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The No-Bullshit Guide to Hiring

When I started on my first position as a manager, I had no idea that one of the most complex, fascinating and intimidating things I would ever do was going to be hiring people. Then again, this was but one of the many surprises.

There are a lot of books, seminars, podcasts, blog posts, courses and whatnot on hiring people and they are often at odds with one another, so how to make sense of all the mess?

What I am going to present to you today is my no-bullshit approach to hiring great employees and the one I have followed (with some tweaks and compromises) in my last two jobs as a technical manager (in case you’re not familiar with the term, that is a manager who also does things).

1. It All Starts with a Good Listing

You can only attract great people if you put in the time to write a great job listing. Unfortunately, about 70% of the listings out there are boring and unappealing, and guess what kind of people they attract as a result? So, here is my mini-guide to writing a listing that will flood your inbox with stellar applications.

First of all, pick the right board(s). Some job boards are known for being populated with brilliant people, while some are infamous for their subpar quality standards. If you want to get a sense of a board’s quality, you can usually look at two factors: the kind of companies that post there (would you work for them?) and the price per listing. That’s right, folks, you’ll have to pay, but I promise it will be worth it.

Once you know where to write, start writing. Writing a job listing is not different from writing a blog post: you have an audience and you need to make a point (the point being that everyone should want to work for you!), but where do you start? Over the years I came up with a very simple structure for my listings:

  1. Start by talking about your company and what you do. Mention how long you have been in business, what your values and culture are, what kind of service or product you offer to your customers and, most importantly, how you are different from your competition.
  2. Follow up by talking about the ideal candidate, what the requirements are and what would be nice to have. Make sure to include a list of their day-to-day responsibilities: people want to know exactly what you will expect of them and whether they can live up to your expectations.
  3. Finally, close the listing by talking about the benefits and the work environment. What perks do you offer to your employees? What kind of colleagues will they be working with? What is the environment like? (This is a good place to brag about employees with great backgrounds.)
  4. Oh, and make the salary clear. Don’t waste your and other people’s time. This is not always possible, but try to do it.

Make generous use of bullet points because they make it easier for candidates to follow your listing and easier for you to write it. Use irony, if appropriate, but not too much — you don’t want to sound like a 50-year-old using memes to feel young again.

Most importantly, be honest. Most seasoned professionals smell bullshit a hundred miles away and, even if you managed to convince someone that your company offers complimentary unicorns for employees to fly to the office, how do you think you’ll be able to make that dream come true once you hire people? A few examples of what being honest entails:

  • If you can’t guarantee a 40-hour workweek, say it. There’s plenty of people out there willing to work 50–60 hours/week (for good money or equity).
  • If you have been in business for six months, don’t say you’re an established company. A lot of people find working for a startup very exciting.
  • There’s only two or three companies out there which are “changing the world.” If you’re reading this, you don’t hire for one of them. Or you shouldn’t be hiring for one of them any time soon.
  • If you’re looking for remote workers, but they have to live in Oregon, you are not really looking for remote workers. Looking at you, hiring managers posting on We Work Remotely. Most of you don’t. Sorry.

The bottom line is: make things known that you, as an employee, would want to be known. Emphasize the good bits, minimize the bad ones, but don’t try to turn fecal matter into chocolate, for the sake of the rest of us trying to maintain some resemblance of credibility.

Before publishing your listing, make sure you are asking for both a cover letter and a resume. No, they’re not the same thing. Oh, and if possible, make sure to include your name in the listing (“Contact John Doe at john@unicorns.com to apply” or, if you have a hiring portal, it could read “Your hiring manager is John Doe — apply at https://www.unicorns.com/jobs.”) I’ll show you what to do with all this stuff in a sec. Keep going.

2. It Continues with Ruthless Screening

Once you hit that “Publish” button, pour yourself some coffee or, if your company has an office in Colombia, take it up a notch and go with Aguardiente instead.

If you did things right, you’ll wake up tomorrow with anywhere between 30 and 50 applications to go through. It will be the same the next day. And the next one. Don’t panic, you can do this. Stop shaking, okay? Okay.

Remember that cover letter that you asked for? Now’s the right time to use it. Here’s what you’ll do:

  1. You will go through each listing.
  2. You will check the cover letter.
  3. Does the cover letter look like the candidate did their research on the company, the position and you? If yes, proceed to step 4. If not, proceed to step 5.
  4. Keep the candidate. They might be a fit!
  5. DISCARD THE FUCK OUT OF THEM. Don’t even bother sending them an email, since they didn’t bother to write a decent cover letter.

Here are some clues that the candidate is just mindlessly sending the same email to 50 companies every day in hopes of getting a position:

  • The letter starts with “Dear Hiring Manager”, “To Whom It May Concern” or any other presumptuous-sounding line that just really displays the candidate’s lack of creativity and initiative. “Dear Hiring Manager” may get a pass if the rest of the letter is on point, but come on, do you really want to work with someone who writes like that?
  • The letter is an enumeration of skills, especially if most of them are irrelevant to the position or taken out of context. I once had a guy apply for a developer position with his retail clerk’s experience. But who knows, maybe he was stronger than me in machine learning and just forgot to mention. (Kidding, I don’t have any ML experience whatsoever, HA-HA!)
  • The letter was not provided. No, seriously, you will be surprised at how many people write “N/A” or “.” (yes, a dot). What the hell is N/A supposed to mean? Your ghost-writer took a day off because they blew a tire on the freeway? You had a cover letter that would impress the shit out of Elon Musk but you accidentally used it as toilet paper? WHAT?!
  • The letter contains obvious grammatical / syntactical mistakes. Especially if you’re hiring translators. Have some patience here: we all screw up every once in a while. I always put one or two typos in my most important emails. Totally. On. Purpose.
  • You don’t like how the cover letter reads or sounds. I know, I know, this doesn’t seem a very empirical approach, but hey, you’re going to work with this person, so you might as well like them. And after all, you’re following hiring advice from some random Italian dude on the internet selling car batteries, so why not trust him on this one too?

Once you have completed the process, your candidate pool will probably have shrunk by 60–70%. If can’t compute percentages, which is totally okay, that means you’ll now have between 10 and 20 candidates.

3. It Gets Tough with the Evaluation

Now that you have screened the applications and eliminated the ones who aren’t even worth looking at, what do you do with the rest?

You prioritize.

In order to do that, and I hate to break it to you, you’ll have to go through them again and see which ones you like the most. Look for wit, elegance and relevance. Look for relevant experience. Look for anything that might be useful for the job or anything that catches your attention because of its tone and content.

For each cover letter, note the good and bad aspects, as well as any interesting points that you might bring up during your interview (yes, don’t worry, we’ll get to the interview part). Think about what you might say and ask and what kind of conversation your comments could spark.

Do the same with their online profiles (a tool that retrieves them automatically will be very helpful here): look at their website(s), Twitter, LinkedIn, GitHub… Or whatever the equivalent of GitHub is in your industry. See if they are doing anything cool that you might mention during the interview to get a sense of their passions and experience. It’s also guaranteed to impress them, because it will show that you’ve done your research.

“But dude, why didn’t we do that in the previous point?”
— Random Reader of this Article

Well, two reasons:

  1. Giving your full attention to each cover letter and resume is a waste of your time. Instead, it’s better to eliminate the obviously inadequate applications first and then perform a more thorough evaluation. But mostly,
  2. I really want to get to 4,000 words with this article or I’ll feel like a total failure. (It might be interesting to note that right now we’re at about 1,600, so I still don’t know if I’m going to feel like a total failure or not at the end of this ride. Yay!)

Anyway, what you should have at the end of this is a prioritized list of candidates. My suggestion is to give your candidates a star, a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down. We’ll see why that’s important in about 100 words.

You might be wondering why we don’t discard everyone but the star-rated candidates at this point. After all, we only want the best of the best, right?

Well, yes and no. The best of the best might not be a good fit. They might have higher salary expectations than you can afford, or they might not like you, or they could be unable to join your company for a number of different reasons. You might also find that they are brilliant in writing but less-than-brilliant in the next stages, so you want to have second and third choices.

Oh wow, this one was short. I should probably fill it with 300 words of lorem ipsum, so here we go.

Ha, just kidding. I’m a very responsible blogger who looks at quality, not quantity, so I won’t continue this paragraph without a reason because I don’t want to abuse the attention of my readers, who have more interesting things to do. After all, attention is the currency of the 21st century. In today’s open-space workplaces, it is more difficult than ever to get a moment to focus on the things that… bla bla something about the 4-hour workweek bla bla…

Okay, sorry.

4. It Becomes Real with the Interview

Buckle up, because now things get serious. Now is when you have to speak.

You will send an email to your star-rated candidates first and let them book a slot in your calendar. Try to avoid the usual back and forth as much as possible, because you will potentially have to interview a lot of people (I’ll mention some tools to ease the pain of hiring at the end of the article).

Attach a conference call to your meetings. If you don’t want to use Hangouts because Google invades our privacy and all that stuff, use Skype. Surely Microsoft is adamant about our privacy. Hmm, well, maybe you could use UberConference. Or Zoom. Or GoToMeeting. Shit, this is harder than it looks. In any case, choose something that has video — seeing each other will go a long way in establishing a relationship between you and the candidate. (I swear it’s not because every article on remote communication ever written says to use video.)

Now that you have some spare time is a good moment to prepare 6–7 standard questions that you want to ask every candidate. They will guide your conversations and give you something to talk about in those embarrassing moments of silence, in case there are any. Here are some common choices:

  • What’s your experience in field X like?
  • Why are you leaving your previous company / consulting?
  • What are some traits you look for in your teammates?
  • If I could grant you three wishes about your employment with us, what would those be?
  • Tell me what you’re good at in one sentence.
  • What do you do in your free time?
  • When can you start working with us?
  • How much are you looking to make?

You can add your own, as these are very generic. You want to ask questions that will make the candidate talk about themselves and what they are really looking for, which might not be obvious to them either.

Five minutes before your interview (well, not your interview, but you get what I mean), read the candidate’s cover letter and resume again and go over the talking points you have prepared. If you haven’t, this is a good time to panic and prepare some at the last minute.

Now we get into the mystical, complex world of interviews.

You might think that a good interview is like a scientific experiment, where you go your list of questions and collect data. I can tell you you’re wrong. If interviews were about that, you could do them over email.

Do you know that feeling of excitement where you’re at a party, half drunk already, and you’re having a conversation with someone who seems really interesting? That’s what you look for in interviews: you want to have sincere, thought-provoking conversations that will make you reflect. You want to see and be amazed at how the other person thinks and speaks. You want to walk away with a little bit of them, no matter how the interview itself went.

You still want to ask your questions, but you’ll do it naturally as the conversation evolves, and since you’re so deep in thought and talk you might not get to ask all of them, which is completely fine: you can always follow up over email if needed. Just be genuinely interested in them, not only as potential employees but as human beings, and see how easy (or hard) it is to connect with them on a personal level. Again, remember you’ll be working with this person if you hire them, so you need to get along.

During the interview, you want to take notes, but not too many: you don’t need to write down everything they say — especially if you’re using video, it will look like you’re not really listening to what they are saying. Write down the important bits and at the end of the call also write notes about their personality and your feeling about them. Were they genuine? Energetic? Happy? Did you feel enriched by the conversation?

This might not always be the case. Some interviews (more than half of them, in my experience) will sound like surveys — you’ll ask one question after the other and they will respond concisely or they might not even have a real response. You will find yourself bored and distracted even though you know you should really pay attention to this person.

I used to think this was my fault, until I realized it wasn’t. It’s just that, as all human beings, I am naturally more interested in certain people, and those are the ones I want to work with. So when I find someone I can’t connect with, I note that in their profile and try to understand what the reasons are: maybe I was just tired and on a second thought they weren’t bad, but more often than not they were just… not great. If you feel really strongly about it, discard them and send them an email mentioning how they would not be a good fit. If they ask for an explanation, give it to them: don’t be rude (“You were boring as fuck” is not an acceptable answer, even if they were), but don’t sugar coat it either, as it might be useful feedback for their next interview.

Now that you know who you are dealing with, it’s time to see how good they truly are at their jobs.

5. It’s Closed by the Technical Assessment

How to technically assess people will vary greatly with the position, the company and the requirements, so I cannot give you very specific tips here.

What I have learned over time, though, is that you need to give people options: not everyone shines in the same ways and not everyone has had the time to put together a comprehensive work portfolio. If you are hiring engineers, for instance, you might want to ask them for interesting open source projects or code samples, for a blog, for contributions to famous projects… You get the gist. Whatever they can provide you that will prove their expertise.

However, they might not be able to show you their work. A lot of brilliant engineers have no open source work, no blog and no website. Perhaps they are not interested, or all their projects were under strict NDAs. That should not be a good reason to discard them: these people might be your best hire ever and you don’t want to throw them away so lightly.

But still, you need them to prove their skills somehow, so what do you do? There are usually two paths you can take here:

  • The Internship: you have the candidate work for one or two weeks along your existing team and see how they perform. This is the best way to evaluate the candidate, since they’ll be working in a real-world scenario. You should not be too harsh, though: remember that this person has just joined a new company and will need some time (probably more than two weeks) to understand how things work. Oh, these internships should be paid. Don’t have people work for free. It’s just not okay.
  • The Assignment: you create a short exercise that your candidates need to complete, then you review it and, if it went well, you have a dicussion with them about their design choices, the tradeoffs they made etc. This is preferred if you don’t have money to spend on a potentially bad candidate or in any other situations where the internship is not an option. Make sure that you are evaluating and discussing objective points: don’t disqualify people because they are using tabs instead of spaces.

I’ve also seen companies do both: first they give the assignment, then they ask the people who completed it successfully to start an internship with them. It’s a good way to screen the candidates before spending money on them.

It’s also important to note that, depending on the size of your company, you may not be able to give each candidate one or two weeks of internship or even have two of them at the same time. Interns have a cost for your existing team not only in terms of money, but also in time, focus and productivity. If you have a small team and can only do one internship at a time, evaluating five people means spending an additional five to ten weeks in the evaluation phase! In some cases this might just be unfeasible.

Whatever method you choose, remember that this person comes from a different background and has had a different journey. If they are not exactly what you are looking for, but you also think they have potential and can spare the resources to train them, do it. How much would you love for someone with more experience to invest their time and money in your growth? Give back to the community!

At the end of this assessment, you should have just a handful of candidates to choose from. I’m afraid now you don’t have many more ways to screen them: you will have to look at their salary expectations, their personality and all the information you have collected about them so far.

If you still have doubts, just trust your gut — believe me, it’s usually right.

Embrace the Exceptions

Congratulations, you just finished my No-Bullshit Guide to Hiring.

Now forget it. All of it.

The hiring journey is as non-linear as they come: along the way there will be a lot of exceptions that will make you reconsider everything you know (or don’t know) about hiring.

There will be that guy who has the greatest personality and determination you have ever seen, but really lacks the experience. And even if you are looking for someone with five years of experience, you’ll end up hiring him anyway and you’ll realize it was one of the best decisions of your career.

There will be that guy who wrote a fabulous cover letter, has tons of experience and totally nailed both the interview and the technical assessment. You hire him and a month later you realize that he’s an incompetent asshole.

You will be faced with very difficult decisions: will you compromise on salary or quality? Or will you wait a bit to find someone who’s both cheap and good? Do you have enough candidates to screen from or will you keep looking?

You should embrace all of these exceptions and difficult choices and know that they are part of the process. Nothing’s wrong with you, it’s just hard.

I was recently hiring for a senior developer position and I got an application from a candidate who had just started with software development after a career in the retail industry. He clearly did not have the experience, but decided to apply anyway with one of the most inspiring letters I have ever had the pleasure of reading.

I read the letter twice and my heart filled with dismay as I realized that this guy would just not cut it, despite his determination. So I sent him the following email:

Hello John,

This is Alessandro, CTO at Batteries 911.

I just wanted to say that, while your experience does not match our requirements, I loved your cover letter and your determination in this journey.

Unfortunately, we don’t have the ability to train junior developers right now, but I would love to connect with you again in the future and I’d be more than happy to provide any resources that will help your growth.

Please, do let me know if there is anything I can do to help.

Also, keep being awesome.

Best,

Alessandro Desantis
CTO, Batteries 911
www.batteries911.com

He replied and thanked me for the encouraging words and also mentioned that, reading my email, he knew he would love to work with me as CTO. I don’t know if I made his day, but he surely made mine.

Hiring is about much more than just maximizing your return on investment: it is about connecting with people and creating bonds. Follow whatever methodology and guide you want (hopefully mine), but always remember that you are dealing with human beings and make it pleasant and useful for everyone involved.

This kind of flies in the face of my “DISCARD THE FUCK OUT OF THEM” motto, doesn’t it? I guess it does. I never said you could expect a consistent tone — or even consistent personal values, for that matter — for the entire duration of the article.

The Tools of the Trade

There is a reason this section is at the end of the article, rather than the beginning: the guide above can be followed with any recruitment and scheduling tools you have and I don’t want to endorse specific services (kidding, I get 50 bucks for every Workable and Calendly subscription you buy and I hope to catch your attention better this way).

Anyway, here are the two tools I use for hiring:

  • Recruitment: I use Workable for recruitment. It has a shitton of useful features: not only does it let you create your own recruitment portal, but it also downloads information about the candidates from the Internetz and lets you manage the various stages of the hiring process, among a million other things. I strongly encourage you to check it out. It’s worth nothing though that there are other similar services out there and I have only tried Workable so far, since it does everything I need.
  • Scheduling: For scheduling interviews with the candidates, I use Calendly (which I also use to let people schedule any kind of call with me). You just create a private Calendly event and send the URL to your candidates: they choose a day and time and you get a nice email notification and, if you want, also an event in Google Calendar. Be aware that Calendly does not invite the person scheduling the call to the Google Calendar event, so if you edit the event they will not be notified of it. I noticed this roughly at the 10th candidate in a row complaining that they had not received any Hangouts link whastsoever.
  • Conferencing: GoToMeeting is just, hands-down, the best thing ever, and it integrates seamlessly with Calendly and Google Calendar.

Technology leader and strategic advisor. I work at the intersection of people, software and words.

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