People are the main focus of my role as a Head of Engineering. Roughly 30% of my time is spent on recruiting and interviewing alone.
I wanted to articulate some of the principles behind our approach to hiring in the hopes that it will help prospective candidates gauge whether Coast is the right match for them and prepare them better for our interview process.
The perspective that helps me think about recruiting is treating it like a product (after all, we are a product company!). Engineering career at Coast is something we are offering to potential employees, and we need to market it appropriately to differentiate it well and ensure that it reaches the audience most likely to respond to it.
Alignment is critical for us—I equate it with finding a product-market fit in product engineering terms. We do not compete on salaries alone, we need to make sure that everything else we offer (impact, growth, learning, engineering culture, equity, excitement) comes across and resonates with the candidate.
The way startups work is different from the way more established companies work, and it is important to get that across and ensure that the candidate knows what to expect.
The lack of alignment will result in the candidate not being able to do their best work, and at worst, they will drag the rest of the team down and eventually leave. As a hiring manager, I want to set them up for success, starting at this early stage of the process.
Passing engineering interviews is a separate engineering skill that is not exactly the same as the actual job of software engineering. At the opposite ends of the spectrum there are people that are great at interviewing and turn out to be terrible at their jobs once hired, and vice versa. Luckily, the majority of the engineers outside of these opposite ends display some correlation between these two skills. Also, as the industry matures, the skill of passing the interviews is becoming an accepted requirement for finding professional employment.
At Coast we acknowledge this imperfect correlation and structure our interview process to reflect the real work as much as possible. We also treat the signals we get from the interview process as probability of success, not a guarantee.
We are a startup, which comes with a single-minded focus on building a business around a product. This requires a strong sense of prioritization in favor of our differentiating qualities. At this stage what differentiates us is building a product and innovating on its features while learning from our clients.
Conversely, we are not in the business of re-inventing the hiring process or hiring at scale (yet!). Instead we lean on our personal and professional experiences, we invest in the fundamentals of sourcing, recruiting, and interviewing, but we will not try to reimagine the practice from the ground up.
When it comes to advancing the state of the art in recruiting and hiring, we leave the heavy lifting of research and experiment to others (e.g. Google’s re:Work) and we learn from their findings.
There is a balance between the speed of hiring and the probability of a candidate being successful at their job. A useful mental model is to introduce the two extremes as the bookends: either hire quickly and be prepared to fire quickly, or hire slower due to making an extra effort upfront to ensure a better fit and then reduce the need to fire.
When it comes to finding a balance a few more factors come into play: conservatively speaking, it is better to miss out on a good candidate rather than hire a bad one. Culture fit and alignment is crucial especially when the company is still small. The impact of a bad hire on everyone in a small company is significant. Even if we manage to recognize the poor fit quickly, the impact is lasting.
Unlike some hyper-growth startups that hire people after a single 15 minute interview, and unlike some FAANG companies that take many months and dozens of interviews to get someone hired, we make a decision after four interviews (following Google’s research findings).
We also do not have generic upfront funnels with later placement like some of the larger companies (an understandable optimization to handle scale)—as our candidate, you would know exactly what you will be working on as you are going through the interview process. After all, this is the benefit of the hyper-focused early stage startup.
Given that it is impossible to guarantee the candidate’s success, we do enough due diligence upfront before the diminishing returns of the extra interviews kick in, and then we rely on performance management, coaching, feedback and peer review to help the new hire do their best work.
We ask for them, we check them. In addition to rounding out the overall picture, we also ask how to set you up for success: what worked best for your previous boss or peers.
Github accounts, OSS projects, blog posts, papers, hobby projects—we consider anything else that helps us to get to know you better.
In addition, our founder and CEO always talks to a late-stage candidate. This personal investment is a testament to the importance of culture and alignment, with every new hire at this early stage having outsize influence on the company.
We would love to do lunches together with the potential late-stage candidates, but this will depend on the post-pandemic risk tolerance as well as having more people in the office on the day of the interview.
After an initial recruiting conversation and a technical phone screen with the Head of Engineering, the remainder of the interviews can take half a day. We prefer to schedule them in one day to help the candidate block off the time and avoid scheduling overhead.
Interview experience—the way the candidate goes through our interview process and their impression of it—matters.
The ultimate bar for quality: even a rejected candidate to become our advocate to their peers.
What does it take to do that?
A useful stance I adopt is, “do what is in the best interest of the candidate.” Seen through this lens, it is much easier for me to ask myself, is this candidate going to be successful here, are they aligned with what we are looking for, and if they are not, is there a better place for them elsewhere and can I help them reason through it?
In some cases I even act as a sounding board, helping less experienced candidates navigate their own qualifications and aspirations.
As a way of personal anecdote, I had a candidate that we rejected for one of my roles a few years ago reach out to me and tell me how they were grateful for noticing that they would not be set up for success in the role I had, but based on their experience with our process, they better understood what they were after, and they would love to work with me in future in a role that was more aligned with their style and skillset.
We do not take your investment of time for granted. The person being interviewed is investing their time in our process, this could be a day of interviews and several days of preparation. We do not take it for granted.
We want to make sure we evaluate you at your best, so we go out of our way to put you at ease and play to your strengths. This guides a lot of our attitude during the interview process and allows us to avoid the typical ego-driven shortcomings that early days of tech industry were famous for.
We want you to rise to the challenge and be proud of passing our interview. If you know the process is challenging for all the right reasons, you will know that the company of people you end up with will be a good one. This is a group you want to be associated with.
Treat interviews as relationship-building. The tech world is surprisingly small, and while companies come and go, the relationships stay and get stronger over time. On multiple occasions I would recommend a candidate that was not a fit for my org to other companies (with their permission of course!), where they got hired and turned out to be a success. Investing in this network will pay off over time.
The four interviews
The industry has recognized that when it comes to engineering interviewing, the value of additional interviews past the initial four starts to diminish (see Google’s research findings).
This is consistent with our experience over the decades of hiring product engineers. Our four interviews are below:
Hiring manager screen
Quick scan of general tech, seniority, startup, culture alignment. This is a rapid-fire question-and-answer high-density conversation. We keep it short and focused. It establishes the initial alignment and informs the rest of the interview process.
No brain teasers, no puzzles, but working together with one of the engineers on a real problem. We want to make sure you are at your best, so we will work with you in any of the popular programming languages you are most fluent in. We want you using your own setup as much as possible (although we will give you our laptop if you prefer)—hence no CoderPad, Codility, etc. These tools are great for higher-volume interviewing, but we are willing to invest into high-touch (and resulting high-signal) experience. We will look not only for getting stuff done, but how well you use your tools, how fluent you are, how you can debug and read code. We evaluate how you take feedback and work with others.
We step back and look at a larger business problem together. We ask you to tease out the requirements, walk us through your design process, articulate why you made your decisions.
There are multiple designs that would satisfy our problem, so the interview is an exercise in reasoning through the solution space together. You need to be able to articulate the trade-offs you are making. You need to be able to adjust your design as we explore the problem space and evolve the requirements.
How is it like to work together with you? How do you react to feedback, how do you react to being challenged and how do you disagree? We will explore real stories from your experience and dig into details.
All Coast engineers eventually are expected to join the ranks of interviewers. It is a part of your responsibilities and we train the new hires within their first couple of months. Training includes calibration, as well as shadowing existing interviewers. Before you strike on your own, we also shadow you and give feedback.
We reflect and improve continuously, this is in the DNA of the company. As we grow, as our organization evolves, the recruiting, interviewing, and hiring process will evolve as well. I fully expect it and embrace it.