Eisenstein on the Beach premiered at the Met.

Perhaps the biggest irony about the report is that even as they end with recommendations against undervaluing your work and discussions about how artists overly subsidize their own products, the report started by talking about the fact they applied for a grant, didn’t get it and went ahead with the effort of putting the report together anyway. (Though admitted they didn’t do a good job on the application.)

This document suggesting that artists motivated by the psychic income will often become involved in a project uncompensated wouldn’t exist if the artists hadn’t done just that.

I am sure they realized there was a conflict between what they said and did because they worked up a budget (see page 6) for what it “would have” cost, estimating the project at $131,000 of which $8,400 was actually contributed (probably by the participants), the rest was contributed in-kind. Their total contributed hours tallied up to 3165.

APAP Reflections

I just got back in the office today after attending the Association of Performing Arts Presenters Conference in NYC and I wanted to share some quick impressions and highlights from the experience. I am sure I will have much more to say in coming days.

The biggest, best experience came during the awards luncheon when Lehua Simon made her speech. I hired Lehua as assistant theatre manager when I was working at Leeward Community College Theatre in Hawaii. At APAP she presented during the “Five Minutes to Shine” session. The attendees of that session voted for the best presentation to be given during the awards luncheon.

I should note that a year ago, I sent her to an entirely different conference and the exact same thing happened. She gave a short presentation and was elected to do a longer presentation in front of the whole conference.

It looks like the conference intends to post video later so I will comment a little more thoroughly at that time. However, despite the fact that there were far more storied people getting awards, the applause was most thunderous for her five minutes and she ended up coming back out to take another bow. Three speakers after her, including Patricia Cruz, Executive Director of Harlem Stage and Robert Lynch, President of Americans for the Arts, referenced Lehua’s speech.

I think it would be incredibly hard to manufacture a moment that had such impact. As far as I was concerned, it just proves some people like Lehua just have innate talent for getting people invested when they speak.

Other moments that jumped out at me:

Johann Zietsman, an arts administrator who grew up in South Africa commented that when Nelson Mandela became President of South Africa, people wanted him to defund all the orchestras and museums and devote the money to bringing drinking water to the country. Zietsman said Mandela commented that a country without arts is a country that only has water and taps. Zietsman noted that as crucial as drinking water was to the country, Mandela felt a great deal would be lost if the government didn’t also express value for the arts.

There was a plenary featuring Taylor Mac, Baratunde Thurston, and Abigail Washburn. There was a lot of laughter elicited by the three of them. One comment Taylor Mac made really grabbed me.

He mentioned how he hates audience interaction, (except when he does it, of course), because so often it is about the artist trying to get you to participate in their fun. Mac said his aim is to let the audience have an authentic experience interacting with his performance. If you feel uncomfortable as a result of something in his show, that is a valid experience. He said once he explains it to people in that context, they may still be a bit apprehensive, but they also seem to settle in and become a little more receptive to the experience.

That may sound like an easy rationalization, but I have to confess I felt more at ease with the concept as he explained the audience had permission to be uncomfortable.

As an example of what his performances can involve. He had one show focused on the 1820s. Since Braille was invented in the 1820s, he had everyone in the audience blindfolded and started them playing games like musical chairs. People ended up sitting in the lap of strangers and kissing them.

The session my colleagues and I did on presenting contemporary work by indigenous artists went pretty well. As with many of these sessions, 50 minutes wasn’t nearly enough time and we ended up continuing the conversations in the hallway. The audience was small which wasn’t surprising given the early morning timing, but there were people from the Canadian Arts Council and New England Foundation for the Arts in the audience who asked questions. So between them and those who were motivated to seek us out at 9 am, I feel like we were effective at reaching a good cross-section of people.

The most disappointing part of the conference was actually the opening keynote which featured Diane Paulus from American Repertory Theater, actor Zachary Quinto and composer Stephen Schwartz. I thought each of them was going to speak but instead the format was more like an episode of Inside the Actors Studio with most of the questions going to Schwartz asking him about when his musical Pippin was produced 40 years ago and Paulus about what it was like working with Schwartz on the recent revival of Pippin. Quinto was largely left out.

I felt like a keynote should be about setting the tone for the rest of the conference. Combined with a conference theme of “Shine” the tone seemed more about burnishing 40 year old works rather than encouraging attendees to strive toward anything new. The interviewer should have taken a cue from his laryngitis and left the three to talk about what was on their minds. Once they opened the floor for questions, things started to move in a better direction. (I wrote all of this on the conference survey by the way.)

I will admit that after the keynote was over, it did occur to me that I was potentially expressing a preference for optimistic platitudes over a discussion of the careers of noted artists.

Near the end of the session, Diane Paulus spoke about there not being a conflict between being an artist and being business minded. She described herself and others as identifying themselves as artists with an interest in marketing and artists with an interest in finances.

The observation that really grabbed my attention was that loyalty is not equal to a subscription. She had people talk about how much they loved American Repertory Theater, but when she asked what shows they had seen, they had only seen one in the last year.

That reminded me of Andrew McIntyre’s talk from three years ago where he described patrons who expressed a strong connection with an arts organization claiming to have attended the previous year when it had been two or three years.

There was a lot more that happened that can’t be summarized in a few paragraphs. I hope to write about them more in the coming weeks.