Hiring - beyond skills and team fit


[Gil Beyda: Alison did such an amazing job as VP of Engineering at Real Media -- a company I co-founded -- that when I built out the engineering team at my next company Tacoda, I brought her in as VP Engineering. Alison is a rock star at running engineering and especially at hiring. I met with Alison recently and mentioned that I quote her regularly about startup hiring and asked her to write a blog on her experiences. Of course, Alison did not disappoint.]

Hiring - beyond skills and team fit

After managing teams in early stage companies for 15+ years, I have found making good hiring decisions goes beyond ensuring the team has needed skills and ability to scale.  The introduction of individuals to a team, especially a small team, can be incredibly beneficial or detrimental.  Beyond skills and team fit, I look for two abilities, which are important to both individual and team success in an early stage company.

The candidate can create something from nothing. Not everyone can stand in front of a blank whiteboard and make a start at bringing a concept to reality. The best candidates will feel comfortable starting with nothing and be able to draft an initial design, purchase and deploy a first server or conceive a nascent business process and understand that they will iterate.

The candidate expects things to go wrong. An early stage company's day to day is filled with surprises. The best candidates will NOT have the expectation that their days will go as planned, but instead will be expecting the unexpected and be able to respond.

Here are some of the questions that I use to identify these abilities in a candidate.

  • What do you love about your current job? I want to hear something like "I was given the opportunity to come up with how to do [blank].  It was really fun" or "I never know what to expect when I get to the office".   Red flags would include "The system that I maintain is really important to the company" or  "I am able to get through my to do list which I find very satisfying" or "My manager gives me very clear direction, I always knew what is expected."
  • If hired, how do you think you would spend the first two weeks? I want to hear something like "I would spend time with the team to understand what is in place, what is not and what is needed right away."   Red flags would include "I would read the company documentation and participate in company orientation" or "I would work closely with my manager to understand my responsibilities."
  • In what kind of environment do you feel most effective? I want to hear something like "I work well in an open, collaborative environment" or "Give me a project and I will figure out how to get it done." Red flags would include "I like to know what is expected so I can plan"
  • Describe a difficult challenge that you faced. Regardless of the candidate's challenge, I want to understand how they responded to the unexpected, how they managed their frustration and if they were able to overcome. If not, what did they learn?

Ideally, if you can hire through your network, do. Your network can give you additional perspective on the candidate’s abilities.  If you are hiring new college grads, participate in internship programs. I have had good success with students that have interned, demonstrated their abilities and self-selected into the team.

Finally, in the interview, be clear about the challenges of working in an early stage company. Foosball and free snacks aside, dealing with lack of process, continuous evolution, time constraints and strong personalities is hard. It is not for everyone. But with the abilities to create something from nothing and to expect things to go wrong, candidates will be more effective and comfortable with an early stage company’s challenges.