What I learned from hiring over 70 technologists and conducting more than 300 interviews
I strongly believe hiring is one of the most important things a manager will do. As the company evolves, the team is the essence of what the company becomes, not the other way around. Companies are created by the people that it hires, and not from the business plan. However many companies leave it up to inexperienced managers to hire without much guidance. These tips come from my personal perspective and experiences (I’ve made many of the mistakes I’m describing, or seen other people make them). I’ve hired over seventy people, done more than three hundred interviews, and have evaluated thousands of CV’s and cover letters. (the vast majority of those developers, but I’ve also been involved in the hiring of product owners, UX experts, data analysts/scientist, scrum masters and other roles (as a hiring manager or consultant). With many of these people I worked for years, so I do have a view on what works and what doesn’t. These are my observations that are hopefully helpful to you, but I would highly recommend to also look into research and tips from Re:Work (Google), “Find, Vet and Close the Best Product Managers”, “What I Look for When I Hire a Product Manager By Airbnb Product Lead” and HBR.
1. Hire for soft skills; preferably look for a growth mindset.
The single biggest mistake people make is not paying enough attention to soft skills. A question that I very often heard via coaching platform Plato is ‘do you hire (and nurture) the ‘hard-to-work-with-rockstar?’, the answer is no. There is simply no circumstance where you should allow bad behavior. No matter how brilliant someone might be, it’s not worth it if he or she cannot work with other people. Let’s do the simple math, let’s say someone is 25% percent better than his/her peers (and I think this is rather generous), but he or she makes the other 6 team members 10% less productive (and I’ve seen way worse), it’s still a net negative. It gets even worse when you know that profitability and job satisfaction increases when team members collaborate more. And don’t think that you can isolate someone, research from Harvard Business Review shows that “over the last two decades, time spent in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50% or more”.
To hire for soft skills is hard, and I had a hard time explaining my team what I was looking for until I read Carol Dweck’s “Growth Mindset”. She’s dividing people in a fixed vs growth mindset, where the latter believes in the power to improve over a deterministic view of the world. People with a growth mindset don’t feel entitled. While people with a fixed mindset believe in talent, and will blame the circumstances when the talent doesn’t live up to the expectations. People with a fixed mindset ignore feedback and feel threatened by the success of others. But “talent isn’t passed down in the genes, it’s passed down in the mindset.”
Read this short explanation of the growth mindset, or watch this video:
2. Work with structured interviews
Almost everybody thinks that they are above average interviewer (this phenomenon is called illusory superiority and pops up everywhere). Simple math and research conclude that this can’t be true. Regardless of whether you are above average in hiring or not, even the best interviewers will benefit from a structured interview. Research concluded that in most cases no interviews would even harvest better results than unstructured interviews, even with trained interviewers. People are full of biases, and it’s easy to let your snap judgments influence your decisions in the hiring process more than you should. Furthermore, structured interviews help assess soft skills in a more rigorous way. And last but not least they help to assess candidates fairly and mitigate biases people have, for instance against introverts (at least to an extent). There is a ton of great material written on how to conduct structured interviews, you ‘just’ have to do it. Some practice is surely helpful, the first time you conduct a structured it can feel a bit ‘scripted’, but you’ll get the hang of it quickly.
After the interview, ask the interviewers to fill in a preset roster of scores that you want the candidate to be scored on. It’s not bullet-proof but it mitigates some of the bias and prevents that irrelevant information is taken into account.
3. You are building a team, so involve them
Remember that in the end, you are hiring a team, not just individuals. Of course, you do that through the hiring of individuals, but your end goal is the team, not to collect a bunch of good professionals. Google did extensive research in top performers in Project Aristotle, and they found that “what really mattered was less about who is on the team and more about how the team worked together”. Always involve at least some team members in the hiring process. They will be best suited to judge whether the person fits in the team or not. There is an added benefit if they are involved, they have a better understanding of what’s going on. Therefore they will be more understanding when it takes longer than expected to hire the right person. (As a side note, never give in to the teams’ demands to hire just anyone because they are under pressure. Points 2, 4 and 9 should help with that).
4. Think deeply about what you are hiring for.
Sounds like a no-brainer, but I’ve encountered so many hiring managers that couldn’t answer the question: ‘What’s the problem that you’re trying to solve with this position?’. To be fair, it sounds easier than it actually is. If a team tells you that they are overloaded with work and need another team member, ask them this question. I can assure that often you’ll get different answers. Team members often have different backgrounds and will color their expectations of a certain job title with their previous experience (this is especially true for ‘less common’ positions like CTO, tech lead and even DevOps).
Things always change in startups and scale-ups. Feel free to adjust your requirements a bit through the process because of new insights, but spent enough time up front to gather the requirements. Don’t get me wrong, I discourage you to make a long list of the exact experience you’re looking for. It’s much more about the problem that you are trying to solve. You can train a good developer to learn new languages if that aligns with his or her interests. It will be much harder if you hire a person with a skill-set you don’t need.
5. Focus on a great candidate experience
Treat your candidates as if they were customers. I’m not kidding. Currently, it’s extremely hard to find good employees to join your company, but even in a less tense job-market you still need to treat your candidates with the same respect as your customers. Don’t let candidates wait for an answer for longer than a week. Give enough room to make them at ease in the interview, and provide enough room for questions. Think as a marketeer, not a compliance officer. I so often see fancy job titles that outside of the team that is hiring, most people will not understand, let alone be attracted to. Especially within corporates, hiring managers write vacancy texts that are completely unrelated to the candidate.
Remember that the candidate experience doesn’t stop once the signature is under the contract. You cannot leave onboarding to ‘HR’. You need to be on top of it, and make sure that the people joining your team have a great onboarding experience. Expectation management is critical (see point 9 for more), but just as important is it to tailor the information you provide to the candidate to his or her specific needs. It’s a two-way street, you are not only assessing a candidate, but you’ll also need to convince the candidate that you are a great company to work for (if you believe that that will be the case for that candidate).
6. People overestimate the capabilities of members of a great team/company (or fancy degree)
You are not wrong to assume that most people that work at Google, Booking.com or Amazon went through a rigorous interview process. However, it doesn’t guarantee, that these candidates will be a good hire for your team. Be sure to ask candidates to explain their share in the team’s success in more detail. The same can be applied to candidates that have a great education. I’ve seen people with a lousy CV excel in the company and seen people with experience at major companies completely flounder. It’s a data point for sure, but it’s just that, a data point. Research from Google suggests that education is only a marginal predictor for success up to 18 months after graduation.
The same thing can happen within the company. Good employees can underperform greatly when they are in a team that doesn’t fit them or if the team doesn’t function well. But the reverse is true as well, some mediocre employees can look great when they are in a good team. This happens on all levels from the top managers to the interns. It’s tough to get to the detail on why a person functions well or not, but it’s worth the effort.
7. Reflect often on your hiring process and be aware of your own and your team’s biases
The overestimation described in point 6 is just one of the many biases that will influence your decisions during the process. Reflect on them openly with the team and describe your biases to each other. (This overview is a great starting point to learn more about bias). Look through the scores that you gave people before they entered the company, where do you think in hindsight you were wrong, and what bias might have caused this to happen? When you get a couple of years in, reflect on the people that you hired. Do you have a mix of different people or you perhaps unconsciously biased against hiring women? Hiring is hard, and even great companies made huge mistakes early on. No matter how good and experienced you are in hiring and no matter much effort you put into it, it’s impossible to only hire A-players that fit your team and culture. As a start-up you cannot afford to have such a rigorous process as Google for instance, where they invite candidates for a week worth of interviews, and even if would, candidates wouldn’t show up for that. Besides, even great companies like Zappos estimate that their hiring mistakes cost them about 100M. Luckily your competitors will do that too. You’ll make the difference with hiring better than them, and more importantly, act fast when you don’t. As a manager, you’ll be facing many decisions where you’ll never know whether you made the right decision. With hiring, you at least can collect a substantial amount of data and improve over time.
8. Expectation management is critical and works both ways
It’s very tempting to advertise your company as a great place to work, but it’s much better to be very upfront about its shortcomings. Yes, you might risk losing a great candidate by being open, but the alternative is much worse. You introduce a great liability if you hire people on (even slightly) false advertising. While recruitment fees are rising rapidly right now, onboarding and offboarding people are still much more expensive than hiring. Bersin estimated that replacing an employee is about as expensive as 2 years of salary.
Do not only explore the cultural fit with a candidate but also honestly paint the picture of how you could help someone grow. There are candidates that convince themselves that they are the best thing since sliced bread, and they assume that they will be the CTO within three years in your company. But what if your company doesn’t need a (new) CTO in 3 years? Of course, you should try to sell your company, but be precise. Don’t say ‘you’ll have a big impact on the end users’, but say something along the lines of ‘over the last X years we have impact Y on Z users, and this is what we are aiming for’. Don’t forget that your company will (hopefully) grow quickly, and therefore the company (and its needs) will change heavily over time. It’s good to have that discussion up front and assess if this candidate is the right candidate a year from now, or has the potential to grow into that. See also Steve Blank’s blog post “Don’t Get Left Behind As Your Company Grows”.
9. Hire by committee
I hope that by now I’ve convinced you that hiring is really, really hard. Research shows that groups with divergent opinions and background have less bias. It prevents that teams (sometimes unconsciously) lower their standards to meet the demand they have. When you start hiring it’s helpful to form a small group of people with different backgrounds, stakes, and opinions that can establish a good evaluation about at least a big part of the job. However, there can be drawbacks with hiring committees too. If the hiring manager is not experienced enough a committee can slow down the process so much that you’ll lose candidates. Therefore I recommend to allow for asynchronous evaluation through a form and train the hiring manager in stakeholder management.
10. Hire for balanced seniority
Yes, it is very convenient to hire seniors to solve problems for you. But saying that you cannot hire juniors is just an excuse. It essentially admits that your company is not set-up in a way to encourage and support personal development. It also shows that you didn’t think about the future. How can you cater to the careers of your future employees if you want all of them to stay ‘senior’ developer? At some moment most of those seniors want to become architects, tech leads or even CTO’s. Besides how can you expect people to take ownership if the best growth opportunity is to stay within their lane? It also makes economic sense. I have found that it is often easier to learn an eager person a new technology than to ‘unlearn’ what doesn’t apply (anymore) in your company.
To be fair, I’ve also seen the opposite happen too. If you are only hiring juniors because it saves costs, just take a beer and calculate the difference on the back of the beermat. You need to hire a balanced team where at least the vast majority of employees has a realistic growth path over the next 3 years, and just enough seniority to get them there.