Not pictured: me.

Of Paris & Goats: Remotely Building a Tech Team

I’m not talking about building a remote tech team, I’m talking about building a tech team remotely.

The Situation.

As the CTO at Exeq, a large part of my role is not just building the product, but building out the team that will execute our vision of enabling people to have the lifestyles they want with the budget they have. For me, this is an exciting part of my role: I love developing & enabling others to thrive in their roles. After leading and helping to build out teams at companies like LinkedIn & Addepar, I thought this would be more or less the same as before…but on a smaller scale.

Just one tiny thing…I had to do it remotely.

Here’s the rub: we’re a New York-based company who was temporarily in Tel Aviv as part of the Barclays Techstars accelerator.

Honestly, it’s hard enough as it is to assemble stellar tech talent, but doing everything via email, video chat, alongside various online tools like Workable and Collabedit was a test of my already thin patience. Plus, it’s not like I’m a full-time recruiter! We’re building out multiple systems, and I was the only full-time technical hire.

So I went about sourcing, interviewing, and hiring 4 people. Remotely. Fun.

Getting the Word Out

In addition to being in NYC, we have a React Native/Elixir tech stack, so there are some already very targeted sourcing channels, which helped:

Workable was absolutely crucial here, playing the role of ATS (applicant tracking system), and the “top of funnel” to which we pointed all applicants. It also allowed us to throw up a jobs page, along with a brief description about what we’re up to. We’re still a bit coy about it, but obviously people need to know something.

The Response.

The response, honestly, was way more than I expected. We didn’t give tech talks or post billboards. We didn’t pay for premium LinkedIn ads or hire a third-party recruiting firm. We had 73 applicants, and an additional number (10 or so?) that were actively sourced. 83 total candidates. For a small startup still raising its seed round, I thought this was incredible. But then reality set in…we had to vet/interview them.

The Process.

This was the hardest part of the entire ordeal. Vetting, interviewing, discussing, and choosing 4 candidates out of 80-ish is insane.

Vetting

This was a pretty typical vetting process: résumé review, portfolio review (Github, personal site), social media review (LinkedIn, Angellist, Twitter). In alphabetical order, here are the primary characteristics I look for in a candidate, starting in the vetting process (hiring remotely or otherwise):

  • Autodidactic: Are they a self-starter/self-learner? Are they a reader? Are they teaching themselves new skills (technical or otherwise)? Given a topic or goal, can they learn/achieve it on their own, or do they need to be taught/assisted by another person?
  • Compatible: Do they, at least on paper, fit both our culture and our technical requirements? Have they had exposure to the high-level components of what we’re doing? Examples here would range from exposure to Elixir to familiarity with React Native to an acute proclivity for fin-tech.
  • Passion: Are they a driven individual? When given a task, project, or goal, are they willing to run through walls in order to achieve it? How many times have they failed (failure happens)…and how many attempts did they make before giving up (most important)? Do they care about what Exeq is doing, or are they simply looking for a salary?
  • Versatility: There are two parts to the versatility characteristic. First, we’re a small team. We can’t yet deeply specialize. Everyone does a bit of everything…and not just within the tech stack. Can they work up and down the stack, or at least are willing to learn? Secondly, do they have more than a computer science background? Honestly, I’m not trying to hire the best competitive programmers in the world. There are certainly great opportunities for them, but I’d rather have a self-taught former retail associate on my team. Obviously, I’m stereotyping here, but I hope you get my point: a candidate’s well-roundedness forms a particular worldview. Your team’s worldview significantly impacts the type of product you produce.

Interviewing

A lot of people claim that you should interview without bias. Ideally, this would be great, but it’s completely farcical. Not sure what kind of fairy-tale land these people live in, but in my experience, it’s near impossible to be unbiased in hiring. We did two interview sessions: one cultural (where I had another team member join me — shout out to Tomer), and one technical. The technical session was longer, and involved a problem similar to the type of problem that we solve on a regular basis. No “algorithmic” questions. No trivia.

During interviews, I’m looking to accomplish two things:

  1. Confirm or invalidate hypotheses formed during the vetting process.
    That is, I’m looking for tangible data to affirm or deny my biases. Are they as passionate as my initial thoughts assume? How do they learn? What is their actual experience with Elixir? Or mobile development? Or financial data? Or consumer tech? Can I see them meshing with our already-in-place team culturally? Do they bring something new and additive to the team? There are certain things that can only be ascertained via conversation, not a résumé review.
  2. Verify technical ability.
    Look. You can be passionate, autodidactic, versatile and a great fit for our team…but you have to know what you’re doing on the tech side. We’re not building a social club, we’re building a tech team. Can you structure code well? Do you think about performance/security? Do you think about inheritability? Do you understand the nuances of your chosen language/framework? If you’re tackling the Product side at Exeq, in addition to verifying an understanding of how to actually build a product (Javascript, APIs), I’m asking product development questions. How would you work with designers? Product managers? Can you think through micro-interactions? If you’re owning the Platform at Exeq, we’re not just working through a data coding exercise, we’re also talking scalability issues, cross-system contracts, and building stability into a system.

The remote-hiring thing threw a small wrench here: video chat is much better than it was say 5 years ago, but it eliminates some of the nuances that affect an interview: small body language items, impact of environment on an interview, etc. It also impacts the “sell” aspects of having a candidate come into your hip new office, meeting the team, etc.

Discussing

After the interviews, if the candidate was still a strong candidate, we discussed them as a team. Personality. Cultural add. Growth potential. Technical ability. We weighed them against others in the pipeline. We weighed them against ourselves. We laughed, yelled, and ultimately came to conclusions.

Offering

For those that we wanted to move forward into the offer stage, when time allowed, we often did a company-wide video chat. This was often a “sell” chat of sorts (our team is awesome!), but it was also an opportunity to meet the people they’d be working with regularly upon our return to the States. This was also a last gate for both the candidate and us before making an offer. We sent an agreement, and began the typical back-and-forth on the offer. We have a policy of offering market or higher for great talent, and thankfully, compensation wasn’t an issue. PTO, insurance, professional development, and role responsibilities were usually brought up. Nothing surprising.

The Learnings.

Meeting logistics still suck.

Timezones are still difficult. It’s a people issue, for sure, but organizing phone calls with a 7–10 hour time difference sucks. I’d get it wrong. They’d get it wrong. Google Calendar would do something weird with the invite across platforms. Not sure this is fixable with tech, but it’s so intrusive that it’s worth noting.

With regards to video chat, Google Hangouts is so close. The core of the product usually works well, but there are still bugs that are so exasperating. Often times, one end of the conversation has to restart Chrome to get the microphone to work properly. Bandwidth management is still not as good as Skype. Split screen isn’t a thing. It’s the little things.

Collabedit is cool for collaborative technical coding, though it lacks some advanced features that’d make it perfect. Doesn’t support our tech stack (which granted, is “abnormal”). Doesn’t support frameworks. If someone is looking for a stellar project to tackle, build a freemium collaborative coding platform that also allows for ad-hoc collaborative documents. I’ve yet to find something that I enjoy using, and Collabedit is just a holdover from my days at LinkedIn.

Culture matters.

Measuring cultural fit and cultural add via video chat is the hardest thing in the world…so we tried something unique. We asked ridiculous questions and measured the response. Questions like “if you were a city, though” or “if you were an animal, what animal would you be?” or “what greasy spoon are you crashing after a late night?” or “what NYC neighborhood would you be?”. With enough of these answers (6, on average), you get an idea of who someone is…how’d they’d fit in with your team, and if they’re bringing something new to the table. A Paris-Phoenix-Granny Smith-West Village kind of person is different than a Los Angeles-Goat-Peach-Upper East Side kind of person. Plus, it was a super fun exercise that always caught people off guard and let us get a glimpse at a few true colors.

Trust your instincts.

For all the talk on data-driven (blah), I’ve personally found that nothing beats instincts when it comes to difficult decisions. Don’t get me wrong, data is definitely important. But you’re dealing with people, and people are more than the sum of their coding ability and cultural responses. When someone has something je ne sais quoi about them, and you can’t put your finger on it, go with it (positive or negative). Try to defend it to others. “This person is a great fit on paper, but there’s something about them that I think would be abrasive over time.” “Yes, I‘m not sure if they fit the ‘mold’ as we’ve defined it, but I think deep down they’ll be an incredible addition to the team.”

This allows you some flexibility in your hiring; it allows you to believe in people when the data doesn’t.

I can’t wait to introduce you to the Exeq team…but that’s enough for now. Next post!