Reflections on hiring

Hiring Oct 09, 2020

Swyg helps companies hire, but what about our own recruitment?

We significantly expanded our team about six months ago. With hindsight, we want to share our experiences and reflect on what went well and where we failed.

Our goal was to create a hiring process that reflects what we think should change about the way hiring is done. That meant looking beyond the usual markers for success (like past job titles) and being willing to invest a lot of our own time to get to know the candidates.

One of Swyg’s core values is that candidates should get hired because of their potential to be successful in the future, not their success in the past.

In order to identify the right people, we had to understand what qualities are needed to be successful at a fully-remote startup and how to assess these. At the same time we wanted to create an experience for candidates that made them feel welcome from the first interview. That’s why we built an interview process where the first interview was often with the CEO; a process focused on collaboration and two-way communication. No cover letters, no homework assignments, no multiple-choice tests. To make sure the process was fair, we created detailed scorecards, and adopted an open minded approach to evaluate all applications.

Quote from Johann, our Lead Software Engineer:

I’m looking for someone who has solid core engineering skills: solving problems and learning. Knowledge about specific frontend technologies (e.g. redux) is not so important; a good engineer can learn and easily transfer skills to new tech stacks (e.g. can learn redux if used vuex). Last, we’ll need to work as a team, so collaboration and communicating ideas is also a key point.

Vincent also adds:

We’re looking for people who can bring in knowledge and new perspectives too; that means they have an opinion about how problems should be solved, even if we’re not doing it like that today.

Where we failed

We received 300+ applications in less than 2 weeks. And we still failed to hire anyone from our first round of interviews. Almost right away we fell into the common trap of trying to hire a purple flying unicorn. One person that could do everything really well.

A problem specific to us in this one case was how to fill in the frontend triangle: Engineering, UX, and Graphic design. But we only wanted to hire two people, so we had to understand how a UX Engineer and a Product Designer would fulfill the triangle.

The frontend triangle. Image credit: Alex Ewerlöf

When we made a short list of the applicants that had some experience in each of the three dimensions, we ended up with people that did not excel in any of the qualities we needed the most.

Where we succeeded

We changed our process to first look for candidates that excelled in one or two categories in the hope that the interviews would show they had the ability to learn the others.

We interviewed a lot of people (44 experts in total).

It turns out that great designers don't advertise their interest in engineering on their profile and vice versa. We invested a lot of our senior team members' time (CEO, Lead Software Engineer), not just our in-house recruitment specialist’s.

To measure potential, we created a collaborative technical interview. Our technical interview consisted of a 2-hour block where the candidate went through an exercise with us. The question looked deceptively simple: “For a set of rectangles, write an algorithm to find the maximum number of rectangles that overlap in one place.” A key aspect of this question is that it is technology agnostic.

Here is Johann’s view on why we selected this question as part of the technical stage:

I wanted a deeper technical interview designed to assess the candidates’ skill in terms of problem solving, communication and collaboration. Looking at commonly used technical interview questions, I found that they were not very good for that: questions asked in person tend to be relatively simple. This is due to the fact that most candidates are expected to provide a complete answer without a lot of help. Take-home assignments seem to fare better in terms of skill assessment, but suffer from two major drawbacks. First, they require a lot of time from the candidate (approx. 10 hours of work) and second, they have a tendency to be biased towards specific technologies. That’s why I decided to go for something less common.

What did candidates say

Dani — who we ended up hiring as our new Senior Frontend Engineer — says:

I think Swyg’s hiring process was quite unique because they chose one single problem that could help them assess the most relevant and technology agnostic skills without requiring a massive amount of time from the candidates (a question about overlapping rectangles) and filled in the gaps (such as experience on specific technologies) with other less time-intensive and open-ended questions.
Take-home assignments can be lengthy and demotivating. Moreover, when not evaluated properly, hiring teams might end up discarding candidates that simply did not have enough time or the exact experience.
No one has ever taken the time to give me such detailed feedback before!

Of course, we could not evaluate our own process without following up with the people we ultimately did not hire.

A particular piece of feedback, after a call Vincent had with a candidate we rejected:

No one has ever taken the time to give me such detailed feedback before!

Unfortunately, the common practice (even after late-stage interviews) is sending rejection letters which are impersonal and “dry” to say the least. Time is the most valuable currency for everyone, however, showing gratitude and creating a positive experience for our candidates is embedded in our company DNA. We want to ensure that each candidate is provided with insights that will help them improve, learn something or reflect. Most companies don’t give feedback because they are afraid of bad reactions from candidates. Receiving feedback is hard but, at Swyg, we believe it’s wrong to rob the vast majority of candidates of the opportunity to grow in order to avoid a few bad reactions.

The Take Away

We’re writing this post, about 6 months after the events that have been described (and 4 months since Dani joined us). That’s long enough to know that we did the right thing in hiring Dani — he’s great!

Investing a lot of time in interviews is possible for startups. Identifying the first employees is critical and requires everyone’s involvement. This feels as though it is out of reach for most organizations, but Swyg is working on changing that.

We’re sharing our story to show that we practice what we preach. And we will continue to share our learnings, our successes and our failures.

Our mission is to change the traditional hiring process - if your company prioritizes candidate experience and wants to establish a human-driven and inclusive hiring practice, we would love to hear from you!

For more insights and tips, follow us on LinkedIn and sign up to our newsletter.

Authors

Johann-Michael Thiebaut

Lead Software Engineer @ Swyg