Scale Venture Partners

The Startup Tapes #015

Why Does Technical Recruiting
Suck So Much?

with Aline Lerner (interviewing.io)

If you’re a founder or manager hiring engineers, you’ve probably been there… Struggling to find the right talent, dealing with an unending array of platforms & recruiters that promise you the stars but only yield poorly-qualified candidates. Aline Lerner is an engineer-turned-recruiter-turned-founder — the perfect person to help us understand what’s wrong with technical recruiting, and how you can make it better.

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Tim Anglade, Executive in Residence at Scale Venture Partners: Yeah, so it’s nice. So, I mean, how long have you been at WeWork? Working out of WeWork? Did you do it like right after you started your project or?

Aline Lerner, co-founder/CEO at interviewing.io: No, I actually bounced around a little bit. So, some of our investors were kind enough to let us sublease their space for a while, then they grew, then we were working out of Medium for a little while, ‘cause one of our investors is there. And then they grew, so uh, eventually we’re like oh, we should probably get a space where we’re not gonna get kicked out, ‘cause they’re growing eventually. So, been here for a few months. It’s a nice way-point.

Tim: Yeah, it’s nice. I mean, I like the location. It seems like, you know, they have plenty of services in every mall, so it’s a good divot mall.

Aline: Yeah, you don’t have to think about internet or snacks. I have enough problems.

Tim: It’s like what they say. You know, the only people making money in a gold rush are the people selling pots and pans, you know? That’s where you work, right there.

Aline: Definitely.

Tim: It’s a good business model. So, I was very excited. You know, Sarah was a guest on the show a little bit ago. She recommended we talk to you. And she was like, she’s great because she’s a software engineer, she’s a recruiter and she’s now a founder and CEO. And I was like I need you to talk to you about why a tech recruiting sucks so much. ‘Cause I’ve been there. I’ve been trying to recruit people. People I work with are trying to recruit people, and it’s the bane of my existence, you know? I need to find great software engineers to work on different things. And it’s always so hard to find them. Oh, it’s so hard to track to then keep them. And, you know, to be honest, my experience has been that working with recruiters makes it worse a lot of times, not easier.

Aline: I agree. Even having been a former recruiter, I absolutely agree.

Tim: Not everybody, right? We’re lumping. You know, I’m lumping everybody into a big bag. But so, you know, do you agree with kind of that? Do you feel like it really does suck for most people who try to hire a software engineer or recruit a technical talent in general nowadays? Or do you feel like it just kind of changed a lot from company to company, recruiter to recruiter?

Aline: No, I think it sucks across the board. I think it sucks for founders. I think it sucks for recruiters. I think it sucks for engineers. And I think everybody’s really trying to do the best they can. There’s no conspiracy. It’s just a lot of different incentives at play. I can speculate as to why.

Tim: So, let’s talk about it. You know, so I always see a lot of pressure. You kind of need talent. It’s kind of a key thing. People are doing a lot of very technical plays right now, a lot of software plays, and really they are made or broken on whether or not you can have the right talent to build it in the right timeline. So the pressure, I think, to get technical talent, people understand that. But, you know, why is it so complex? Why is it so time-consuming? Why is it so difficult to find people? ‘Cause, you know, we’re getting plenty of engineers from around the world. To me, the situation is relatively lax these days. And you can hire people remotely, and you know, all these things seem like they would make recruiting easier, but in practice, it’s gonna be a little hard. Why do you think technical recruiting ends up being that hard?

Aline: I mean, it’s a hornet’s nest. There are a lot of issues, but the one that I think is one of the more easily fixable ones and one of the ones I’ve kind of noticed is that there are a lot of companies that are taking their cues from some of the bigger players. So, you look at how Google hires, or you look at how Facebook hires.

Tim: Right.

Aline: Right? And it almost becomes this cargo cult.

Tim: Yeah.

Aline: Where there are a ton of smaller companies that don’t need to have process at that scale, but just blindly copy what these companies are doing. And they’ll blindly copy the criteria that these companies use even to figure out who they’re going to let in the door as well as their interview process and a lot of other things that they don’t necessarily need. So what ends up happening is you have all these people that are really, really great engineers, but didn’t end up going to MIT or Stanford, or have worked at, you know, Google, Facebook, or particularly prominent company. But they’re never even going to be able to get in the door. So you have this long tail of people that are just as good. I would never advocate for a company to lower their bar, especially when they’re in their earlier stage. That can sink you. That can kill you, and mess up all your hiring from there on out. But if you just blindly do what the big players do, it’s probably not going to work for you, because you don’t have the brand, and you’re going to be competing on salary with these big players and chasing after the same ten people. That’s a game you’re probably going to lose.

Tim: And we’ve talked about this before, but I also feel like a lot of founders do the thing where they have, and it seems close to what you’re saying, of they have unrealistic standards, I guess, for talent that will say, like, oh, you know, I want somebody with a degree from a top school, and has a long open-source track record, and has all these things. That kind of tends to resemble them maybe as founders, and the path they went through. And they have applicants coming in that maybe didn’t have the time to do a lot of open-source because they were working jobs, or maybe working multiple jobs, even. Or didn’t get to go to college or a prestigious college to learn formal computer science. And they kind of get rejected even though they might be able to do the job, right?

Aline: Well, the issue, I think, is I would never advocate that somebody not have high standards, right? But the problem is that the criteria that you mentioned as examples are proxies. So, there’s some correlation, right? People that go to good schools, or maybe if you pluck one randomly from a pool where other people didn’t, maybe they’ll be better. Or people that have done a lot of open-source work. At least there, I’d say, that’s probably a stronger signal than where people have gone to school. But those are not entirely reliable. So it seems silly to base your entire funnel on witchcraft, in some way. Especially in this field. So, engineering is kind of interesting, because you can tell pretty quickly if somebody is bad. Like, it’s really hard to tell if somebody’s good. That can take multiple interviews. Sometimes it can takes years of working with somebody before you’re like, oh, I didn’t realize that for years. But you can tell unequivocally if somebody can’t do their job very fast. And it’s kind of a very meritocratic, or at least it’s set up to be a meritocratic industry. So it seems silly to rely on all these proxies, and that makes the market on both sides extremely inefficient, because there are people that are using proxies to figure out which company they should work for. It’s like, how sparkly is this brand? And that feeds into those companies only recruiting sparkly people, and it becomes this awful, vicious cycle on both sides when it would make sense if you couldn’t vet people fast. But when you can, it just seems silly. And having recruiters in the mix who have to rely on proxies, ‘cause they don’t have domain expertise, and they’re doing the best they can. Every recruiter I’ve met has earnestly wanted to make hiring better, like they know it sucks, but without some amount of domain expertise, it can be hard. And then your boss is pressuring you to send out a certain number of emails a day, and you’re gonna be pressured to email that very same group of people, because nobody ever got fired for choosing IBM.

Tim: Right, yeah, yeah. It’s metrics-driven recruiting that’s kind of, you know, makes a lot of those things worse, right? And that human element. Another thing that seems complicated about this, you know, you’re talking about the human element and the fact that a lot of recruiters have to deal with those proxy-metrics and proxy-indicators is also, as you said, use the human element of recruiting technical talent, but most of engineers, we’re not that good at talking to people or negotiating salary or any of those things. And those situations are very tense individually. And I would assume that this also makes the technical recruiting complex with the kind of people you look for in technical recruiting.

Aline: I would agree with that. I think one of the worst thing that recruiters do that I think is easy to change is asking people for comp expectations up front, right? It’s absurd. When you go into a job, you have no idea what that job is worth to you. It might be the most amazingly mission-driven place in the world, and you’ll work for pittance, right? Or it might end up being some horrible place but maybe there’s something you like and you take that job for a huge pile of money, right? So I think that doesn’t help.

Tim: Right. That friction is really hard at every little step, right? And between recruiter and recruitee, you know, whichever side you’re on.

Aline: It’s terrible, because it’s adversarial, adversarial, adversarial, and then, all of the sudden, you’re supposed to be best friends once you start working together.

Tim: Welcome to the family.

Aline: Exactly.

Tim: Here’s a hoodie. So yeah, no, it’s tricky. So what about the process? We didn’t go into that too much with Sara, but obviously you know there’s tons of tools now to help you kind of smooth out the recruiting. But, you know, it would seem to me that part of the complexity of recruiting today is this tool. I mean, even if you don’t do the Google 14 interviews type of thing, there’s still multiple staffs, and you still want to see people face to face, and you have coding interviews, and you have to follow up with people and set up appointments and all that. And it does seem like the process is kind of a big source of that friction and kind of what makes that process suck, right? And so what have you seen that kind of are some of the biggest things to do or to avoid, I guess, when it comes to technical recruiting?

Aline: So, would you forgive me if I plugged what we do? Because it came out of years of being frustrated. And this is my way of trying to fix these things. So, I think that resume filters are terrible. I want resumes to be set on fire for software engineers and never come back. And I also think there’s so much cruft that happens at the top of the funnel. What if you’re a person looking for a job, even if you look really good on paper, how do you get started? Well, you’re probably not gonna want to apply online, because that’s like screaming into a black hole. The odds of somebody seeing you, no matter how good you are, are low, because there’s just so much noise in that channel. So then maybe you have to find a person you know at that company, and hope that they can get you in. And then you have to schedule a call with a recruiter. And then they ask you about your comp expectations. And then that freaks you out. And then the recruiter is selling to you, but they don’t know if you’re actually worth selling to, because you still haven’t done the technical screen. And by this point, you’ve invested probably half a day of your time and so has the company. And then, and only then, do you actually get to the part that matters, the part where you talk to another engineer, the company figures out if you meet their technical bar, and you figure out if these are the kinds of people that maybe you even want to talk to. And for the first time get some organic visibility into the roadmap and the engineering culture, projects, right? So, we made a thing called interviewing IO where we take that technical phone screen and we put it first. So we have a platform. People come, they practice interviews. Instead of resumes, we’re using their past aggregate interview performance as the credential. That ends up being a lot more reliable, it turns out. Past interview performance is not a bad predictor of future. It’s all anonymous, and then their first interaction with the company is actually the technical phone screen with that company. Then you build a rapport. You talk to the other engineer. And then, at the end, you can get sold, and then you talk to the recruiter. And then the recruiter already knows you’re interested, invested in the company, and you know that you get to go on site. So, I think anything that takes the brunt off of proxy-based credentialing and makes it a little bit closer to the middle, and anything that kind of takes away the need for this very narrow group of people that everybody’s looking for is great. And anything that makes the process more efficient for candidates is a huge win, because the supply, demand disparity. Anything you can do as an organization or as a recruiting tool to add value for the candidate up front, without making them jump through hoops is gonna land you miles ahead of everyone else.

Tim: It’s such a competitive market, right? And yeah, if you don’t do everything you can to make it easier for the talent to find you and evaluate you, then you’re probably missing out on those veru same candidates you want to hire. So, that seems like a really good kind of, yeah, idea to just try to revert that and show technical value on both sides, you know?

Aline: Immediately.

Tim: Yeah.

Aline: It seems to be working. Like half the people that do technical phone screens with companies on our platform go to onsite.

Tim: Nice.

Aline: And that’s their first interaction. I’m really excited about what we do. And I wanna do more and more of it, ‘cause… It’s weird, companies are actually willing in this market to talk to people anonymously. It’s crazy. They’re willing to do it. But it’s working.

Tim: That’s nice. No, it’s nice to see some changes to that process. So yeah, thanks a lot.

Aline: Of course. Thank you.

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The Startup Tapes chronicle the highs & lows of building a startup, through candid, immersive interviews with founders, operators & advisors. Tim Anglade, an Executive-in-Residence at Scale Venture Partners and formerly with Realm, Apigee, and Cloudant leads the project with the goal to de-mystify the process through which startups emerge, grow & succeed. His unfiltered interviews transcribe the conversations we often hear in the boardroom, amongst our portfolio community and with entrepreneurs and partners we engage with every day.

Learn more about Scale Venture Partners at scalevp.com.

For guests suggestions, feedback or questions, email tim@scalevp.com
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