It took us a while to come up with the process that now allows a relatively small company to consistently grab top engineering talent. It is a combination of the Navy Seals and what we call the "Inbound Hiring" methodologies.
It is a very special occasion each time we receive a job application from a potential future colleague. I am always filled with excitement as at that moment our destinies meet and might end permanently intertwined.
However it won’t be easy.
We want to surround ourselves with the people who are a pleasure to work with, devoted to spending their office hours in an effort to hone their skills and take as much as they can from the experience.
How to get that Navy Seal for your team
Basically we want people who are both bad-ass and prepared to fight hard. That is why we are pushing candidates to the limits of their current skill and are looking only for those prepared to show ‘whatever it takes’ attitude to join our team – for the privilege of being able to work with other bad-ass people.
Note that this process might not cater to all kind of companies. We find this to work best if:
- You are mostly after young, junior type candidates that are smart and get things done. You already have senior employees and processes/culture in place which will help them grow.
- You are in the position to hire slowly. While you should never rush employing, if you need to scale quickly this probably isn’t the right process.
What this process ensures is that getting the best candidates that are fit for your company culture and have the necessary skills to take the company one step beyond.
The process has seven phases and it begins with The Puzzle.
1. The Puzzle
The process starts with a general technical puzzle found on our Careers page. Its purpose is to be an early stage filter ensuring nobody wastes anybody’s time.
Before we had the puzzle, we were receiving a bunch of CVs from candidates that were clearly not fit for the position. But these still took time to process.
The simple puzzle practically eliminated two-thirds of applicants that either had no passion for tech at all or were simply not ready to apply at this moment, making the hiring process much more manageable.
2. The Job Application
After the candidate solves the puzzle, they send in a job application.
When reading applications we are looking for signs of passion and enthusiasm. Grammar and spelling mistakes always raise a flag.
Occasionally we might let the candidate into the next round even if they do not initially meet all the criteria (sometimes the application is brief or you just can’t tell), as we know that The Test will usually do its magic.
3. The Test
Candidates perform the test from their home and questions are emailed to them. It consists of two parts.
The first part of the test is real, practical and for most candidates very hard work. For example developers will do development challenges, typically five of them and a mix of algorithm and practical problems. We do not have a set deadline for this, and we look for quality and dedication.
Many people find this excruciating and give up on the spot. Great! Life in a startup is not for the faint-hearted anyway.
The second part of the test are 20-30 questions that help us better know the candidate before the interview. Here are some examples:
- If you wanted to master one professional skill or technology this year, what would that be?
- What are the recent books you read? Which one left the biggest impression on you?
- Please send a link to the picture that best describes you (but is not a picture of you)
The questions are open-ended in nature and the answers will usually tell us a great deal about the candidate, allowing us to make the final decision about inviting them for an interview.
4. The Interview
If everything goes well, the candidate is invited to spend a day in the office with us. This is technically really not an interview, but rather being a part of a normal day at work. It includes spending time and chatting with various people they would potentially work with in the future, having lunch together etc.
It will begin by explaining how the day will unfold as it is not usually what people expect. This is followed by a bit of Devana history and some ice-breaker questions like “What projects are you working on in your spare time?” or “Tell us something that happened at work/school in the last year that made it a truly great day?”.
The goal we have for this day is to try to spot:
- How we feel being around them?
- Would we trust them enough to lead a team one day?
Why is leadership so important to us? Team members must be promotable and developable; otherwise they have nothing to contribute and little potential for advancement. This is essential to startups because — if the company grows — it will need these early employees to assume key roles.
It is not an easy thing to achieve in a day, so we try to maximize engagement.
We will ask them about their background, drill down into details of the projects they did, then switch to their hobbies and interests. We will look for honesty and integrity, and try to imagine what would it feel like if they were leading our team one day.
Typically every member of their future team will want to join in at some point in the day.
This is when one more aspect of our hiring process comes into play: everyone who talks to the candidate must approve in order for the candidate to pass to the next round. In others words, we do not have a single “hiring manager”, but rather the decision about moving to the next round is crowd-sourced to every employee in the team wanting to participate in the process and with that gaining the power to veto the candidate.
We pay special attention to the fact that most people applying for the job at a tech company are introvert and may have a problem expressing themselves properly when surrounded by strangers. We try to embrace and encourage them as early as possible (as most of us are introvert as well, but that should not prevent the team from working the best it can).
At this point we would also discuss a potential offer for them.
5. Trial for the Trial/Internship
After the interview the candidate is invited to spend one week working with the team in case they are already experienced or to start an internship with the company if they are not. There is another six-month trial after this, so we call this ‘trial for the trial’.
The candidate will join their future team and work with them extensively on all kinds of projects, attend all meetings and join brainstorming sessions – in other words they will be considered an equal member of the team. This period is usually characterized by pushing the candidate to the limit of both their technical and social skills, in preparation to what they can expect in the future.
During this period we are looking to answer two basic questions:
- If we accept the candidate, will the average quality of people in the team go up? In the early stages a company is like a bus, where some people get in and some leave. Your goal should be that at the end of the journey you have the best people left on the bus. In order to achieve that, with every new hire you aim to improve the overall quality of the people in the company.
- Will we enjoy working with the candidate? Skill is just one half of the equation. You need to make sure you do not end up with a brilliant schmuck. We don’t care whether they are great to hang out after work (as that may or may not happen), but we are looking to find out whether we will genuinely enjoy working with them. This is sometimes subjective and largely dependent on the gut-feeling, but we also found out that this can be quantified by looking for “low energy input, high results output” candidates.
When we were smaller (<15 people) we used to have the candidate make a short presentation in front of the whole company at the end of this week. This gave them opportunity to present their hobbies, interests and other virtues and also allows everyone in the company (especially those who did not have the opportunity to work with them previously) to get to know them better. After the presentation, we would get together and discuss what everybody thought about the candidate and if we wanted to start working with them. We do not practice this any more but it was a positive experience.
6. The Trial
At this point the candidate is practically a part of the team. After they accept a formal offer, a six month trial period starts. During this period they will have same rights and obligations as everyone.
In our experience about 1 out of 20 candidates that got the test questions proceeds to this stage.
The candidate will most likely start by spending time (usually between one and three weeks) in our Customer Happiness department, the heart of the company. This is where they will be trained on the product but also learn more about the customers and even have the opportunity to interact with them. Note that this happens regardless of the position they were accepted for.
We find these to be extremely valuable part of the on-boarding process.
During these six months we will mainly look at how fast they grow their skills and build relationship with their team. We will also look at what they want to specialize in and their overall contribution to the business.
It is an exciting period as this is where most people really start to shine.
7. You’re in! (Bingo!)
Provided they don’t massively screw up, the trial ends with the candidate officially becoming a colleague (co-solver might be a better expression). This means they are fully accepted “into the fortress” and from that moment on enjoy its protective walls.
Roughly about one in a hundred will come this far. The infographic below illustrates the entire process with the percentages of candidates passing each stage (based on our statistics).
The entire process is a result of fours years of trial, successes and failures. It is also an ongoing process that somewhat changes as company matures and changes the stage in its life-cycle.
It wouldn’t be possible though if we did not have a constant stream of interested candidates applying for a position at the company.
Inbound Hiring as a scalable way of ensuring the best talent finds you
I call this process “Inbound hiring” and it borrows the basic principle from Inbound marketing. I want to just touch on this just briefly as I prepare another article on the topic.
Inbound hiring is about telling the story and building the company people will love working for.
Telling the story means that we have a clear purpose and a set of values that we consistently communicate.
Building the company people will love working for means creating a workplace that is professional, fair, transparent, driven by common-sense and has a meaningful purpose.
It is also important to understand what the top one percent candidates that you are after want. In our case we have identified these needs: clever colleagues, ambitious challenges and goals, growth and learning, independence and authority, a smart organization.
Because we understand who we need and what they need, we can convey our message to them directly through inbound communication channels: our blog, website and social media, workshops and seminars, meetups, internships and through collaboration with universities and student organizations.
This allows us to have no need for recruiters or job ads any more. We now know that our message will eventually find its way to the right candidate.
Why is your hiring process so important
People say they understand that hiring is the most important thing they do but then they delegate hiring to recruiters! This can not possibly produce candidates that are a cultural fit.
I am a big believer of the idea that the only meaningful measure of the company’s strength is the strength of its people.
And in startups this is even more amplified: as a rule of a thumb they tend to go against much bigger players in established markets or against ages-old concepts and whether they will make it or break it usually comes down to the people.
You also want to make the process as scalable as possible, as you want to be spending most of your time building the product, the company and generally getting things done.