37signals Podcast transcript

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Episode #25: Hiring (listen)

Matt Linderman: Hiring. That's what we're talking about on this edition of the 37signals Podcast. I'm Matt Linderman. We'll be talking with Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson. I started off asking David about finding candidates. What's the best way to do it? Here's his answer:
David Heinemeier Hansson: It really depends on who you're looking for. We're blessed with easy access to programmers and designers because programmers and designers are, at least originally, the bulk of our audience. So, we are already talking to lots of programmers and lots of designers through the blog, through the software we put out, through the Open Source contributions we've done. So, we've been pretty lazy in that front since it's been so easy. We can just tap into that and that's basically what we've done.

When we asked or look for a designer or programmer, we just put something on SvN and we generally get very good responses.

So, I think that because we've had it so easy with designers and programmers, we've been a little spoiled. Because when we now have to hire for other roles, say customer support or we look for a data person or we look for an office manager or some of these other things that aren't naturally part of our audience, we actually have to do what "normal" companies have to do when they have to hire — which is hard.

We've been trying a bunch of different things. We've tried on our own job board with varying levels of success for some of these positions. Then we tried on Craigslist and we tried on indeed.com — those two, we tried those recently.

And, I have to say I'm afraid for the state of the nation. Some of these applications that we got for some of these positions were so atrociously bad that it just is depressing. It is really depressing because I feel like we're not making it that complex.

So, the job postings we're putting up are really simple. They're written in a human language, we're asking for a few simple things, the instructions on how to apply are really clear and straight forward. The whole thing is less than a page, right? Like, we're probably putting up five paragraphs.

If I had to guess, I'd probably say that 60 to 70 percent of the people applied could not even finish reading five or six paragraphs before they applied. They didn't even follow the most rudimentary instructions on how to get the stuff to us. And, it was just helplessly poorly written.

You don't have to be Shakespeare to apply, but I expect at least like sixth grade level writing skills. And, just the amount of misspellings and just poorly worded paragraphs and just getting the company name wrong. I know it sort of seems like a petty thing. I mean, what do you care whether they put a space in between the seven and the S or they lower case it or not? To me, it just shows a level of detail.

And, it feels like a small thing, and it was a small thing actually compared to how much other shit that was wrong with these applications. It was just terrible. I was really, really sad actually because who the hell is going to hire these people? Like, who is going to read some of these atrociously bad applications and say, "Yeah, that's the person I've been looking for?" Like, what?

And, there's so many people who are out of a job that it just feels, it feels like a waste. It feels like we've had open positions at a couple of positions for quite a while and we've been going through, and we admittedly are probably ludicrously picky. We're very hard to please. But, there's that, which is like that's the kind of people we'll ultimately hire, the ones who get through that.

And then, there's a much larger set of people where I would say, "Yeah, OK, if weren't ludicrously picky, we could have picked somebody there." That pool is much smaller than I would have expected. The largest pool by far is I would not hire you to sweep my floors. Like, it's just, I don't even know how to put words to it. I was just astonished how bad it was.

And, I was especially astonished how bad it was from some of these things from indeed.com and Craigslist because I had heard from other people that they'd had good success on Craigslist. I was like where are you looking? What are you doing? What magic are you applying to not get these atrociously bad applications?

So, I think this is a general trend. I think that there's people out there who are desperate to get a job, and I can absolutely understand that. And, I think what they're doing in their desperation is that they're going for quantity. They are seeing a job posting and maybe it's not quite a clear fit, but they will just spend 40 seconds skimming the job post and then blast off their CV with a poorly written paragraph or two as a cover letter.

And then, they'll think all right, I've got one in the bag, now I can do another 50 today. And then, they, all right, I'm just making theories here, but then just blasting out 50 thinking I'll get lucky, at some point I'll get lucky, like this is sort of just a numbers game. And, it's just not.

I would think it's so much better if somebody just spent a whole day applying to one, two, or three positions where they actually research the company, find out what they did, sort of had an angle and just made a killer application. Like, that's the kind of people who will actually get taken seriously for this stuff and get to an interview and then have a chance of landing the job.

So, I think sort of like the shotgun approach is just I think that's what we saw. I think what we saw was shotgun approaches where people apply for 50 positions and we just happen to be one of them. And, I can't see where this is going to work.

Matt: Well, let's talk about when we do post at Signal vs. Noise so you know that there's an opening for a new job, it seems like there's a slightly different approach that we have than when other people are looking for candidates. What's the attitude when you put one of those posts up and there's usually some sort of mini project or assignment that goes along with it, why is that something that you think is a good idea?
Jason Fried: One of the things we've realized is that it's really hard to judge certain types of work. It's not that hard for us to judge programming because we can look at people's code and their Open Source contributions. It's not that hard to judge design necessarily if you can look at someone's design work or their personal blog or whatever. But, things like customer service specifically has become really hard to judge. It's hard to tell if someone's good at customer service because their work isn't public most of the time and it may not ever be public.

And so, one of the things we've decided to do, especially for the customer service job, is part of the application is first of all explaining what you're going to do every day. So, it's not about your qualifications necessarily, it's just actually these are the things you're going to do every day, and if you like to do those things, you'll probably want to apply for the job. So, we're very clear about the things that you're going to be asked to do on a daily basis.

Plus, we ask for three writing samples. We created some scenarios and we wanted to see some writing samples, how would someone respond to those scenarios or those customers. And, we found that it was a fantastic way to whittle down the pool from 185 or so applicants that we got for the customer service job down to a short list of maybe 10 people who we thought were qualified at the level we wanted and then we could whittle that down even further.

But the writing samples were the first things that I looked at. And you could tell really quickly if this person is right or not. And it's a way easier to tell that from a writing sample than just looking at a resume. Several resume can look all right but you can't take the funk on a writing sample when the question is how would you tell that they can't have a refund for this? Or how would you tell the customer that we don't offer this but we offer that? Like how would you deal with that situation, that scenario and that speaks far more than years of experience or how proficient you are with this piece of software or where you have worked in the past.

Matt: And how about cover letters? When you get a cover letter, what are you looking for there?
Jason: I'm looking for a cover letter that was written for us. And not just a cover letter where we have a name find-and-replaced — which is what you see most of the time. It says like, "Dear hiring manager..." and it is just like it could be to anybody. But people who actually take the time to talk about the company, 37signals or what they admire about the company, what they like about the company or just something that shows that they paid attention at all. At the very least, they just paid attention and recognized that anybody who is reading a letter about something wants to hear themselves in that letter. Like it is just a basic thing. Like if you are going to write someone a letter about the job, they should try and flatter the person who is going to read it. And one great way to do that is to say how much I like your company and to actually speak intelligently about the company.

Not just say, "I've found your company online and it looked pretty cool." That's not it but like, "Hey, I really like your products especially this one because of the ad and the other job. I used this so I really like the way you guys spoke about this particular topic." Something that shows someone spent even just a few minutes of research on the company.

That's the kind of stuff I'm typically looking for. Besides simply writing skills which are really important, but was this written for us or for somebody else?

Matt: And then if someone does get past that stage and you are interviewing someone, what is the typical interview with 37signals going to be like for a person?
Jason: I think at that point where we brought someone in. It is mostly just about getting to know them, feeling them out. Is this kind of person a cultural fit? What's the demeanor like? We also introduce them, typically try to introduce them to the people they'd be working with. So, for support, when we brought people in, we had them go out to lunch with the support team and just so, the support team can have some feedback on whether or not they like this particular person and if they felt like they all got along, things like that. So, it is not so much... We've already sort of hammered out the basics before we brought them in. It is more about what are they like in a person now. That's the main thing. And we've also start doing these personality assessments. David maybe you want to share about that?
David: Sure. There's a bunch of companies out there who would do this remotely and we've been using somebody called Caliper which is basically letting an applicant spend an hour filling out online questionnaire where they are saying: What is more like you? You get like four different statements and what they are trying to find out is just some personality traits are, what's more important to you? Thoroughness or urgency for example? There could be a reasonable split. It is not like you are all thorough and no urgency or all urgency, no thoroughness but getting a sense of where somebody falls on a spectrum is pretty helpful. And what's actually interesting is usually it is just confirming things that you already had a suspicion about or you already saw in person.

It is just verbalizing some of the things you would take away from an in person meeting. And basically just giving you, "Oh, yeah, that's right. I sort of picked up on that. Maybe there was something here that wasn't... Maybe this person needed more external structure. They weren't going to just come up with their own sort of workflow or a way to do things." So, it just gives you another perspective on things that I think we found to be really helpful. It's mostly just that it serves to backs up the intuition or the things you already picked up.

So, it seems like it's more of a supporting tool than it really like the true deciding tool. It's just... it keeps reminding you about oh, yeah, oh this person was thorough. It's sort of like notes. It's the way of having notes taken for you for an in-person meeting.

Matt: And during the interviews when you are trying to feel someone out, what sort of questions do you ask them?
Jason: It really kind of depends on the position. One of the good things is just to ask is what did you do yesterday? And just kind of see how they explain that. Do they explain it in a very sort of concise manner like at nine, I got to work at nine a.m. and I did this or did they sort of talk about the problems they solve or they talk about the people they interacted with. It is just sort of the more general the question, and the less leading it is, I think the better you can just let someone talk and you sort of see what they... How they describe things and from that you can sort of discern what they consider to be important and what they don't because when you are going to describe anything, you are going to pick. There is a million things that happen all the time.

Right now, I can talk about the fact that I'm talking into a microphone. I can talk about the fact that microphone is a little bit off white. I can say there is a mouse in front of me. I can say I'm using Skype. I can say I'm in a soundproof room. There is a million things I can say about what we are doing right now. I can talk about the lightning. Talk about the echo in the room. I can talk about that I'm in Chicago and you are in New York. I mean there are all these things that you can talk about.

So what are the things that I would choose to talk about when I answer a question? That sort of starts to give me an insight into what type of person someone is and the sort of things they chose to describe.

David: And the thing is, as you were saying, by the time they get in to the office, we already have a pretty good idea of their skills because we would have done some sort of testing up front, right? So, we know what kind of writing they do or whatever. So, it's more just getting the vibe like when you just hear somebody talk for 15 minutes, you... There's just something instinctual that will tell you whether that is a good fit or not a good fit and it is kind of hard to... It is probably just everything. What they choose to talk about, it is how they choose to talk. It is their mannerisms. It's everything that somehow your brain processes and you get a feel, is this right or not? It's really that simple and it doesn't matter that much. I mean you should ask good questions and everything but what's more important is just having that person talk for 15 minutes.

That usually seems to be good enough to inform the rest of it which is more objective like if somebody writes a response to one of these test we have, it is pretty objective like Jason and I could look at that and then OK, that's it.

This in-person meeting is much more subjective. If somebody comes in to the room and I just don't like that person for whatever reason, we are not going to hire them. It is as simple as that. We are not going to hire people we just don't gel with or don't like and sometimes you just get a bad vibe and you couldn't pick up on that. You just need the in-person meeting to either pick up on that or not pick up on that. Sometimes, people can look great even in the sort of the work they've done beforehand or what their reply to your question is like. "Yeah, like he seems to be a pretty good person" and you get them in person and you are like no. There's just something there that wasn't. It wasn't a good fit.

Matt: All right, that will wrap it up for this edition of the podcast. As always you can go to 37signals.com/podcast to find links to previous episodes. We've got related links there and transcripts also. Thanks for listening, bye.

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