Insights from Neil Kumar, CTO of Karat

The Mission
Aug 24, 2018 · 6 min read

“When you’re making a decision to join a company, the first impression is the interview process. So for companies that are really trying to attract the best talent, candidate experience is extremely important to get right.”

Neil Kumar is the CTO at Karat, an organization that conducts first-round technical interviews on behalf of a number of top engineering companies. As one of the original team members, Neil’s passion for building and managing large engineering teams has been a guiding force behind the company.

Years of hands-on experience have helped him provide critical thought leadership for Karat’s clients. Neil was one of the first 12 employees at Yelp, where he grew the engineering team from a handful of employees to over 200 engineers.

In today’s tech driven world, finding and recruiting technical talent is a competitive business. Employers are constantly battling for the best and brightest, so even small delays in the hiring process can cost a company an engineer. Neil and his team at Karat have helped cut the time it takes to get new hires on board and have completed over 20,000 first-round interviews for their clients.

Neil recently joined us on IT Visionaries to discuss how to attract and retain the best technical talent. Neil explains how to speed up the hiring process, eliminate bias, and improve the candidate experience.

Remove Bias from the Hiring Process

“You really want to be conscious of removing the unconscious bias. That means having a very standardized interviewing process and being fair and respectful to all candidates.”

According to Neil, standardization is about more than one-on-one interviews, it extends to group meetings and the decision making process as well.

“Bias is not just what happens in the interview room but even how the decision is made. Teams are subject to groupthink and it’s hard to avoid that. But you can by building roundtable practices where people can see the outcomes from the interviews and the on-sites. Seeing that separately before they see each other […] helps a lot with bias.”

A lot of bias can be removed by being analytical about what you are trying to get out of a hire and being methodical about analyzing those competencies.

“Sit down and try to work backwards from the competencies that the job requires. Try to really figure out what it is that you’re trying to assess for, and come up with those questions beforehand. You’ll make better use of the interview time and you’ll collect better data that will help you make the right decision.”

Key Takeaway: Be rigorous and methodical in order to remove bias from the interview process.

Improve the Diversity of Your Teams

“People want to join companies where they’re not just a token. Instead, they’re joining a group of people that’s welcoming them and their leadership by buying into it from day one.”

One way companies can ensure they have a diverse team is by making sure to bring in a diverse group to interview for every available position.

“Another technique is something that a lot of companies have borrowed from the NFL, the Rooney Rule. It basically states that for every hire that you make, you need to have some candidates on the on-site who are from a diverse background so that you’re not just interviewing one type of group.”

“If you combine that with standardized interviewing, you will find that there are a lot of candidates that maybe don’t look like the people you have today, but that have the skills that you’re looking for and really can help your company move to the future.”

“You also have to have a good culture. A culture that’s inviting and open to people from different backgrounds — and that doesn’t just mean gender or skin color, but also in different places in life. In modern times with remote work, we have much more flexibility for people with families and we can create environments that allow people to come back to work after they’ve been on maternity leave or changed careers. We no longer live in a 9 to 5 world. A lot of the work can be done remotely.”

“It took me a long time to realize that the things that I was doing were optimizing for finding candidates just like myself and that was very detrimental to building a diverse team. By the time I started to realize that, we already had 30 or 40 engineers on the team. To go back and rethink how you do diversity is much harder the longer you wait.”

Key Takeaway: Companies can combine fair, standardized interview practices with flexible work conditions to create a diverse team.

Organizations Frequently Pass on Good Talent

Neil emphasized that companies should be as focused on not passing on good candidates as they are on accidentally hiring poor candidates.

“Everybody focuses on the false positive. For example, somebody’s resume says ‘I know Java’ but they don’t [really] know Java programming. But the false negatives are equally as important. A single interview can go in any direction. The candidate can have a bad day or maybe not hear the interviewer properly, and companies are losing out on great talent based on just a single data point.”

“One way we [overcome this is to] offer all candidates a redo. So within 24 hours of an interview, you could have a different set of questions or a different interviewer. It’s a second chance and we find that for a lot of candidates — both from our diversity cohort, but even our senior software engineers who just might be rustier at coding — this sort of opportunity gives them a second chance. For a lot of our clients, they’re making great hires out of this pool.”

“If you think about how much time and money goes into hiring the false positive… it’s pretty expensive. But the false negative, the hire that you could have made, is expensive as well in the opportunity cost.”

Key Takeaway: Organizations should devote as much attention to false negatives as false positives when hiring.

To Remain Competitive, You Must Improve the Candidate Experience

Neil emphasized that the labor market is competitive. Employers need to compete for top talent. That means they need to have a smooth interview process with a strong candidate experience.

“When you’re making a decision to join a company, the first impression is the interview process. So for companies that are really trying to attract the best talent, candidate experience is extremely important to get right.”

A big part of candidate experience is basic humanity and respect.

“In my experience, it’s really about conducting interviews with humanity and fairness and being thoughtful and respectful. [Sometimes] it’s more like processing cattle than really building a [hiring process] that’s humanizing.”

One key to humanizing the process is to stay in contact and make sure the process moves along quickly.

“[We try to eliminate] what I call the recruiting black hole, which you’ll see with a lot of companies where you apply and you don’t hear back forever and ever.”

“One of the things that we do at Karat that I think is really interesting is we interview 24/7. We’re not just limited to Monday through Friday, 9 to 5. Being able to interview outside of the work day lets you move faster than other companies.”

“Having clear definitions of what signals you’re looking for and how you can collect those signals allows you to make a faster decision and be the first person giving that candidate an offer.”

“We’re not saying make rushed decisions, necessarily, but get to the point where you can make that hiring decision much faster.”

Key Takeaway: Executives need to focus on improving their candidate experience and making their hiring process more efficient

Final Thought

Technical talent needs to be empowered with the right tools to make smart hiring decisions.

“We hired these software engineers because they like to write code, they like to build product, they like to solve problems, not because they necessarily had some innate ability to assess this talent in others.”


To learn more about hiring and retaining technical talent, check out the full interview with Neil.

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The Mission

A network of business & tech podcasts designed to accelerate learning. Selected as “Best of 2018” by Apple. Mission.org

The Mission

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Stories & podcasts that make smart people smarter: www.Mission.org. The Mission Daily: www.apple.co/2KMXjhQ. The Story podcast: www.apple.co/2HEcveQ.

The Mission

A network of business & tech podcasts designed to accelerate learning. Selected as “Best of 2018” by Apple. Mission.org

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