13th February 2017
Learning from Artsy: How to hire awesome engineers

This is the start of a series about the lessons I learned while directing the web engineering team at Artsy. Artsy's vision is that art can be as popular as music, and its mission is to bring all of the world's art online. It has now raised over 50MM and has made it to that in-between phase where it is 'not a startup not yet a company'.

Being a part of that change was an incredible opportunity. While I was at Artsy, the company matured and grew from 15 to about 90 people. Since leaving, it has further matured and the staff count is over 100. Each of these people probably have their own list of things Artsy does right or wrong, but this series is my list. The hope is that this helps me (and maybe others) build on Artsy's success in future roles. My knowledge, and these lessons, reflect my experience within engineering team and not the company as a whole.

Hiring awesome people

Finding smart, motivated people who work well together is virtually impossible. If Artsy has a secret sauce, it is how it hires. All else falls from the assumption that they have hired the best people who want to work together to achieve Artsy’s mission.

Finding awesome people

The first step in hiring is defining the position. Artsy does this by crafting aspirational rather than clinical job descriptions. Within engineering, the job description focus on challenges, ownership, opportunities for growth and quality of team. In keeping with this high level approach, Artsy lists qualifications as fundamentals rather than 'x years doing y'.

Even with a great job posting, reaching engineers is challenging. At a recent engineering event, a CEO was walking around interrupting conversations to ask people if they were developers, and if so, pitched his company. In contrast, Artsy values the unique knowledge and contributions of individual engineers. It demonstrates these values through contributing to open source, blogging, speaking and targeted press. During this process, engineers begin to understand Artsy, and Artsy understands individual engineers. Rather than yelling 'developers!, developers! developers!' in crowded room, Artsy uses this knowledge to vet and make dedicated offers to individual engineers.

The takeaway is that the key to finding great people is making the hiring process about people. Artsy's process is in direct contrast with my current role where engineering applicants create an account on our hiring portal and fill out a 12 page form before we can contact them. This severely limits our applicant pool. Artsy keeps the barriers to 'first contact' low through online contact via OSS/blogging and by inviting candidates to a casual team event or coffee.

Evaluating awesome people

If you could choose between an doing interview or doing references which would you pick?

Artsy is very much in the 'references' camp but does continue to do interviews -- it just does them non-traditionally. Starting with a rigorous process for finding highly targeted people to interview enables a different interview process. Instead of a rigorous evaluation, Artsy uses the interview to answer questions about the candidates experience and then focuses on selling the candidate on the company.

This lack of focus on the interview, stems from the belief that it is impossible to tell good from great in an interview for creative or technical roles. The interview is a highly artificial environment that is unrelated to how the individual creates value day to day. While the environment is artificial, one-on-one are also reliable because they play on our biases. We often "value intuition over historical data" and "value people who are similar to us" much more than we should. We are also influenced by quick and superficial qualities such as attractiveness, race or background which have nothing to do with the candidate's ability to perform. Some companies change their interview process to fix all of these issues. Artsy solves this by acknowledging these biases, communicating them and focuses on references.

Artsy's secret weapon in evaluating candidates is doing references in a thorough way. Artsy believes that 'references are not a defense against hiring poorly, they are a way to hire great people'. There are a variety of techniques for improving reference calls. In general, the goal is to see questions like "What are your general thoughts on x's performance?" and "How was working with x?" as warmup questions rather than the meat of the call. The call can focus on more substantive questions where you ask the reference to compare 'x' against other people. For example, 'Are they the best person you've worked with in that role?', 'Why are they not the best?'. Ask about what get the person excited and what makes them happy. Just like when seeking out individuals, reference calls are about understanding who they are as an individual and whether they will be able to perform at a high level in your organization.

Just like interviews, references have many biases and issues. Consider the strength of the reference and the general strength of employees from that company. Ideally someone experienced in the industry, with has a wide network tied into many similar companies, should do the reference call. After doing many interviews and references, you will understand which organizations have consistently awesome people and which don't. You will also build up a network of people you can ask for a second opinion on a candidate.

Closing on hiring awesome people

The closing process is just as high touch as you've been all along. If you either make an offer or reject the candidate, do so thoughtfully by incorporating feedback from references and interviews so the individual can improve. Deciding whether to make an offer is always difficult but is really asking 'Is this someone you would actively seek to work with?'

During the closing process, salary negotiations will come up. The negotiation is not an opportunity to try to get the most out of a person for the least amount of money. Salary negotiators are unfair and inconsistent with any organization that values actual human beings. As Artsy states, 'compensation is a function of the value of the candidate based on market rate, the value the company brings to the candidate and the market in between'. For figuring out market rate, dB., the CTO of Artsy, recommends responding to recruiter spam to ask about comp. They have also published the comp framework here.

When closing, consider other factors that may go into them accepting the offer. Don't hesitate to bring in employees, references or investors to support making the hire. If they accept, send a something personalized and anything you think might generally interest the candidate errr… new hire - Congrats!

Takeaways

After moving on to a different company, I've discovered just how challenging it is to enact a similar hiring process. You can't pick and choose various convenient or 'easy' parts of Artsy's hiring process, and just apply them. Each step builds on the previous one - such a with the closing process. During a thorough reference call, you often learn information that helps you make the hire when the time comes.

Another challenge with implementing this is making the time. It takes an extraordinary amount of effort to create a human centered hiring process. Creating a little hiring portal and posting on LinkedIn is easy but, it doesn't work. At my current company, we mostly race to do things that needed doing yesterday. We don't yet have a product process where we plan features (say, in sprints) and execute them. Without proper planning, it is near impossible to set aside time to mine our network, thoughtfully pursue and meet with the kind of people we want to hire.

I've also gained a greater appreciation for the network effects of Artsy's hiring process. By actually understanding and caring about people, the process generates a lot of good will even when it doesn't work out. That good will pays off in terms of valuable referrals. Without this network, contacting people is more challenging. In my new role where we yet to develop this network, we also have yet to open source anything or create any kind of blog. This limits our exposure to engineers. In addition to these challenges online, we work in deep Sunset Park, Brooklyn. We are over an hour from anyone working in Manhattan and far from community events. While this may sound like a ton of challenges, by using this model, we at least have identified a clear goal and the problems in our way.

In summary, if you want to hire awesome engineers, put in the work. Demonstrate that you care about and understand the value engineers provide.

Written By

Brennan Moore

I'm a product engineer based in NYC. I'm passionate about building innovative digital products people love.

Follow me on Twitter here.