How do you replicate the warmth and friendliness of a referral hire, even with a stranger engineer? By treating hiring like dating.

Hiring is a lot like dating. First let's talk about dating, then see what lessons apply to hiring. Finally, I'll share how to position yourself as the dominating option for your candidates. You should read this post if you are hiring, looking to be hired, or if you wish your engineering candidates would like you more.

The fedora you wear in your OKCupid picture both attracts and turns off potential matches. The same goes for brown hair, and any other information you provide on your profile. Providing less information is usually a bad idea — you'll end up matched with people who think you're someone else (potentially wasting both your time and theirs). Are you a smoker? You probably don't want to hang out with someone who's always hassling you to quit.

I'd say there's two main ways that a relationship gets started:

  1. You're friends. There's maybe a spark here or there, but it's not really the right time. A year or two passes, and suddenly you realize "hey! I really like this person!". Your hangouts transform into dates, and ¡Voila!, you're dating!
  2. You're waiting in line, or at a coffee shop. Someone catches your eye. You make a stupid comment about how great the weather is, or ask what book they're reading. It turns into a real conversation, you exchange contact information, and declare you're interested in seeing them. Maybe you end up seeing them again, maybe things go well on the first few dates. ¡Voila!, you're dating!

On to Hiring

It is generally agreed that referral hires are the best. My definition of a referral hire is this: both people are friends, and speak semi-regularly about work, life, and maybe they even sail yachts together, or debate the best way to make coffee. One person refers the other person to the recruiting team, and the hiring conversation starts.

Some companies continue to make 50% of their hires through referrals even when they reach a size of 500+.

Why are referral hires the best? Also, what are some good ways to "simulate" referral hires even after your company is big enough that you've "run out" of referral hires to make?

Making a referral hire is most similar to graduating a friendship to a relationship. Both parties have a similar amount of information (their room is messy, they are nice, they dislike broccoli but love soft-drinks). Here is the big one: you can see into their mind, and vice versa. It will be no secret that the company does not have great code coverage, but it's okay, because some things you just let slide. That your friend would consider referring you sends even more signals:

But also, as a candidate you wouldn't consider applying unless your friend's experiences at the job were positive. After all, your friend can't help but complain about work occasionally, so you have a pretty good idea of what you'd be getting into.

Thus, even before you send in your resume, or talk to the recruiting team, you've already made a decision that yes, you'd consider working with them. The process looks very different when you have no idea what you're getting into — the candidate ends up having to both show their skill to the company and determine whether they like the company (and people) enough to work there.

It's pretty opaque whether companies do referral hiring well. It's really obvious when a company gets "cold" hiring correct. When you think of the best places to work, who comes to mind first for you? For me, it is Fog Creek Software. Why? Because Joel has invested so much effort taking photos of his physique, writing prose showing how romantic he is, and demonstrating that he knows how to treat his significant other right. Please excuse the mixed metaphor, trying to throw in a bit of humor. Great, so before a candidate has even applied, that person knows whether Fog Creek would be a good place to work, and that Fog Creek cares a lot about keeping employees happy. In other words, Joel has fully completed his dating profile.

Sharing more information makes "cold" candidates friendlier, and you'll get way more compliments on your company in cover letters and over the phone.

A complete dating profile means...

Awesome, so now you're thinking, what should I put on my dating profile? Is it appropriate to show off my bathing suit?

The Toughest Questions a Candidate Will Ask

Here is a great list of questions to ask your potential employer, by Stefan Kendall:

  1. What's the process like? How do you build software? Do you describe yourself as "lean", "agile", or "scrum"?
  2. How do designers work with developers?
  3. What's the state of automated testing? Continuous integration?
  4. What exactly will I be working on? What's the tech stack?
  5. How big are the teams? How big will my team be?
  6. Is there any allowance for remote work?
  7. Are there core business hours?
  8. Why are you hiring? Is this a new product? Scaling? Did someone recently quit?
  9. What's the coolest thing you've built here, personally?
  10. What do you wish you had known about the company before working here? What's the worst part of this job?

I highly recommend you read his post, he explains why each question is important, and how to interpret the answers.

Here are some more useful questions:

  1. Do employees write technical blog posts?
  2. What salary level and benefits should be expected?
  3. How is your equity set up? engineer's guide to stock options
  4. Do you have the empathy needed to hire marginalized populations? How to hire a Lady to do Software Engineering
  1. Do you have a ping pong table?
  1. Do you have a nap room?
  1. Ask an engineer at the company: "When was the last time you were so passionate about building a feature for the company that you built it on your own time, even though no-one asked you to build it?" submitted by Max Seiden

At various points in your hiring process you will answer these same questions, but only for the candidates saavy enough to ask. Expose the answers to everyone, and you'll level the field.

Are You Worried That You'll Expose Sensitive Details to the World?

You shouldn't be. By sharing it all, you make your overly-private competitors look bad. To use a terrible cliché, candidates prefer the devil they know to the devil they don't. Plus, you get to pull this move: give your candidate a list of the questions you've answered for them, and encourage the candidate to ask the same questions to the other companies they are considering. Your truly awesome company that hires only the best and has the most amazing work-environment will finally win out over the companies who are just pretending (there's way more of those than you'd think!). Prepare to rub your hiring skills in the faces of all your founder friends.

At this point your hiring pipeline should be much smoother because people know they want to join. You'll see higher quality candidates, and you will hire them more quickly. Your only problem now? Figuring out if they are any good!

Best of luck!

PS Dear friends of mine who are also engineers: what questions do you ask companies before you consider joining? I'll love you if you send them to me: david åt dtrejo dot com.

His article went offline:

David Trejo

Engineer at Chime & consultant. Past clients include Credit Karma, Aconex, Triplebyte, Neo, the Brown Computer Science Department, Voxer, Cloudera, and the Veteran's Benefits Administration.