Rethink hiring: how automation helps tech startups get ahead
Hiring is almost always difficult, especially when the hiring process isn’t designed in a way that supports the company’s objectives. In this article I’ll outline a few key points to imagining and redesigning the hiring process. We’ll discuss a focus on generating inbound applicant flow, minimizing steps in the hiring process by maximizing information gained at each step, and increasing use of automation throughout. By using these considerations to streamline technical filtering, companies can greatly reduce effort on the part of developers and HR staff. With an improved candidate pool and streamlined process, companies hire more effective and engaged tech staff and support their long-term growth goals.
Designing the hiring process
An effective hiring process is built on the least number of steps necessary to attract and screen candidates. In this and upcoming articles, I’ll detail the steps that I’ve seen work very well at many growth-stage startups. These are:
- Generating awareness and inbound demand
- Automated filtering
- Phone screen
- Short tech project
- In-person or video conference interview
When designing the hiring process, ensure that the candidate feels engaged and valued. A candidate’s good experience while progressing through hiring translates to an engaged employee down the line. Recall that the candidate is doing all of this work on their own time, unlike a company’s HR staff or developers who are paid to spend time on hiring. Make the entire hiring process transparent (e.g., post it on your company’s website) and ensure that responses to candidates are fast. I typically advise companies to have a limit of 24 hours for sending responses to candidates to let them know whether or not they will continue to the next step of the hiring process.
In a startup’s early days, recruiting is primarily an outbound activity done by the initial tech hires, or cofounders. While this may work well for a company of up to a few dozen employees, it’s not a sustainable strategy as the company grows. When personal networks are exhausted, outbound recruiting becomes increasingly impractical.
Relying on hired HR recruiters, internal or external, has its drawbacks when it comes to hunting potential candidates, as recruiters rarely have the technical background necessary to evaluate the capabilities of the people they’re recruiting. Their efforts are more effective when focused on building your company’s brand and reach in the communities where your potential candidates are found. In the same vein, the effectiveness of recruiters or HR staff is best measured by how their efforts in community building and other outreach activities generate inbound demand, rather than the number of candidates they’ve contacted or resumes they’ve solicited. The number of unsolicited resumes received is a much better indicator of scalable HR success, as it serves as a measure of your inbound demand.
One way in which HR staff can help generate inbound demand is by organizing meetups and events. Hosting meetups that entice fresh graduates from local universities is a great way to inform the next wave of job-seekers about your company’s brand and culture. Organizing talks by your company’s staff at community meetups allows your company to display credibility and gain a following. Any activities that increase your company’s exposure and build a community surrounding your culture will be helpful in growing inbound demand.
It is critical that meetups hosted or organized by your company seek to make a genuine contribution to the community on the whole, rather than being a blatant marketing effort. It would spoil the environment to have HR staff collecting business cards, or asking attendees to sign up for mailing lists, or similar behavior. If someone from the company is giving a talk at an event, ensure that it is focused on describing how your company solved an interesting tech problem, and that it offers advice to others who may be encountering similar issues.
That said, use this opportunity to showcase your company’s culture, innovations, and staff. Encouraging interaction, offering food, and setting up demonstrations of interesting technology are all ways to have fun with your event.
Additionally, starting an engineering blog highlighting the challenges that your company has faced and overcome is a great way to create relevancy, signal boost, and also give back to the community. Don’t be afraid to discuss specifics, detail obstacles, and elaborate on solutions you’ve created. Similarly, you can encourage members of your engineering teams to submit articles to journals or other publications. The best question related to hiring that I’ve ever heard in a board meeting came from one of the most savvy investors in Silicon Valley. It was, “How many of your software developers have, in the last year, published a technical article in a peer-reviewed technical journal?” At this particular company, the silence was deafening, but the board member was on to something.
In designing your outreach, the goal is not to promote the company but focus on the tech issues and how to solve them. By creating a genuine culture of awareness and knowledge sharing, the growth of your brand’s impact and outreach will naturally follow.
Automation and valuing human effort
The consequence of having higher inbound demand is that a higher number of candidates will be in the application flow for a given opening, typically requiring more effort to vet them. With appropriate automation, however, increased application flow can be handled without requiring more effort on the part of HR staff.
The great opportunity presented by automation is the ability to relieve humans of those tasks that they don’t perform efficiently. In the case of redesigning our hiring process, this means filtering tech candidates more effectively at the top of the funnel. This enables us to have a large amount of inbound demand that is being effectively filtered from the very start.
Automation in this sense is not intended to replace human effort, but to complement it. With ample inbound activity being generated by human interaction and community building, we want to handle the inbound traffic as effectively as possible without any increased demand on human time. In reality, we can do one better. Automation allows us to handle increased inbound flow while decreasing the human involvement required.
The first and biggest step in filtering is to start at the top of the funnel. The goal is to design a filter that is extremely low-friction for the technical people you’re recruiting, but also a relevant and telling basic evaluation of technical competency. The best way I’ve found to accomplish this is by only accepting applications from candidates who apply via API. By design, this method cuts out a lot of noise typically present in a tech recruiting pipeline.
Open secret: most tech people can barely code
A common problem I see when advising companies on hiring is that they are not aware of, or do not accept, the fact that many tech people can’t really write code very well, with the common approximation being that 199 out of 200 applicants for developer jobs can’t really code. While almost every developer relies on online resources for documentation to some extent, there are many candidates who cannot accomplish even basic programming tasks without copying and pasting existing code, which is why screening problems like FizzBuzz are effective. Therefore, we need simple but effective filters that demonstrate that a candidate can write code, without being burdensome enough to cause the candidate to decide to pass on our open role. To accomplish this, we can require that all candidates apply by API.
No applications are accepted by email, company software, or other routes. In modern development, interacting with REST APIs is essentially a required skill. Candidates without this capability, or who cannot gain this capability with a few minutes of research, are unlikely to be successful in a developer role. This same metric is effective whether the candidate is a student applying for an internship or a seasoned developer with 20 years of experience. If they can’t code against a REST API, or in this case send an application via one, then it’s very unlikely that they will be an effective contributor in your tech team.
Since this application process acts as a filter requiring no human involvement or decision-making, your HR staff and developers are free to focus on building the company and generating inbound demand. The nice thing about such a process is that it is very scalable. Whether your focus is to hire five or five hundred new staff, an application by API filter just works.
In past companies, I set up a simple REST API for candidates to submit their details which are then sent by email directly to the relevant hiring parties. It cuts down dramatically on the amount of noise coming into the hiring pipeline, and candidates have reported that they really enjoy and appreciate the fact that the filter is relevant, effective, and faster for them than filling out forms.
In future articles, I’ll elaborate on other aspects of rethinking the hiring process, from creating relevant tech challenges to an effective interview process. It’s possible, even simple, to design a process optimized for the best results with the least time required, enabling you to hire faster, and hire better.