Software Development
Career development / Coding / Design / Hiring / Tech jobs

Duolingo’s head of talent shares advice on how to land a job at Pittsburgh’s globetrotting tech company [Q&A]

In a discussion about technical skills and hiring for culture, Global Head of Talent Jocelyn Lai shared how Duolingo has built a workforce that's enabled the company to excel.

The Duolingo team in Times Square on IPO day. (Courtesy photo)

This editorial article is a part of How to Get a Tech Job Month of's editorial calendar. This month’s theme is underwritten by Flatiron School. This story was independently reported and not reviewed by Flatiron before publication.

Getting an engineering job at Pittsburgh’s most beloved unicorn takes more than just coding prowess.

Duolingo, the East Liberty-headquartered language learning company that had a wildly successful IPO this year, also has an esteemed reputation for workplace culture. In its initial S-1 filing for the public offering in June, the company reported a shockingly low employee attrition rate. In 2019, the attrition rate (or rate of employees leaving the company) was a mere 6%. In 2020, that rate was even lower at under 2% of Duolingo’s workforce — a total of only four employees.

Beyond preserving a mission-driven culture with shared values around making education more accessible, Duolingo has also shared plans to expand its technical capabilities, into artificial intelligence applications, new learning pathways and more. Because of that, sat down with the Duolingo Global Head of Talent Jocelyn Lai to talk about the technical skills Duolingo looks for in candidates, as well as how interviewers make sure that they hire candidates who will preserve the culture.

For advice on how to get a job at Duolingo, or any company where values matter just as much as technical skills, read’s discussion with Lai below. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What are some of the technical skills you look for in candidates?

Jocelyn Lai (Photo via Twitter)

Jocelyn Lai: When it comes to software engineering, it’s pretty much the standard tech stack. We have backend, frontend, iOS, and Android. So for example, iOS, we’re all in Swift. Android, we’re all in Kotlin. For product design, the system we use is Figma. So those are kind of the basic requirements.

But technical skillset for us — [the] craft [and] level of craft is super important, because we’re all builders at heart. So we build both the company and the product, and we’re driven to build it. I think there’s some people who like to see the building happen, but they’re not excited by the actual physical building of it. Everyone here is really driven by getting your hands dirty, and helping build this thing and come to life. So that’s why for us the technical skillset is actually quite important and why we define it as craft.

How do you assess someone’s level of craft, since that can be qualitative?

JL: What differentiates candidates here who are successful is there are a lot of people who will say, ‘Oh, I know how to code in that language.’ But you can code messily. It’s just like, I can paint. But are you painting with the right level of craft? So in engineering, does your code make sense? Is it clean? Because as we scale and as we build as a company, we want to build with organization with clean code, with good painting — painting as a metaphor.

What kinds of experience or education do candidates need to bring to the table to be successful?

JL: It varies per role. Let’s say we’re looking for someone who has the expertise of developing curriculum for English speakers who are learning Japanese. That’s so niche that it typically requires a PhD, right? So if we want someone who can help other people become experts in this space, then we most likely will require a PhD. So kind of how we define that education requirement is, ‘Okay, what level of crafting skills are we looking for?’ And then we back up into that.

How do you assess candidates to see if they’ll be a good fit for Duolingo’s culture, beyond just technical skills?

JL: So there are three main categories that we value here when it comes to interviewing. One is technical craft. The second one is people who care a lot about growing, about doing what’s right. And the third one is, we want people that are quirky! We want to have fun at work too, it’s not all about coding and visual design. We want to be able to bring our our weird selves to work.

But on the care part, this is where I found from my own experience working at other organizations where we really shine. I think a lot of organizations you feel like you have to make that trade off of ‘Oh, I can do really good work, but the people I did compromise a little bit on that.’ Or, ‘I can work with really great people who really care and are really kind but the work is not as exciting.’

For us, what I found is we really offer both. And so my theory around this is we’re really mission-driven. If we hire people who are also mission driven, typically values are aligned. And we want to work together because we just care so much about this mission. And because we care about the mission, we’re putting our egos aside. And that’s how we’re able to create fulfilling work.

How can you tell when someone you’re interviewing aligns with your company mission, particularly since that can be such a qualitative evaluation?

JL: We’ve really tried to move away from gut feel.  I think that’s when a lot of unconscious biases can creep in. So what we do is we have very specific questions that we ask every single candidates, so that it’s equitable, and that everyone gets the same questions. But it comes down to what type of questions do we ask.

Let’s say I’m vetting for collaboration. I could say, ‘do you consider yourself a good collaborator?’ Someone could say yes. But do we know if they are or not? So we always try to get to something like, ‘Tell me about a specific scenario that you were in where maybe your idea didn’t align with someone else’s? How did you resolve that?’ And in seeing how someone behaves in a scenario, we can get a sense of how they would behave here as an employee. And that’s how you get a sense of their values.

What advice do you have for candidates who are trying to evaluate a company’s values in the interview process?

JL: I think candidates should interview the company as much as the company is interviewing the candidates. I think the best test there is — ask every single interviewer, what are the company values? And if everyone has a different answer, that’s a red flag. If everyone has the same answer, that’s actually great. Because everyone’s values aligned. And I’ll recommend this on diversity — ask, what is the company stance on diversity? If everyone has a completely different answer, that means the company is not clear on what they value.

What advice do you have for founders and young companies looking to hire with values in mind as you do at Duolingo?

JL: Grow from values first. Because if your values are super strong, it’s easier to make decisions. Like if it goes against your values, then we shouldn’t make that business decision. If it goes with it, then yeah, let’s do it. But it’s when you don’t know your values that I think the decisionmaking becomes so much more difficult. And that’s when more risk comes into play with your culture. Because every decision affects how the company or the employees feel and view everything.

Sophie Burkholder is a 2021-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Heinz Endowments.
Companies: Duolingo
Series: How to Get a Tech Job Month 2021

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