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When ACELR8 was thinking about hosting its first Technical Leadership Dinner, it had a goal in mind: participants leaving the event would leave with lots of new tactics and ideas to try out in their roles.
The first edition of the Technical Leadership Dinner was held in Berlin during the pouring rains last week. As the city turned into a worlds biggest swimming pool, we were touching on some interesting topics during a dinner with technical leaders in Berlin. The main topics of discussion were diversity within technology companies, hiring strategies and managing teams to get the best output.
This post is a reflection on some of the in-depth discussions that arose during a dinner with the ACELR8 Team and Technical leaders who have helped shape some of Berlin’s fastest growing startups including Auctionata, Door2Door, Ebay, Friendsurance, Fyber, Gamingo, HERE, Twago, TomTom, Keepsafe and DaliaResearch.
All present at the dinner had a wide range of job titles, differentiating from CTO to Engineering Manager, to Co-Founder and Managing Director. Two threads they all have in common is that they know how to take startups to the next level. But how do you go about defining the state of your company? Many companies come up with good ideas and due to today resources, it seems easy to take the leap and startup your own company. This results in large startup cities (like Berlin, London and Paris) with thousands of ambitious entrepreneurs paving the way to success. Money, resources and a dose of good luck are necessary assets to grow, but it is the people that bring success to the company.
As we overheard in heated discussions,
“You are a startup until other people consort why you exist”
or put differently, “Once you find the right product-market fit, you are not a startup anymore”.
From that moment you move in is a more established company, building on the reputation and growing your product or service. In this journey, customers are at the core, as they are the one crucial to your success.
During the dinner itself, diversity in background and gender raised discussions about different leadership styles and how you go about creating the best hiring strategy. It kept the conversations going, as diversity in background, race, gender and believes establishes conflict and discussions. Sitting opposed to each other means discussion can either bring you together or drive you further apart, which are both really interesting developments. An example is a diversity in gender, being at our table with mostly men, made the voice of the women even stronger.
This is related to creating diverse teams, which starts at hiring. The most beautiful part of working in the startup environment is that startups are still growing, which means they have room and the ability to implement this vision. On the other hand, hiring the best people for the job is interfering with this belief sometimes. Creating a hiring plan for the company is key. It gives you the opportunity to create a diverse team, where people with different backgrounds cause conflict to arise. Conflict brings your startup one step further. We overheard the following quote:
“It is the most important not to care about the background that people have or where they come from, if they have proven themselves, have the right experience we need to give them opportunity to grow. I myself am not from the easiest background as well and that makes me more aware of this issue.”
It is a well-discussed point in our current media landscape and a problem that many (growing) companies face. Being aware of the importance of diversity is the first step, the next one is to take action.
You can diversify your talent pool by making the copy of job ads more inclusive by avoiding using male pronouns and stereotypically masculine terms. Terms such as “Free beer” and describing a role as a “Hacker” may create a binary effect and exclude a large proportion of prospective candidates.
This brings us to the next point of discussion and that is how to shape your hiring process. The leaders trust in their gut feeling and the many experiences that they had with employees, in order to make their hiring happen fast. One said, “I know after 5 minutes if a candidate is suitable. If not, I tell him no right away”. Others reacted surprised and go about using another strategy, such as “If I already know that a candidate is not suitable, I try to use the rest of the conversation to find confirmation to this assumption. I always let them talk and provide them with feedback”.
As Laszlo Bock wrote in the chapter ‘Don’t trust your gut’ in his book, Work Rules — Insights from Google (2015), this is called the assumption bias, where you try to find evidence to confirm your earlier assumption. The book and also the examples that the leaders give show that a decision is made quickly in the human brain. It happens that after hundreds of interviews, you learn to improve your processes, focus more on your gut feeling, rely on previous experiences.
So when a first phone interview with a candidate goes well, the leaders agreed that the next step is to bring them in to learn about the culture fit, but also to learn about their working approach:
“I love to bring people in, as it is more important to find out how people approach and solve a problem, then to only find out what the solution is.”
This shows that it is many times about how somebody is working and not yet about what they achieved previously. Saying that you worked on a project, does not tell anything on what role you played in this process or how you go about troubleshooting or ideation. Bringing people in for all kinds of tests, to see them at work, learns us a great deal about work and culture fit.
Being in a room of experienced CTOs with many different experiences and perspectives, the conversation can heat up. This showed in the discussion on what a CTO is in the first place. There is no way or description to explain the role of a CTO, as in many contexts it means something different.
They did agree on them on the phrase that time is money in early-stage startups and that, “when things need to get done, there is no time for discussion”. In order to save time on useless discussions, you need to educate your team and make sure that they can stand on their own feet. This means empowering them to make decisions of their own, but also assisting them on bigger issues to avoid problems in the future.
“You have management and leadership, leadership is about getting people to know where they are going and management is about telling what to do. I prefer leadership!”
This is an aspect that becomes even more important as your team grows:
“ Leading a team over 30+ engineers is a total different ballgame, as you are not there to check, it is all about trust and empowerment”
The last take away from this informative dinner would be related to the following quote: “100 engineers can build all kinds of bullshit”, so as a leader you need to make sure to find a good market fit, create a hiring strategy with taking diversity into account, evolve your hiring processes and be a leader instead of a manager.
Thank you for Lode & Stijn providing excellent service and a 5-course meal with a Dutch touch (thinking about the famous ‘bitterballs’).