Software Development
Hiring / Remote work / TWIJ

How do I virtually hire for technical roles?

Whether you represent an always-remote company or are hiring remotely for other reasons, hear tips in the fifth episode of The TWIJ Show, an interview series from about building better companies.

Healthverity VP Amanda Elefante and LTSE Head of Talent Mawulom Nenonene. ( image)
Hiring is always a thorny jumble of expectations and bias. Add quickly evolving norms for digital communication, and you have a real organizational challenge.

The sheer scope of the workplace changes taking place today won’t be fully grasped soon. As demand for technical skills has outstripped supply for a generation, remote work was already coming to engineering teams. Between 2005 and 2017, rates of remote work grew more than 2.5 times, including highly skilled roles. That still meant nearly 97% of Americans were in roles that required them to be in an office or otherwise on-site — but that’s changing now.

During this pandemic-sparked economic shock, technical roles have accounted for more than a third of job openings in the United States, and hiring regardless of location has never seemed so sensible. If your entire team is already doing its company all-hands meetings virtually, who cares where someone calls in from?

Company cultures may still benefit from an orbit in an office. Professional learning networks will likely return to a geographic bent, when people can be near to people again. But the trend was already toward more flexible work environments, and this will always be led by the most competitive roles — technical ones.

In short, this moment in time is expected to speed existing trends. Companies need a plan to hire remotely. To assess the best practices for this, I turned to two HR leaders coming from very different places on the topic.

One is Mawulom Nenonene, the head of talent for LTSE (short for the “Long Term Stock Exchange”), a fintech startup founded in San Francisco. They have a team of more than 35, including distributed teammates, like Maryland-based Nenonene. I’ve known him for years as he’s helped build a reputation in D.C. tech circles while also hiring remotely for past companies including BetterUp, Nava and Thumbtack.

And Amanda Elefante is VP of people for HealthVerity, based in Center City Philadelphia. The healthcare technology company has 88 employees and last year raised a $25M Series C. She previously held internal recruiting roles for email marketing company Aweber and social network The Meet Group, which was acquired earlier this year.

Unlike Nenonene, Elegante has spent her career for mostly office-based company cultures. But in the last eight weeks, she has made more than a dozen hires remotely. Already an industry veteran, she’s learned plenty more quickly.

Both joined me for the latest episode of The TWIJ Show, a weekly interview series from that explores topics on “building better companies.” The topic this week: How do I hire for technical roles virtually?

What, where and how are you promoting your role?

We assume you have the “why” down — establishing real need for the role you’re trying to fill is for another conversation entirely. Once you do, your process for hiring virtually may look considerably different than how you’ve hired in the past. Review in detail your hiring processtake it as an opportunity to improve in other ways, too.

You may still want to rely on geographically tied groups and communities, if only to benefit from where your team has influence. That same can be said of user groups, web forums or other online places you’ve used in the past.

But what should change? Consider how your company and role lands in the wider marketplace. Many trumpet 🎺 the end of the job description but that’s only possible when your company and its culture, story and goals can rule the day. Is your company known for being a place where the most talented might even consider? Are you leading with a story about why your company is worth supporting? Why is the challenge interesting? Why is yours a team worth being apart of?

Nenonene has long been an advocate of employer brand marketing, using content (video, thought leadership, blog posts and the like) to help candidates better understand your company. Those are answers you might take for granted when hiring from a pool of talent you already know. But it gets trickier when you’re pulling from a much wider or more dispersed group — like anyone with an internet connection and the skills you need.

Is it a remote role? Or just hiring virtually?

Are you hiring virtually for a role that can always be remote? Or will you expect this person to be back in an office when that’s feasible? Is your company’s past expectations changing quickly? Managing remote workers, either permanently or given the present circumstances, is a different topic entirely.

But of course, setting expectations upfront is critical. Even if you’re uncertain, say so — for example, that your company is all remote right now, but you previously had been office-bound and are unsure of what will happen next. Like from an earlier episode: clarity, if not certainty.

Part of the trend in recent years is toward more flexible, if not fully remote, options. If you still expect most of your team to be near a geographic center but you’ll allow for staff to do one or two days a week in the office for collaborative meetings, that itself is a virtual-like option more permanently.

Note the strengths and weaknesses of virtual hiring.

You can do things differently. For one thing, Elefante notes, when bringing in a candidate for in-person interviews, you tend to stack several conversations back to back so that person only has to visit the office once. That’s not the same virtually.

Elefante has helped candidates schedule group engineering-team interviews in the morning and then at the end of the day interview with the hiring manager. When her teams are doing back-to-back interviews with a candidate, she has her team use private Slack channels to make sure to let the next interviewer know their time is up.

Virtual interviews can make structure even easier than in-person. Map out your process, including structured, repeatable questions — one small way to lessen interview bias — and have them in front of you for each interview.

Can you hire as well virtually as you can with in-person time? This might be unique to your own company’s culture and work. Nenonene thinks with the right process, with structure and repeatability, of course a company can. Though Elefante believes in the repeatability, she notes that there still is something to be said for teams coming to know each other in-person.

Don’t forget the humanity of inefficiency.

It’s easy to skip past the small talk though. Questions that come reflexively during an in-person interview (“How are you doing today?”) can get lost in virtual interviews. As silly as they might seem: Add them to your interview checklist.

Technologies are tools. They make us more productive. That is powerful but it isn’t everything. Some of the inefficiency of an in-office interview is part of the point — small talk in the kitchenette and giving directions of the restroom.

So though bias reduction suggests primary hiring manager interviews should be fairly consistent across candidates, you can build in some unstructured time for warming up candidates. Otherwise virtual time can be quite sterile.

Review your technical assessments.

Many engineering interviews require a mix of take-home assessments and live coding. There is already plenty of advice about how to do these better. Use this as a moment to improve your existing process. This part of your process should already be able to be done virtually. If it can’t, consider why. This could be time for an important change.

Part of that review can be for the methods you use to deploy technical reviews remotely. These are some tools 🧰 you will need to consider for your tech stack:

  • Paired programming tool: If you do live coding, you will use a tool like Says Elefante: “Our engineering teams have created home grown coding assessments and we use the paired programming tool … to allow candidates to code with our teams while over Zoom.”
  • Virtual white-boarding: Whether it be native to Zoom or another like Miro, you may have group interviews that involve talking through a problem.

Here’s a complete list of tools that Nenonene uses:

  • Woven Team  for syncing several hiring tools
  • Zoom for video interviews
  • for technical assessment
  • for applicant tracking system
  • Google Docs and Sheets for collaborative documents
  • Code Signal: remote interview, they support technical white-boarding plus assessment
  • Good Time for interview scheduling and calibration

Think about the “offer dance.”

This is a moment that can prove clumsy for everyone. Greed is a cultural taboo among culture-first companies. But it’s a hard reality: Candidates should maximize their opportunity and companies must balance generosity with competitiveness.

This can be tricky in under even the best circumstances, but the distance of virtual can add a stiffness to the experience. Companies handle this differently, and opinions range on whether budgeted salary should be listed in a job description or not. But both Nenonene and Elefante note that an important part of doing this for remote roles is to be upfront early.

Elefante outlines compensation ranges in early phone interviews and then performance over their interview process can inform what the final offer is. There is plenty of advice on this topic, so the point is clear: The dynamics are slightly different for a virtual experience. Prepare for it.

Companies: BetterUp / LTSE / HealthVerity
Series: How to Work Remotely / Builders

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