Our Hiring Process is Broken. Can a Hackathon Fix It?

If hiring managers were doctors, half of new patients would be dead in 18 months. Inside one man’s campaign to change a flawed system.

Deborah Branscum


It’s Saturday morning on the first day of November 2014. I’m sitting with about 24 others in a room in a coworking space inside the historic San Francisco Chronicle building. In front of us, a man named Brooke Allen is telling us about his vision for shaking up the hiring process.

Dressed in a plaid shirt and faded, baggy jeans, Allen looks more like a Midwestern farmer than a retired financial trader. He has spent many hours opining on recruiting, and now he stands before us exhorting employers to stop advertising jobs and start issuing calls to adventure. He gives us book recommendations, encourages us to find mentors and quotes his dad: “Don’t be evil, and don’t let money go negative.”

His audience is largely made up of unemployed people, including me, who have all found our way to the first-ever Staffup Weekend. Allen’s brainchild is a two-day event meant to give applicants a chance to show off their skills in front of prospective employers. Instead of jobseekers sending in resumes and submitting to interviews, Allen thinks employers should first observe those individuals in action, actually working. But don’t show up expecting an offer. “Some people are here only to get a job,” he chides. “That’s probably the best way to be disappointed.”

We start by pitching projects for us to work on in groups. I have an idea for a Web-based amends tracker. Basically it’s a way to list people you may have wronged and the way in which you might make things right. This project requires several skills I don’t have, which worries me a little. My idea gets approved, along with three others, and I go stand in my team’s designated work area to begin the unsettling process of waiting to see if anyone will join me.

I’m not only here to try to get a job, but also to see if watching people work—before they are hired—is better than the traditional process for employers to find talent and for people like me to get work. I hope it is; plenty of studies have shown that sorting through resumes and doing interviews is a deeply flawed way to hire. In 2012, for example, consulting firm Leadership IQ announced it had tracked 20,000 new hires over time and discovered that 46% of them had failed within 18 months. In other words, most recruiting practices are about as effective as a coin toss. Would a hackathon for hiring improve the odds?

Not long after I go to my work area, an enthusiastic woman I’ll call Ms. Red Dress shows up, followed by Mr. Programmer. I relax. Having a solid coder is key to turning our project into something more tangible than a white board covered in magic marker. The three of us sit down and I begin describing my idea in more detail. Soon a woman I’ll call Ms. UX arrives. She says that the other teams have all the user experience and project management skills they need. Can we use her talents? Can we ever!

She joins us, and we get organized. It quickly becomes clear that Ms. Red Dress is useless to the team. Before Staffup Weekend began, I read the website carefully and took its advice to heart: I brought a laptop, a notebook, several pens, and not one but two extension cords. Naturally, I have my smartphone and, like an overenthusiastic kid on the first day of school, I’ve also brought my lunch, snacks, a water bottle, and several excellent nonfiction books for inspiration. Ms. Red Dress has brought a smile and two Master’s degrees but no modern work tools whatsoever. (Eventually she leaves. I feel terrible for a nanosecond, and then it’s back to work.)

Ms. UX, on the other hand, is the project manager of my dreams. While Mr. Programmer is easy to work with and his skills are indispensable, my programming ability barely exceeds coding italics in html. It’s impossible for me to judge the quality of his work. But user experience and project management skills are talents I can recognize, and Ms. UX has them in abundance. Over the course of the day I go from pleased, to smitten, to willing to have her baby. Yes, she is that good.

According to Allen, we’re supposed to be working on projects for our own benefit, but not me. I need a job. I’m doing this for the benefit of the hiring managers in attendance. There is exactly one. That lone individual is Chris Nicholson, the head of both communications and recruiting at a growing financial services startup called FutureAdvisor, which also happens to be Staffup Weekend’s sole sponsor. I spend the early part of the day wanting to shout, “Hire me!” every time I spot Nicholson. After a few hours with my team, I want to shout, “Hire us!”

Never mind that we haven’t been told exactly what job positions are open, or why we might want to work for FutureAdvisor. So what? Our hardy band of three will manage our confusion! Our skills will shine over the weekend! And we will meet the deadline to complete a plausible facsimile of our project!

One week earlier I had lost my job. Without warning. On my birthday. I was frantically searching Craigslist when I came across a series of unconventional job ads posted by FutureAdvisor. One of their ads featured a photo of Nicholson and included this copy:

We aspire to be good — that’s the goal. Some people who join us hit the ground running. Others are folks we can teach and inspire to do great work. That means that if you’re “normal,” we’re also interested in you.

The ad invited me to “reply to this ad and we’ll start communicating. We think the hiring process is broken, and we’re looking for ways to do it better.”

It was news to me that any Bay Area tech company was willing to hire normal people, let alone seek them out. I was both intrigued and skeptical. I wrote to Nicholson to find out what was going on — and got an invitation to Staffup Weekend.

The idea for the two-day event can be traced back to January 2004, when Allen was heading the statistical arbitrage desk at Maple Securities, a New York financial firm. The company needed a junior coder to work in a complex programming language called APL. Allen ran a simple newspaper ad that read: “Programmer — Will train, enjoyment of mathematics a plus.” Some 300 resumes landed on his desk. Not one of them listed experience in APL.

Orlando Disla, a young graduate of City College of New York, had been job-hunting for nearly a year when he spotted Allen’s ad. “People tend to overlook City College,” he notes dryly. He applied for the position, and Allen sent him and the other applicants a link to a 500-plus page APL manual and several problems to solve. The grueling tryout culled the field first to 38, and then to 27 individuals. When Allen met the survivors, they asked for more training in APL before he decided who would get the job. He agreed.

He asked the applicants whom they would hire if the decision was up to them. Disla was the overwhelming group favorite, so Allen hired him as well as the group’s number two choice. Yet—and here’s where this process went from innovative to radical—Allen decided he owed something to the people he didn’t hire, as well. So he helped several other trainees land jobs elsewhere. Allen continued following some version of this lengthy hiring process until he retired from financial services in 2014. That’s when he decided to create Staffup Weekend.

No matter how beautifully we may present ourselves, the current hiring process makes finding work a challenge. In 2005, a firm ran a “mystery shopper” experiment with more than 100 healthcare employers. Professionals posing as job candidates applied for work with tailored resumes showing skills that matched or exceeded the posted job requirements. Yet 88% of the candidates were rejected. Even perfect applicants don’t get interviews.

One reason is that employers can easily be flooded with hundreds, or sometimes thousands, of applications. So they often narrow down the candidate pool by using keywords from resumes as well as degrees from highly ranked colleges. Sheeroy Desai, CEO of Gild, a company with a platform that matches employers with candidates, has observed those biases in person. “You see filters like, ‘A lot of the people at our company came from Ivy League schools, so we are only going to look at people from Ivy League schools,’” Desai says. “It seems reasonable, but it’s actually really arbitrary.”

Another hiring myth, especially prevalent in Silicon Valley, is the belief that all employees should fit well with a company’s specific culture. Max Levchin, co-founder and former CTO of PayPal, tells a story of a time when PayPal rejected a candidate who aced all the engineering tests but who said he liked to play hoops. “No PayPal people would ever have used the word hoops,” Levchin told a class of would-be entrepreneurs. “Probably no one even knew how to play hoops. Basketball would be bad enough. But hoops?”

Levchin thought he was telling a success story about hiring for startups. But he was also telling a story about a type of bias that hurts employers as well as job candidates. “Usually when people talk about hiring for fit or culture fit, it’s a shortcut for saying I want to like you,” says Ji-A Min, a research analyst for Ideal Candidate, a Toronto-based company that uses predictive analytics to help employers hire sales professionals. “That’s where hiring breaks down and all these biases are introduced.”

Google is one of the few companies to go public about the flaws in the traditional hiring process. Except for recent college graduates, the company no longer asks candidates for transcripts or grade-point averages. It found that neither grades nor interviews predicted success. “Years ago, we did a study to determine whether anyone at Google is particularly good at hiring,” Laszlo Bock, Google’s senior vice president for people operations, told a New York Times reporter in 2013. “We looked at tens of thousands of interviews, and everyone who had done the interviews and what they scored the candidate, and how that person ultimately performed in their job. We found zero relationship. It’s a complete random mess.”

Nicholson had never been a recruiter before he was hired at FutureAdvisor to run communications. When he became responsible for hiring as well, he quickly discovered that tech companies have no real idea how to find the best candidates. “If the only information we are asking for doesn’t correlate to what we want, how do we get the right information?”

Searching for an answer to that question led Nicholson to Allen. “Recruiting is wasteful and repetitive and harmful to people,” Nicholson told me. “Its main product is rejection.” This belief made him willing to gamble on Staffup Weekend, with the hope that sponsoring the event might help his company hire in a less biased, more effective and more humane way.

On Sunday morning, the day we are supposed to complete our project, I arrive ready to work. It’s shortly before 8 am, when we have been promised access to the building, and I’m the first person there. The clock ticks past eight. I really want that door to open, so our group can meet its deadline.

A few moments later a man from another team arrives. Like me, this guy is unemployed. Unlike me, he was homeless for many years and still struggles to get by. Both of us are eager to get back to work. For free. On projects that may not have a future. But we’re okay with that.

The day becomes a blur as teams work frantically to complete as much of their projects as possible before time runs out. Eventually the deadline arrives. It’s show time.

Fifteen of us are left at this point, down from the 25 who had showed up Saturday morning. One by one, each team gathers by a podium to show samples of their work. Ms. UX and Mr. Programmer do most of the talking for our project. They did the bulk of the work, so I speak last mainly to note how well we worked together to create a basic but functioning website and to thank these two capable strangers who helped create an unexpectedly well-functioning, professional team.

As Staffup Weekend comes to a close, there’s a palpable feeling of satisfaction and connection among many of us in the room. Several of us are visibly emotional by the end of the presentations. As I say goodbye, I’m proud of my team’s work and of the attendees as a whole.

That feel-good moment doesn’t last long. On my way to the bathroom, I hear a woman weeping in the hall. She tells me how she’d opened up to Allen about her personal struggles and many efforts to land a job, and was upset that he responded by saying, “Don’t tell me about your problems, tell me about your solutions.”

This highly educated, unemployed woman tells me she is running out of places to couch surf. Soon she may be sleeping outdoors. This woman’s problem is not Allen’s problem, nor Nicholson’s problem. It is, however, a national problem.

Employers, in general, refuse to hire the unemployed. They don’t like us and they don’t want us. Not even Brooke Allen seems to like us, and he’s trying to help. According to a series of recent studies, people are biased against those who have been unemployed for as little as four weeks as well as those who were laid off through no fault of their own. As Ben Stein opined a few years back, “The people who have been laid off and cannot find work are generally people with poor work habits and poor personalities.”

Staffup Weekend put the lie to Stein’s pronouncement. As Nicholson later wrote me, “The fact that people stayed for 48 hours to work on something put them head and shoulders above the thousands of applications we receive, because the participants are people who show up and see things through.”

Was Staffup Weekend a success? A few attendees I spoke to were keenly disappointed that the event didn’t provide concrete feedback about the work they’d done. Others expressed great satisfaction with the overall experience, even if it had not led to an actual job interview.

Nicholson told me that working on Staffup Weekend had been rewarding for him personally. It must have been frustrating as well. After the event, he offered interviews to several attendees, who declined. His company hired one attendee, but that person soon left for a better offer elsewhere. Nicholson also recommended some attendees to his company’s client-service and engineering teams, which rejected them.

“Doing something new and getting others to join you is hard,” Nicholson reflects. One of the great ironies of Staffup Weekend is that Allen’s hiring approach sounds great to anyone unemployed, newly graduated or in transition from one career to another. It doesn’t necessarily sound great to actual hiring managers.

That does not make Staffup Weekend a failure.

To me, Staffup Weekend succeeded on several levels. It brought together a group of strangers who quickly developed effective teams that met their deadlines and built several things from scratch. It allowed FutureAdvisor to identify several job candidates at a fraction of the cost of traditional recruiting. It gave me and other attendees a forum for exercising our skills and having them appreciated. That felt great. Moreover, many of us—including the sponsor and organizer—met people we value and continue to value months after the event. None of this could have happened without the combined efforts of Allen and Nicholson.

Staffup Weekend had its flaws, of course. Early on, Allen should have acknowledged the incredible challenges that even highly skilled unemployed people face in getting hired. But that’s easy to fix, and my hope is that Staffup Weekend, or some version of it, will continue. Because few employers seem to have noticed just how badly the traditional hiring process serves them.

In short, it’s time for hiring 2.0. Future Staffup Weekends can accomplish only so much. So I’d like to propose a new event: Smartup Weekend, a new event designed to connect hiring managers to reality: They know less than they think. Great candidates are out there but managers don’t see them. Because they haven’t gone to the right college. Are too old. Unemployed. Or play hoops.

Smartup Weekend may wind up a flop, but the need to fix hiring is real. Who wants in?

Illustrations by Cristóbal Schmal
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