I recently spoke at Code Slinger on the subject of scaling engineering teams through periods of rapid growth.
Hiring quality developers is a hot topic, you can’t move for guides on how to get the very best to work for you. In fact it is such a hot topic that many writers on the subject forget why recruitment is on the table in the first place.
In order to be successful, a business needs to be able to build highly productive, durable teams that can adapt to changes to the business of over time. To do this, good recruitment is essential, but is only a small part of the whole.
Start ups pride themselves on disrupting the status quo, reimagining products and processes to gain an edge over incumbents. This has led to rapid innovation in engineering, product and marketing but HR, and relatedly talent management, has for the most part remained static.
What would happen if talent management was re-imagined from the ground up where the only metric to optimise for is retaining quality teams? How would the roles of recruiters, HR and functional managers evolve in response?
I’ll go through four suggestions of what a retention optimised system would look like. The conclusions are counter-intuitive and in some cases directly conflict with current recruitment good practice. Optimising for retention means that a company will undoubtedly lose out on quality staff in the short term.
I should say that every suggestion is something that I have implemented myself in multiple teams. I have run each over a sufficiently long period to believe that it supports retention in the long term. For arguments sake I will consider ‘long term retention’ to mean a company tenure of greater than five years.
Since I’m writing from my own experience, there is a bias towards software engineering organisations in a startup environment. Though I think many of the lessons can be applied more generally.
Before I get there though, let’s just recap on why retention is important.
Why is retention important?
- Long term Investment in staff possible
- Get you through the hard times
- Much cheaper…
Retention is critical for building a strong culture. If you want a culture to persist you need continuity, especially from your most influential staff. I’ll talk about culture in detail later.
Secondly, an assumption of long term retention makes it easier to invest in people. This means that they can improve at their job, also improving the team and subsequently improving retention… It also means that every part of the business is likely to have good industry domain knowledge. So not just an expert on Software Development, but also knowledgeable about the fashion industry or the Telecoms industry (say). This domain knowledge allows the team to make better decisions on a day to day basis.
When everything is going well in start ups, the team can forgive most things, but every company goes through rough patches. Perhaps there is concern over a new direction or growth is slowing. It is at these times when you really need a team to pull together to get the company through.
Also, it’s cheaper. All manner of management consultancies have tried to put a cost on replacing a member of staff, they seem to be landing at between one and two year’s salary – I’ll not argue.
In short, companies that can develop and retain their best staff will have a clear advantage over those that do not.
Hiring for retention
With that in mind, there are four areas that I’d like to discuss further.
- Embedding recruitment into the culture
- Sell the company, not the role
- Hiring exclusively for fit
- Don’t mess about with money
Embedding recruitment into the culture
Every recruiter I’ve ever talked to says that they really benefit when the hiring manager is engaged in the process. How do you actually go about making this happen? There is only so much a recruiter can do.
Recruitment has to be everyone’s business, and management should make sure recruitment activity is a first class citizen.
This means two things:-
- Make working in recruitment aspirational, reward recruitment skills like any other skills. If one of the team is spending 20% of their time on recruitment and their peer is spending 0% then comparing them solely for their engineering output sends a very strong message that recruitment doesn’t matter.
- Recruitment is hard, so you need to find ways to help people improve. This could be as simple as adding a high level of transparency to the process and give constant feedback. Whatever you do, people must feel that they are learning a skill that is valued highly in the company.
To be honest I think that embedding recruitment into the culture is something that is always a good idea, regardless of how you are recruiting. So not especially controversial, it just requires sufficient on the part of management. Onwards.
Sell the company not the role
The role will undoubtedly change, the company will not. If the goal is to focus on retention rather than simply getting the best candidates through the door, it is most important that the candidate is sold on the company.
This can create a conflict since a great way to close a candidate is to help them imagine what their new job will be like. This means going into detail on the specifics of the role, the immediate project etc.
If instead the bulk of the sell is around the company, it is entirely likely that you will lose out on quality staff, though those that you do hire will be that much more durable through the inevitable twists and changes that will occur in coming years.
It is worth noting that this idea is well established. It is relatively easy to do in a startup context, since a company’s mission is likely to be extremely important to the candidate, but it is also possible at much larger organisations. Facebook, for instance, wait until after their 6 week bootcamp before pairing staff up with their eventual teams.
Selling the company not the role will help with long term retention but it will definitely mean losing out on capable staff in the short term. If a recruiter is assessed solely on the number of new hires they can get through the door, it is unreasonable to expect them to do this.
Hiring exclusively for fit
In 1974 following Mick Taylor’s departure, the Rolling stones were in need of a new guitarist. The Rolling Stones were hot, they could have talked to anyone they liked:- Clapton, Beck … but they went for Ron Wood of the Small Faces. Perfectly competent but the not the best guitarist available. The reason they went for him was that being guitarist in the Rolling Stones was much more than simply playing guitar, just being in the band was a pretty tough gig. Ron got the job because he could handle all the other baggage that came with being in the Stones. A pretty good hire in the end and it is fair to say that the Stones know a thing or two about retention.
So here I want to talk about fit and culture. These are terms that abused quite a lot and different people mean different things by them. So here’s what I mean when I say culture. It is simply what is rewarded, what is tolerated and what is punished and it is the company’s leadership, formal leaders as well as informal leaders that set it and maintain it.
Strong culture is essential for retention because it is culture that bind people together. Life is easy when all the graphs go up and to the right, but it is during the periods of slow growth that you really need the team to pull together and it is culture that will get you through.
The most important thing before starting to hire for fit is know very clearly what culture it is you want to propagate. You don’t get to choose of course you just need to take a look around and look at the traits most likely to be supported by leadership (again I stress both formal and informal).
It is really important to write down what is meant by fit and then live it. If you don’t then fit just becomes ‘people like me, or people I like’ – this has implications for diversity which will likely ruin your business. If you can focus on just a few traits then it should actually help build a diverse team since all that matters is satisfying these specific traits, everything else is open.
So this means that fit needs to be a first class citizen to any other area you are selecting for. As important as coding, as important as architecture.
Through experience, I’ve found was that until you pass on a really good candidate purely on grounds of fit, your team won’t really believe that you are serious. If fit is the reason for rejection, then call it out loud and proud.
Once the team really understand how important a factor fit is, then you need to help them get better at assessing fit through interview. This goes back to training and feedback.
If you hire for fit, and reject those who do not, then you will lose good people. I’m not talking about passing on just really obnoxious, toxic people (though you should). I mean people who are perfectly capable, but won’t help support your culture in the long term.
Don’t Mess About with Money
What this means is that you need to put the needs of your current staff (who, you know, you’re trying to retain), ahead of someone who doesn’t work for you yet.
It means that if you are bringing in someone to work as a peer with existing staff, their salary must be in line. And sometimes this means you will lose out on good people, either because you assess them at a lower level than they assess themselves, or because you are simply not paying enough. In the latter case, since you care about retention you need to have a serious think about giving everyone a boost. Expensive stuff.
But it is worse than that. You’ve just spent weeks, perhaps months unearthing a unicorn, you’ve sold them on the mission, they’re a great fit, you offered them a package that is realistic and in line with the rest of the team and, quite reasonably, they want to negotiate.
For the sake of a few thousand dollars you could lose this candidate. But if you do so you are rewarding people joining the company not for their skills to do the job but their skills as a negotiator. It is an understatement to say that your best engineers will not be your best negotiators.
Some people say, ‘oh it is fine’, negotiate and then balance things out at the next review. But this means penalising someone who has already worked for you for perhaps a year. Salary doesn’t really work in absolutes, it is much more about relative change.
This is really tricky stuff to get right, and you will certainly lose good people to money if you peg to your current team and stand firm on negotiation.
Companies that can hire for retention have a clear advantage, over those that do not. But optimising for highly productive durable teams, means losing out on good candidates capable of doing the job.
Traditional approaches to recruitment typically do not consider the long term goal of building highly productive durable teams. In fact optimising for this goal would lead to recruiters appearing less effective since they would take longer to hire.
The question at the heart of the article is this. If I’m right about retention being key, and I’m right about existing structures actively encouraging short term gains at the expense of long term retention, then how should organisations evolve to support this need. How should recruiters, HR and management adapt to a world where retention is considered key?
Over the past month a few people have asked me for some advice on where to advertise for software developers. In truth, advertising is a tiny component of a successful recruitment function, but if you are at the point where you want to spend some money on adverts, you might find the following useful.
Many of the sources are internationally relevant, but all I’m doing here is reflecting my own experiences which are exclusively drawn from hiring for start-ups in London.
It is amazing how little companies consider the costs involved in recruitment. For some reason they happily sign off on a recruitment agent with a fee of 18-25% of first year’s salary then balk at the idea of a few hundred pounds on a job board. This is especially important when considering the costs of your own time. Even in small nimble companies it is entirely possible to spend 4 figure sums in staff time on each successful candidate hired.
Speaking of agencies
Recruitment agencies get a bad press, really it comes down to the incentives in the industry. It is possible to get results, especially for more junior staff who lack a pre-existing network but I generally think there are better ways to spend the time and money. YMMV.
Most people reading this will already know Hacker News. It is a community curated content aggregator backed by start-up accelerator Y-Combinator. It focuses mainly on start-ups and technology but has a bit of everything. Every month it runs a ‘Who is hiring?’ thread where companies can advertise their roles.
Be warned, it is not the most user friendly experience and you’ll need to wait for 12pm EST on the first of the month to post. The signal to noise is very good meaning that you can invest more time on each candidate. Given the nature of the board it is common to receive very strong applications from overseas candidates wishing to move to London, so it is worth figuring out your position on relocation/visas ahead of time.
I’ve hired most of my current team through HN and recommend it very highly – though be mindful that it’s very start-up focussed, if that’s not you you’ll need to work that much harder to be attractive.
Also worth a mention is the complementary thread ‘Who wants to be hired?’ where potential candidates place ads about themselves. This thread sees much less traffic but it still an interesting path and I would recommend it as a supplementary source of candidates.
Again, anyone in software will know Stack Overflow, through their Q&A service they have built a formidable community of smart and helpful developers. As a company you can pay to post ads for a few hundred pounds a month which appear along side the Q&As. There are various options to suit a range of budgets including bulk buy and featured posts. SO also offer analytics and applicant tracking tools – though you are free to use your own email to contact candidates.
You’ll come up against some fierce competition from other companies who do a great job of selling themselves. You’ll need to have a hard think about how to position yourself, to this end SO have produced a range of docs to get you going. It is also worth investing the time in creating a company page and using that to further promote your culture. I can speak from personal experience that you will see a big uptick in traffic if you take the time to tweak your content to work well in SO’s framework.
My results were mixed in that SO introduced me to many interesting candidates (and very few inappropriate ones), however to date I’ve not hired through this channel. When I was using it most heavily I was looking explicitly for people with a demonstrable entrepreneurial background, I suspect that with more generalist requirements I would have had more success.
It is also worth noting that you can also pay to contact SO users directly through their Candidate Search product, this means access to the SO database and then reaching out to people with good standing in the skills that you are looking for. I’ve not tried this myself though it sounds like an interesting approach.
London has a handful of startup centric job boards very much worth taking a look at. I’ve used Hacker Jobs and Unicorn Hunt (it was previously 3-Beards) previously, but they all serve a similar purpose. Since they are somewhat under the radar they get a better signal to noise ratio than larger generalist boards like Indeed/Dice/Monster etc.
- Work In Startups – Free with premium options.
- Hacker Jobs – Free with £150 premium option.
- UK Startup Jobs – £5 for 90 days. £30 to post and feature the ad.
- London Startup Jobs – Free with premium options
- Unicorn hunt £200 – choose your own discount
I previously worked at an American company with a bulk deal on ads. They used it to good effect to hire technical staff in Seattle, but I’ve never found LinkedIn to be a useful way to advertise for developers in London.
I’ve not done this myself, simply because I’ve never clicked on an ad from either. That said they both allow for targeting specific groups and I’ve heard anecdotally that people have had success through this route.
Honourable mention – Silicon Milk Round
Silicon Milk Round is a recruitment fair run out of the Old Truman Brewery on Brick Lane aimed specifically at start-ups. It is a phenomenal event and the standard of attendees is very high. With so many other interesting companies present you will need to work hard to differentiate yourself. I’ve found it to be an excellent place to either hire directly, or simply to start a relationship that may lead to a hire further down the line.
A final word
Good recruitment is all about building relationships over time, this means working through multiple channels, consistently and in a way that ultimately attracts the right people and and gently (or otherwise) dissuades the everyone else. Placing adverts alone will not get you very far but can form part of a broader strategy.
A final final word
I didn’t discuss ad content but for the avoidance of doubt. No ninjas, no pirates, no rock stars, no unicorns.
So, Mr Johnson, what would you say is your greatest weakness?
Worst. Interview. Question. Ever.
In isolation, it’s an interesting question to ask yourself, it requires a great deal of honesty and openness on the part of the individual and it requires trust that there will not be repercussions for the answer.
Sadly, an interview is a place for none of those things. Candidates need, and are expected to, go out of their way to impress their interviewers and actively admitting weakness is a high risk strategy.
And yet it’s popularity remains, company’s still ask it and candidates still find a thousand and one tortured methods to say “I’m a workaholic”. In a novel attempt to get around this, one company used to ask for your three greatest weaknesses. I’d love to know what they gained from this.
So how should this question be answered? From personal experience, responding ‘My left elbow’ sadly does not work.
In comes down to framing, strengths and weaknesses are pretty much alternate views on the same characteristic. Above a certain level of competence it is rare to find people truely good at certain pairings.
For instance, think those people who you admire for their vision. These people are inspiring, charismatic they lift you up and show you a world that you dimly knew existed but couldn’t quite realise. Wonderful people, but tell me, how are they on detail? How good are they are dotting the Is and crossing the Ts and meticulously going through the minutiae of a project, ensuring that everything is as it should be. Not so much huh?
Clearly there will exceptions but Richard Branson, just isn’t a details kind of guy and nor should he be. Conversely I want an Accountant to be exactly the opposite, they need to get down to the details.
Since the question is now framed in terms of strengths it is much easier to answer. Just figure out what strength of yours you wish to highlight, determine how that makes you weak and then go for it.
Not convinced? Here is an example.
Imagine for instance the Great Remallo, Lion Tamer extraordinaire, sitting for an interview. His CV/Resume contains plenty of past experience dealing with many different types of lion and as the inventor of the lion proof cape he clearly knows his stuff. As the final question of the interview the Circus owner, Mr Top, fires out the big kahuna:-
Mr Top: Mr Remallo I have one final question for you. Tell me, what is your great weakness?
The Great Remallo: Well, Mr Top, if I had one weakness it would be that I seem to have trouble accurately assessing the level of danger I might be in at any given time, even as a small child when I used to play in traffic. Actually it’s something that really helps me as a lion tamer, I should think that if I ever truley understod the peril I put myself in everyday I would be petrified and never even enter the ring.
Still not convinced? Let’s try the same question for a Software Developer.
My biggest weakness is that I can’t stand not knowing how things work, it used to drive my family crazy as took everything I owned (and somethings I didn’t) apart in order to see what was going on under the hood. To this day I really struggle to take things at face value if I can’t look and see what is going on. I suppose it’s one of the reasons I became an engineer in the first place, this drive to understand how things works stands me in good stead when wrestling with a gnarly code base or diving deep into library code, bug hunting.
I’m sure you can come up with something better yourself. Just remember if you reframe the question as an opportunity to talk about strengths, it’s then just a question of determining the flip side to that strength and using it as an in.
Anyone else got a good answer to this question?
Phone screens are a great way to address this problem, they are typically shorter and often run solo. They allow a company to take more risks and consider candidates from further afield.
My company is still pretty new to phone screening, we’ve been trialling it out in cases where it is difficult for the candidate to attend in person – perhaps they are based overseas. As a result I’ve been doing a lot of reading on how best to construct a decent phone screen. By far the best writing I’ve found is Steve Yegge’s take. I’m not sure how practical it is to fit everything Yegge mentions into a 45 minute call, but I consider it an excellent resource.
A common fear I have seen in other discussions seems to be that candidates will use google to somehow game the system. If this is a genuine concern then one of two things has gone wrong. Either:-
- The questions are purely fact based and will tell the interviewer nothing about how the candidate thinks.
- Or, the questions are fine but the interviewer is focusing on the wrong part of the answer.
A question like ‘In Java what is the difference between finally, final and finalize’ will tell you very little about the candidate. Plenty of terrible programmers could answer that without problem and what’s worse, a talented but inexperienced developer might stumble. In short these type of quick fire questions add little value to the overall process.
Something like ‘How does a Hash Map work? How would you write a naive implementation?’ is more interesting, it’s open ended but forces the candidate to talk about a specific area of knowledge – even if they don’t know, you’ll learn how good they are at thinking things through from first principles. The only way that it can be gamed through googling is if the interviewer simply waiting to hear specific terms and is not asking free form follow ups.
I’ve just googled Hash Maps on wikipedia and could probably quickly extract ‘Associative array’, ‘key-value pair’, ‘Collision’ but really if that’s all the interviewer wants to hear then the question is of limited value.
So what I’m saying is that if you’re concerned about googling, then it’s probably the questions or desired answers that are the problem. Furthermore if one in a hundred people do manage to game the system you’ll pick them up in the face to face in an instant.