On Hiring

Posted by kdow on Feb 2, 2016 12:08:55 PM

Last year my glorious leader laid down a few gauntlet’s as I lead a team of two people in our EMEA business. One such gauntlet was to grow my team by 150%. Not only that, my role was to integrate and ramp all three while being an individual contributor.

I write to you having done that, and now my newer, shinier, expanded role involves growing EMEA and APAC. Challenge accepted.

Aside from timezones & cultural differences, the most bizarre thing about expanding a team across so many territories is the process & measurement itself. Something to consider is that my team has to be both quite technical (most come from your standard computer science type background) as well as capable of explaining those technical concepts. They have to be able to sell a technical concept to non-technical people, but also understand that technical concept to a degree that a highly technical recipient of said information feels comfortable. It’s a weird one.

And then I came across this post from Zach Holman. The title is ‘Startup Interviewing is Fucked,’ and while this is most certainly true, it’s not just pertinent to startups. Look at this tweet (also found in Holman’s post):


This is the talented man who developed Homebrew. He was rejected from a job at Google because, despite most of their engineers typing brew <something> at one point in time that day, he couldn’t do a stupid algorithmic formula on a whiteboard which lead to him not getting the job he was being interviewed for.

Despite clearly being a passionate, entrepreneurial and talented developer, he was rejected from a company that touts itself as being the mecca for such people. All because he couldn’t do something that he likely wouldn’t need to do on a normal basis (as in, write code on a whiteboard, let alone silly algorithmic puzzles).

In college, where I studied such subjects as programming, algorithms and what-not, there was a universal hatred for exams. Not just because exams are horrible experiences, but also because the exam for programming didn’t involve a computer. It was a series of exercises where you wrote down code. With a pen, on paper. It didn’t make sense. It still makes no sense. Hell, in a real environment, programming can just be named “Googling Stack Overflow”.

In the real world, people solving complex problems don’t use whiteboards to write code down. They draw tree structures to represent data, boxes to represent databases and link everything with lines, circles and arrows. They might, if they get into the weeds, write down dependent function names or similar. But no one writes a full solution out on the board. A whiteboard is there as a tool to explain a concept, not complete the actual problem. That’s what the computer is for.

So how is it that in 2016, when I look up new, innovative ways to hire smart people I find that asking completely asinine questions of candidates in rooms with whiteboards is so popular?

Asking such questions develops a bad taste in people’s mouths. I’ve yet to meet someone who’s smart and often a great fit for a job & companies’ culture who loves being asked to go to the whiteboard like an 8 year old in school.

For me, I have a little system of tick-box traits that I want to test for. It want to test the four quadrants of demonstrated skill that are desirable in the perfect hire. Those four quadrants roughly translate to:

  • Curious. I like to think that I’m intellectually curious by nature, and this serves me very well. So I always try to find a candidate that is just as intellectually curious. Solving problems comes with the territory of having a desire to learn.
  • Open. In the company I work for, we have a huge push for people being transparent. In fact, it’s one of the big mission statements for the business. We strive for transparency across the board. In my individual team, we inherit that trait, so additionally, I attempt to find people who are open; which is slightly different. Openness pertains to a degree of accessibility, willingness to share a thought and being accommodating.
  • Driven. Curiosity and openness are really great indicators of people being smart. But in a work scenario like ours, that doesn’t matter if you’re not driven. Driven people are self-starters, passionate and will go the extra mile. A person with drive is a person with big ambition, which is a huge asset to any team.
  • Entrepreneurial. Entrepreneurship, or having an entrepreneurial bent is not the same as starting a business. Entrepreneurial candidates are people who can easily solve problems with new, enterprising ideas. The folks with an entrepreneurial trait are the kind of people who love solving problems with a certain kind of spirit & attitude.

Hiring for these quadrants means asking some pointed, and some fluffy, questions around these kinds of traits. If someone wants to go to a whiteboard to explain a concept, that’s great. There’s certainly nothing in there that asks for someone to code up a solution to invert a binary tree or explain how you’d re-design Reddit using some specific technology stack. The reason the candidate in talking to us is that they’re smart. We can accept that almost immediately as cannon, because they passed a recruiter connect call and initial phone interview.

Through the conversation in these quadrants, we rate candidates based on their answers to questions, their enthusiasm demonstrated for the role and their fit. And fit falls into two categories:

  • Technical. A technical fit means that the candidate actually fits the role. They can demonstrate the skills needed to actually do the job. Of course, we have a ramp period so the expectation is that they don’t know everything, but in the first 90 days (which is effectively our ramp time) can they arm themselves with what they need to do the job? If they fit into our quadrants above, then they certainly have the thought technologies required to ramp up to being an amazing individual contributor.
  • Cultural. This is the fluffy bit. The company I work for has a huge focus on culture. It’s what defines & shapes our business & our people. So having people come in who are not a culture fit screws things up quite a bit. Most notably, the risk of hiring a person who’s not a culture fit is that they’ll quit in a fit of frustration, rage or both. Which then sets me, as the hiring manager, back a few months. But when you find a culture fit, then that person’s ramp period (the first 90 days), and long-term prospects are fantastic.

In short, when hiring I do my best to avoid stupid, tricky questions and focus on what I can find out about someone to ensure they tick the box for my four skills quadrants. In turn, we also attempt to ensure that they’re a fit for the role, business and our little, global team.

As a team, globally, we also have a matrix of skills we want people to slot into. Each review period we look at each person we hired to see what skill level they can demonstrate in this matrix & where they’ve improved. It’s a bit subjective, but it helps us measure how good someone is at certain practical skills (sales & communication skills, technical product knowledge, etc.). Before someone is promoted, for example, we want to see some improvement on that skills matrix. We want to foster an environment where everyone is growing, constantly. That said, no one will ever be an expert in all skills on the matrix. If they are, great. But that’s not the expectation.

We also have a set of values & stakeholders. There are a few different stakeholders that we consider to be folks we need to deliver value to. Our product teams, sales teams, prospects & most importantly; ourselves. Our ideal candidate will adhere to those values, but those values are easily tested by looking at the quadrant of skill traits.

If I ask someone to write some function to detect a cycle in a linked list on a whiteboard, I won’t know if they’re a job fit, culture fit, intellectually curious, open & honest, passionate & an ideas person. I’ll know that they can, or cannot, write a function to detect a cycle in a linked list, though. So while code tests are irritating and maybe useful to someone, they’re not to me or my team. But I avoid them by wrapping my four quadrants of skill traits in an acronym; C.O.D.E.

Incidentally, I am hiring folks. Hit me up if you’re interested. Job stuff for EMEA here, and APAC here. You can also reach out via Twitter or LinkedIn.