How the Zapier interview process is making me rethink my own

Over the last two months of looking for a new job, I’ve applied to over a couple dozen companies and interviewed with about a quarter of them. The process that stood out the most was Zapier’s.

Their interview process is non-typical from start to finish. They have a great blog post describing it, but here’s a quick overview:

  • Applying: Multiple essay and formal questions.
  • Evaluation: Zapier’s hiring team evaluates each application, which can take a few weeks.
  • Job Fit Interview: One hour interview with the hiring manager.
  • Skills Interview: Each position has one or more skills evaluations done by the hiring team, such as a programming or leadership exercise.
  • Final Decision/Reference Checks/Offer are what you’d expect.
  • Rejection (if applicable): Zapier sends you a rejection email.

I was rejected after the Job Fit interview, so unfortunately I’m not able to comment on later steps. But my three interactions with Zapier (Applying, Job Fit, Rejection) were all very well thought out and I’d like to go through the ingenuity and benefit of each one.

Applying

Normally, companies ask for a cover letter and a resumé. This is unfortunate, as these are very low-signal, arbitrary, and prone to excessive bias:

  • There is no universal agreement on what a resumé or cover letter should contain or how they should be written.
  • The quality of a cover letter and resumé reflects the degree of coaching, rather than quality of the individual.
  • Most hiring managers will have a particular style of resumé and cover letter they prefer.
  • This preference is based primarily on pattern matching, and is opaque to the application process, which both contribute to systemic bias.

Zapier gets around these problems by asking over a half dozen long-form questions (my application was almost six pages, each question being basically a short blog post). This structure avoids the dilemma of what to put into a cover letter, and it devalues the resumé to basically a work history. As an applicant, Zapier gives me a clear way to convey my beliefs and accomplishments that they have indicated are important. Compare this to me trying to guess those things and convey them more haphazardly in my resumé and cover letter.

Zapier also reviews applications question-by-question rather than applicant-by-applicant. This requires each answer to stand alone, further devaluing the resumé, and research seems to indicate this blinding gives applicants a fairer shot. A bad or great answer early doesn’t impact a reviewer’s opinion of a question later.

I think Zapier was the only blinded evaluation, but probably 1/5 of all my applications were of the “essay” form. Some included an optional cover letter, which I think removes some of the equalizing benefit of the essay questions but is better than the common alternative.

Evaluation

Zapier sent updates each week, at one point warning me things would be slow due to a company retreat in January. This is a lot of transparency, considering I heard nothing back from probably 2/3 or more of companies. As an applicant, regular updates are easy to provide (it was clearly one form email for all applicants), but create a ton of goodwill. I mean, look at this blog post!

Job Fit

This was a 1-hour call with the hiring manager (the CTO in this case). It was a pretty standard set of ‘I ask you questions, you ask me questions.’ I have experienced both extremes on the scale of “meandering, arbitrary conversation” to “formulaic with no followups,” and I thought this was an excellent medium. I think it’s largely down to the abilities and training of the interviewer, though.

I also appreciate that Zapier has you speak to the hiring manager very early on. It creates an emotional connection that carries you through the rest of the process. Many places only have you deal with recruiters until basically the end. I find those processes sterile and they tell me much less about the actual company.

Rejection

I got an email from the hiring manager. I know it was mostly a form letter, but it did two things better than normal. First, rather than just “we went with another candidate” they explained where other candidates were stronger. Second, and more importantly, it was customized a bit with a sentence at the beginning (and maybe more, but I suspect not).

The effort in the rejection letter is an important detail. I was of no use anymore in the short term, but it made me feel/know Zapier was truly appreciative of the time I spent in the process.

Zapier also gives you a link to claim a free shirt. Combined with the rest of the effort they put into making each applicant feel valued, this was a really nice gift and a great way to build an ‘employer brand.’ Speaking from experience, that brand is super valuable when finding great talent.

Skills

I didn’t reach the skills tests, but as far as I can tell, the interviews are broken up over time. You don’t have an exhausting block of 4–6 hours of interviews. You can reset and prepare between each exercise. I think this is a huge perk in setting up candidates for success.


From all this, I have a handful of takeaways I’d suggest for most interview processes.

  • Abandon the ‘cover letter’ approach and ask some specific essay questions. Do not ask for a generic cover letter at all since it doesn’t map to a specific signal you’re looking for.
  • Give regular updates to candidates. Once a week is a good cadence.
  • The hiring manager, and not HR, should be the primary ‘shepherd’ through the interview/hiring process. This may not be possible right away at all orgs, but I think there are big benefits throughout the org and culture when this is the case.
  • Anyone who has spent the time to provide a full application should get a rejection letter rather than silence, even if they don’t make it to the first phone screen.
  • Anyone who has been through a phone screen or later interview should get a custom rejection letter (and maybe a t-shirt!) as consideration for the time they spent applying.

One final note: While I appreciate an interview process that treats applicants as human and minimizes bias, companies won’t actually end up with diverse employees unless they work upstream on the recruiting piece, and downstream on creating an inclusive culture. I honestly have know idea how Zapier does in these regards; I’m only speaking to the interview process.


Originally published at RobG3d.