A Question of Culture

As an in-house recruiter there are a number of ways to win over a prospective candidate. A widely adopted and often reneged upon practise is that of throwing money at the person. Said person, pleased with new found affluent status joins your company only to later find he is yet another code monkey in a cubicle. What price spending eight hours a day treading the same worn carpet, surrounded by people you hate?

However, there is another way. When buying a car/PC/home/inflatable friend, skilled salesmen won’t sell you “features” they will sell you “benefits”. What’s the difference? The fact a car is a convertible is a feature of that particular model the salesman will turn this into a benefit “I can see you now driving a long by the beach, top down, wind in your hair, Kylie blaring out…” that’s a benefit to you as a person (maybe not the Kylie) – if the salesman has hit on some of your motivators you’re more likely to be taken with his shiny new car. So what “benefits” can a recruiter call on?

In my estimation the biggest value that a Recruiter can add is to emphasise and demonstrate the Culture of the company in which they work. Getting a cultural match with a candidate is a sure fire way to hit plenty of those key motivators that made them apply in the first place… of course Recruiter’s will need to have confidence in the company they are recruiting for and the company itself will need to be aware of it’s cultural representation. This is where most internal recruitment falls down, if recruitment is a function of HR they are to a certain extent sheltered from the realities of working “at the coal face” – in some organisations its seems that the recruiters have never met a technical team besides the occasional email or diary entry. If not through the recruiter how can a candidate find out about the “culture” of an organisation? Whether that is a mediated culture – what they want you to see, or grass-roots opinion – what really goes on.

There are a number of ways ranging from very low effort to more robust research. At the very least a candidate should have read the website of the company they’ve applied to. It’s always the first question I ask – if you haven’t looked at the ThoughtWork’s website I will reschedule the call. Personally I wouldn’t apply to a company without first Googling them. It might just be my hypercritical untrusting nature but I’m never one to believe exactly what everyone says – everyone takes a position right? If Google shows up court depositions of financial irregularities or news stories of Developers being chained to radiators and forced to code in VB, then that 10 second Google search has paid dividends. Is it possible to go further though? Should candidates have a route to gaining deeper access to understand a company? I say yes, and the best way to do this is to talk to the employees. If you’re not able to, the company doesn’t allow blogging, the employees have no outlet to the rest of the world or simply that no one in the company really wants to be a part of the world at large I’d start to question the organisation.

I’m really fortunate that ThoughtWorks encourages blogging and attendance at conferences – for good or bad, most people I meet are able to take a position on the corporate culture at ThoughtWorks. My role as a recruiter is to check this against reality. There is a myth I’d like to shoot down at this point though – when you join ThoughtWorks in all likelihood you will not be sat between Martin Fowler and Ola Bini, working on a Rails app, while finishing your 3rd book and adjusting your Hadi Teherani Gold plated chair… We’re a company like any other and that means a load of diverse people with an equally diverse load of opinions. If you’re thinking of joining ThoughtWorks feel free to Google us and find out what people are saying.

Do we hire “The Best” then?

In all my recruiting activities I’m committed to hiring the most talented individuals working within the IT sector. I’d love to say they are “The Best” on the planet but then, I’ve not met every one on the planet to compare them. So who do we hire, and how do we do it? When I talk to a candidate I’m trying to assess whether I have to offer what they are looking for. Sometimes we don’t, even I didn’t get the helicopter on the roof and the golden toilet. However, if their motivations are more modest – the will to work on a number of different projects across multiple domains, to work with other talented people who are always keeping their skills sharp and freedom from heavy weight hierarchies, maybe we can help them.

As a recruiter I’m wholly aware that tenure is not automatically a guarantee of suitability for the unique demands that ThoughtWorks asks of its’ professional services staff. 10 years in a cubicle not raising your head to take stock does not a ThoughtWorker make… a will to change practices that are out dated or inefficient and a will to deliver value to the business above all are better markers of a consultant.

So how do we go about getting people on board? How we find them will be another post but what do we do with them when we find them?

We Interview them! I know… I wanted it to be something amazingly different and innovative too… that’s not to say we don’t have an interview process that’s a bit different.

The interview process for developers (who make up the majority of ThoughtWorks) is designed to measure both technical proficiency and overall cultural fit to the organisation. On application candidate’s resumes are reviewed by an in-house recruiter, those selected are invited to a telephone interview where they undergo a first level of scrutiny, if they are successful here they will be asked to write a solution to a small coding exercise. The code test is a level playing field for all our applicants – a stark contrast to allowing previously written submissions or a simple “general knowledge” style test of coding. We want to know if you can code, not audition to appear on a special tech edition of “Are you Smarter than a 5th Grader”.

The coding exercise is reviewed internally by at least two employees. From here the successful applicants are invited in for a long day of office interviews. We try to expose candidates to a variety of different ThoughtWorkers so they are able to get an impression of the makeup of our organisation. We don’t wait to spring the mad ones on them later…

During the first office interview candidates are asked to pair with a current ThoughtWorker in adding functionality to the code they submitted for review. This process helps us to gauge how a candidate will respond to our style of working and how they respond to both praise and criticism. The old Good Cop Bad Cop… This interview is followed by a round of tests the Wonderlic Personnel Test and the Predictive Index are 3rd party assessments of verbal and numerical acumen and a psychometric test respectively. After this candidates are given an in-house test designed to mimic the process of logical thinking in coding – ominously it’s referred to only as “The Logic”.

A second interview, often with a pair of consultants is designed to illicit information as to a candidate’s cultural fit – do they share the same values as ThoughtWorkers, in a given situation how would they react, and most importantly what questions do they have for us? This is followed by an interview with one of the management team to give a broad overview of their experience and suitability for the role – it’s also another chance for candidates to ask any questions they may have.

The process can be daunting for applicants and although the atmosphere is relaxed we try to alleviate what could be an otherwise stressful day as well as keep your blood sugar levels up. In a recent analysis we found that ThoughtWorks UK employs one candidate from every one hundred and thirty applicants.

Does all this mean we employ “The Best”? Nope, but it does mean that out of those that go through this gruelling process we employ people who have a great idea about what they are getting into, they’ve met with current employees at all levels – some newbies and some old hands and they’ve had the opportunity to question all of them and then we give them some thinking time too. The process is always changing and we’re always trying new things but hopefully everyone get a fair idea about what the future would be like. Hopefully this is also a pre-emptive strike on those readers who want “ThoughtWorks interview tips” – this is full disclosure…. apart from telling you about the song and dance number you have to do and giving you “The Logic” answers I can’t help anymore…

Hiring “The Best”?

In my role I am always interested to see how organisations market themselves to prospective job seekers. Amazon is a wash with books dedicated to the subject. Better interviewing techniques, different questioning styles and shiny new assessments to avoid actually talking to a candidate. In all this how can an organisation justifiably say they hire the “Best” candidates? What does “Best” really mean? I’m currently in Calgary and travelled through Chicago to get here, one only has to walk down a busy street to see how many shops are serving “THE BEST!” coffee, and it must be true…they’ve got the neon signs to prove it!

If we can all see the holes in that argument as soon as it’s made why then do we attach values to prospective employers? There are no “Best” employers, it is of course an opinion, a mediated position arrived at somewhere between the expectations of candidates and the advertising of employers. If all major technology employers are to be believed they all employ the top 2% of graduates of global graduating classes. That 2% must be stretched a little far!

“The Best” place to work is the place that suits you. A place where your motivations are understood and catered for. If you want to work 20 hours a day, risk not seeing your children until their 18th birthdays and work your way up to be “Vice-President of *insert something about architect here*” there will be hundreds of companies happy to take you on! Likewise if you’d prefer to work less time, take the option of flexible working and not be penalised for it, there are companies out there that are right for you too. “The Best” is every case is what’s right for you, you can’t really make a fair judgement call on any organisation until you’ve worked there yourself, and a great place to start is by thinking about your own motivations. What’s right for you? What concessions can you make and what in your work/life balance in non-negotiable? If an employer thinks you’re their perfect person there are ways to make things work out for both parties.

Personally, I like to think I’ve hired people for who ThoughtWorks was the right choice. They give up certain things – for some it’s that hefty amount of travel – to work in an organisation that they feel works for them too. Their colleagues share the same passions, they appreciate similar things and share common goals. Before this trails off into advertising territory I’ll end and save the advertising for later…