How I Hire
One of the things that I’m most proud of has been Blockchain’s ability to hire an incredible team. We’ve managed to keep an (insanely?) high bar despite quickly scaling and, Candace Lee, who heads up our people operations team, delivers on that goal with rare grace and operational excellence.
That said, as a leader, one of the most critical parts of my job has been ensuring that we’re building a team filled with unparallelled talent. I’m still a front-line interviewer at Blockchain, but increasingly I’m focused on passing on what I’ve learned and inspiring the next generation of Blockchain interviewers.
Mike at Mosaic Ventures, one of our most helpful investors, recently asked if I could share what I’ve learned with one of their new portfolio companies and it made me think, why not share broadly? I’ve passed some thoughts to a few entrepreneurs in this situation before, but I’ve always done a poor job when doing it on an ad hoc basis — count this as my serious stab at it.
What follows is a set of maxims, some lessons learned and a few resources. It is almost certainly flawed (and I invite you to tell me why), isn’t comprehensive (and I invite you tell me what I’ve missed) and my guess is you’ll end up tossing most of it into the garbage pile, but hopefully there are one or two things in here that can help you in your efforts to build a great team.
Hire Curious Adventurers
When you are building a team at a startup, you need people who have a healthy dose of the adventure bug and a genuine excitement for learning new things. When I evaluate candidates, I’m looking for a sense of curiosity and a proven track record of taking on challenging adventures. This can be anything really — from moving to a foreign place to climbing the world’s largest mountains, training for a first triathlon to learning a new language — but it’s critical to hire people who are constantly learning, evolving, and inspired to explore. Those qualities are often predictive of future employees who are always looking for ways to improve the status quo; they’ll see problems that others may overlook and instinctively dive in to fix them.
Hire People From A Lot of Places
We’ve hired people from 18 different countries, people already raising children, recent high school grads, PhDs, drop outs, anarchists, liberals, and people from nearly every socioeconomic background. Why? Because a diversity of perspective makes your product stronger. As a side benefit, you also discover a lot of talent in hidden places that other companies ignore because the individual doesn’t fit into their mental model. In short, make it a point to hire people that look very little like yourself.
Hire Helpful People
Hiring people that are genuinely helpful will lead to a well-functioning team. I’ve found this to be easy when it comes to hiring engineering talent. Engineering, by nature, is a collaborative process — just look at the movement around open-source coding. On the other end of the spectrum is business talent, especially talent from banks and consulting firms where competition is often baked into the ethos. In order to avoid ending up with someone who looks good on paper but is the wrong fit on this dimension, you need to test hard for it. The best way to do that? During reference checks rather than in the interview. A great question to ask is: “What is the most helpful thing X did for you while you worked together?”
Don’t Trust Interviews
Speaking of interviews, a great deal of research has proven that the efficacy of interviews in assessing candidates is tremendously overstated. Code review, prior work review, take home tests, references and a candidate’s history will tell you far more than an interview because, as it turns out, the skills necessary to ace an interview are not the same as those necessary to add value in a work setting. At Blockchain, some of our most valuable team members were terrible interviewees. By looking beyond the traditional interview assessment, we were able to uncover great talent other people were ignoring.
Hire People Excited To Do Exactly What You Need Them To Do.
There is a really simple truth that if you hire someone who has a passion for the job, they will do it well, outperforming better qualified candidates who aren’t as excited about the role. This is one of the hardest aspects of hiring to get right because it can be incredibly tempting to hire someone who is perfect on paper and convince yourself that the excitement will come. Don’t Do It. Every hire is a partnership of sorts, and partnerships with someone who doesn’t want to be there nearly never work.
Identify And Acknowledge Risk
Every hire is a risk — you don’t truly know if they will work out for weeks, maybe even months. Early in my career as a hiring manager, a mentor encouraged me to track the risk on every hire I made so I could revisit it in six months. For every hire, I outline why I think the hire might not work, why I ultimately think it will and why I think the risk is worth it. Doing this allows me to do my best to mitigate those risks, but it allows me to track and improve my hiring over time.
Monitor New Hires Closely
The best time to figure out if someone is a great fit is a few weeks after they’ve joined. Re-convene your hiring managers, discuss their performance, and make the hard decisions you need to as soon as you can. It’s best for everyone.
Insist on Strong Views
Having a strong view is riskier than a neutral one. The former requires a higher level of thoughtfulness (since you’ll likely need to defend your view) and makes disagreements with more senior members of the team more obvious. As your hiring team grows, it is too easy for people to default to neutral votes. Demand that your team have strong views on candidates. If no one feels strongly, default to no. Most importantly, track your team’s votes over time and bias yourself towards the advice of the interviewers that hold strong views.
Hire People Who Will Say No
Lastly, and most importantly, hire people who can say no — or in other words, hire people with integrity. For starters, this will prevent most of the startup horror stories you read about, but more importantly, you will end up with a team that does the right thing for your company, your shareholders and most importantly, your users. The best way to measure this is to just ask, preferably on reference calls, when the candidate last took a hard stand, and why.
In terms of resources, some of the tools I’ve found to be the most helpful include this book about Google, Github (I’ve sourced some of our best engineers by trolling through random projects on Github, on my iPhone, late at night. Not scalable, but anyway…), Aevy.com (great for contact details), and Greenhouse.io, which has helped us manage our pipeline.