Getting Hire, part two (the serious stuff)

A few months ago I talked about hiring at Tamedia TX. Not without a few jokes and Bob the Builder. But the topic is pretty serious: we’re not so good at finding the best talent quickly, we’re not so good at onboarding newbies, and we’re not so good at having an equal amount of women in top positions. 

No, I will not tell you that I’ve found the solution, but I’ve learned a lot in the last few years and would like to share some of my learnings. Please do the same and let me know if you have any good ideas. 

So here’s the story of how we grew the PUX team within one year from zero to twelve, with ten different passports and more women than men. 


The first hires

Marta Andreoni was my first hire. I did the basics: Wrote a job description for senior UX designer, uploadedit on jobs.ch, waited. I received a lot of applications, but anyone who has ever looked for a UX designer knows how hard this is: you get a billion applications, but only a few are actually good. So I looked for two things, a super positive attitude and a background of self-employment. Marta was the jackpot. A smile across the room, not even hesitating when I asked my pseudo-tricky questions, always confident. So after only three interviews with candidates and four weeks of searching, we had our employee no. 1!

Learning: If you build up a team from scratch, make sure you find someone who shares your enthusiasm and knows what it means to build up. 

Yanira Gonzalez came in shortly after. This was a mix of luck and gut feeling. I knew that finding a UX researcher is hell, as there are very few and even fewer good ones. Simply putting out a job ad wouldn’t help quickly. So I started contacting my network. As simple as that. For two weeks I was emailing every designer I knew with a quick “If you know a researcher let me know”. One guy mentioned Yanira and I wrote her three lines. Two days later she came over for coffee, I didn’t even interview her because what the heck do I know about research? I told her about our vision and a few weeks later the contract was signed. 

Learning: Whenever I am looking for a “rare” position I use my network or simply contact people via LinkedIn. And I never get too formal. I write three sentences, first name basis, offer coffee. It usually works. 

The third PUXi was René Wenaweser. I wasn’t even looking for a growth hacker and this was pure luck. Or not. So René wrote me a message about how he would like to show Tamedia some slides about growth hacking. It was a marketing pitch; he was thinking about starting a consultancy. I don’t like marketing pitches, but I do like growth hacking. So I wrote him back something mean, like “Look, your slides basically say nothing, if you want to convince me come over for a coffee and do better”. You see, the coffee seems to play a bigger role here. René came over, he was a fun dude; his wife is from Iran, I liked Iran, and that’s it. I offered him a job without knowing if there was a fit. No interview, nothing. This was a 100% gut decision and turned out to be the right one. Sometimes I think it’s important to make these decisions. There’s a trial period, so what could actually happen? What did happen is that René ended up exceeding my expectations and became the team lead (but left us a year later for another company…). He owes me a few coffees now. 

Learning: Sometimes it’s a 100% gut decision. Nothing else. And most of the time it’s the right one. Plus, sending out mean emails to consultants can be a good idea…

After René we hired Armin, a good friend and someone who can basically fix anything, your design, your car, your weekend. A must have. Then came Laura, Anna, Tymon, Elena, Sophia, Belma, Vladimir, Stefania and Frederic. All of them had one thing in common: weird people. Really weird people. I’m kidding, they are all super unique, with unique styles, humor, attitudes and personalities. We have some people showing up in high-heels, others in flip-flops. We have cat vs. dog people, meat lovers and vegetarians, and luckily no U2 fans. But what they all have in common is that they love designing products. It’s crazy, I can simply sit back and watch the team getting excited about solving a problem.


The process

After the fourth hire, however, it was becoming obvious that we couldn’t continue with the “let’s grab a coffee and sign a contract” approach. Speed, specific requirements, and corporate rules (we love them) cried out for a more structured process. And that’s good, because hiring is not a one-(wo)man show but a team effort. As soon as you have people in your team, you should involve them, because they actually do the work (now it’s official, I don’t work at all) and they need to spend the most time with the new hires. Plus, it’s a nightmare for our HR department if you simply drop them an email saying “Hey, I found someone” and they’re like “What, who, why, how much, when, does your boss know, any more info?”. So together with TAC we’ve set up a process in teamtailor, helping us to be more streamlined.

The process is pretty straightforward and super short:

a) We write  a job description and applications come in via teamtailor

b) I do a very  quick CV-scan

c) I move the applicant into a feedback-loop with my chapter lead (e.g. Design)

d) If the hiring manager is happy we then invite the person for a HR call

e) If the feedback there is good I do a 30min  get-to-know-call, and then

f) finally we do  a face-to-face whiteboard session or presentation

g) In the end we always try to invite the final candidates to a  team meeting, a team lunch or a similar happening where at least part of the team can give feedback. 

The whole process should not take longer than 4 weeks. 


The Job Description & the Company Profile


This is basically the topic of the “getting hire at Tamedia” talk. We’re boring and not good at it.  We write ads for men and we don’t offer interesting things. I can only talk for product/design people, but I assume managers also prefer working in a cool/fun environment these days.

So here are a few learnings:

  • Kill the “we’re 200 years old and super boring”-part we’re adding at the top of each job ad. If you have to, put it at the end. 
  • Don’t ask for 200 skills the applicant NEEDS to bring. This only attracts men. Men believe if they check one of these 200 they are suited. Women believe if they only check 1 that they’re not suited for the job. There are good articles on how to write better job ads, study them!
  • Add humor. Add something off. If someone is applying for a job they see hundreds of ads and they all look and read the same. So do something unconventional. Call the position “Head of Something (you choose)”, or Quote Astrid Lindgren in your text, or (like we do) state that you preferably don’t employ people who listen to U2. This is a joke, and people get it. We have amazing feedback on that and almost everyone says they applied because they liked the tone of the ad. 
  • Don’t just add the basic “good salary, computer, benefits” to the what-we-offer-section. Dig deep, we offer so much more: no elbows, stupid jokes, a lot of daylight, free chocolate? The more down-to-earth the better.

The second super important part for us is the company/team page. On productux.teamtailor.com we present ourselves the way we think we are. Funny, honest and no BS. We post the jobs, present our team members and talk about cats and dogs. The feedback from candidates is overwhelming.

I heavily suggest you create a company/team page as well. And be authentic. Don’t try to squeeze in jokes if that’s not you. People don’t apply for the jokes, but the authenticity. If your team is into minecraft, make the page look like it. If you’re a bunch of alcoholics, maybe get some help. 

 

Quick Scan

So basically you can either spend hours with CVs and letters of recommendation or do a quick scan. Since I cannot go through hundreds of applications in depth I prefer this method. I scan the letter for maybe 30 seconds, check the CV for basic experience, hobbies and weird stuff. After one minute I either set it to “rejected” or move it to the feedback-loop so that more qualified people from my team can take an in-depth look.

My learnings:

  • When I scan the application letter I look for two things: did they catch up on the U2 joke I made and is it full of spelling errors. The U2 thing is not a must, but a big plus, because you know they actually read the job-ad and didn’t simply apply for 200 jobs with the same title. The spelling thing I am more strict about. Having a couple of errors is not the problem. We all do that, heck, this text is full of them. But if you apply for a job which is a super important part of your life, you should at least spend a  few more minutes proof-reading or ask someone to do it for you so you appear professional. I don’t do this to find spelling-heroes, but I scan for attitude. Handing in something well-done is an attitude. And if you design a product I want that attitude. 
  • Checking the CV is more about the person. Does the applicant have at least the major requirements for the role? Are there any hobbies that tell me more about the person than “reading and sports”?  I even like seeing when candidates have dropped out of university, started something else and finished it. It shows that they don’t mind starting all over and that they are willing to find the right solution. And again, I would of course move a super-product-hero with fifty years of app-development at instagram to the next stage, even if they don’t have any hobbies. But most applications are not that obvious. So scanning between the lines helps me a lot

Feedback Loop

This is simple: If I am looking for a designer I have the design lead from my team to go through the chosen ones… same for research or product management. They know much more about the necessary skills than I do. So within a couple of days I expect a quick feedback, in or out. Very rarely do I decide differently. 

If there is a learning then it’s the importance of alignment. We have lost weeks because I didn’t take enough time with the chapter lead to define the exact criteria/personality/goals we’re looking for. That is something I need to do better in the future. So really sit down and define what this person will have to do in the future. Who will they work with? What languages should they speak? Is it important to have a loud, outspoken person or are there enough cowboys/cowgirls already and we should look for a more relaxed personality? These discussions help a lot, even if they take time in the beginning. 


HR Call

This step is pretty helpful, but it costs time. If we believe we found an interesting candidate we move the application in teamtailor to “HR call”. The applicant receives a mail (first problem, mails can get lost) and chooses a calendar slot with the HR manager (second problem: sometimes slots are taken and it takes two weeks to find one). In the call the HR manager asks for the basics: salary expectations, notice period, language skills, motivation, etc. But they also have much more experience than I do in reading between the lines. Are they being truthful? What’s their actual motivation?  After the call I receive a feedback document with all the information and a “suited, maybe suited, not suited”-remark. Again, in most cases, I follow the HR suggestion, but not always.. 

I’ve learned mainly that our HR manager is super eager to help us. So if we need to speed up things just tell your HR manager that it’s super urgent. Also talk about the same expectations you defined with your chapter lead. Again, I haven’t been very good at this, which leads to delays or wrong suggestions. I started having regular update calls with my HR manager, but I can still do better. 


The “get-to-know”-call (aka Hiring Manager Call)

Thirty minutes sharp, not too much into detail. Five minutes introduction of myself and PUX, ten minutes introduction of the applicant. Five minutes on questions I have regarding hobbies, humor, TV-shows, books, travelling, etc., and finally, ten minutes where the applicant can ask whatever they want. This call is not about testing the person. It’s about seeing and hearing the applicant, getting a feeling for whether you and the team are happy to spend  eight hours each day with that person, and giving them the chance to answer open questions. By setting the stage with non-testing questions, you create a more relaxed atmosphere, so usually the questions from the applicant are mostly about team-spirit, cat pictures and projects we’ve done. Super important step.

For me the biggest learning is to be super honest in these calls. If they ask me what I like and don’t like, I tell them. I tell them about boring projects, budget restrictions, issues we might have had in the team and decisions Tamedia took that I wasn’t too happy about. I also tell them about the fun we have, the great moments when we see KPIs going up, the amazing brands we have here, the diversity in the team, etc. This honesty helps to filter a lot on both sides. I had many people withdrawing their applications with spot-on reasons (there simply wasn’t a match) and I had people with low expectations suddenly being super excited about the role. For me, this is the biggest filter. If I don’t feel the match, no matter how good the qualifications, I don’t invite them for the last step. Look, the most important thing in a team is a team match. The greatest mind can ruin a whole team if he or she brings a negative vibe. 


The Whiteboard-Session

This is where the magic happens… I am not a big fan of assessments where the applicant has  a thirty minute time limit to solve a problem and then present it. I do it sometimes if there is a specific need I can only check this way (for example, presentation skills or design skills), but usually I prefer the interactive whiteboard session. I start with a tiny task and move more into detail over time. I check how they visually react to my questions, if they take time or just answer quickly. Do they ask questions back? Can they work with critique? Are they able to convince me? Do they understand numbers and working with numbers? Do they understand graphs and logic exercises? During all this time I try not to let them run into too stressful a moment. I challenge them but make a joke and move on if it’s too tricky. I ask them what they liked and didn’t like about the interview and I give them thirty minutes in the end to ask whatever is open to ask. The feedback I usually get is very positive. Most applicants have never been in a similar interview. But it’s tiring, because I am constantly involved. I stand with my whiteboard marker next to the applicant and intervene, ask, draw and even explain things. It’s super interactive and helps me to understand a person in a more realistic work situation

What I’ve learned:

  • I try to have someone else from my team in this session. This helps me organize my thoughts later and get a second opinion, and I get some different questions for the candidate, and help my team learn more about hiring
  • I try to create a playful environment, with chocolate bars, coffee, a fun room and maybe something odd lying around (a stuffed panda was pretty handy). This helps to make jokes in the beginning and loosen up the situation
  • I’m trying to create a discussion rather than a presentation-like situation. So after I present the task I give the applicant one or two minutes, then they start drawing, writing or talking but I intervene very quickly. I don’t want them to just run down their knowledge, but to react to comments and different opinions. It’s super interesting to see how quickly they can adapt. Working in an agency setup like PUX requires working with many different stakeholders, hence many different characters. 
  • I usually start with something easy, just to warm up. Tricky if this already is too much for the applicant. Question, does anyone know how to handle the situation if you have three hours of interview and after two minutes you realize it’s not a match? I don’t.
  • A few things I test between the lines: 
    • Reaction to criticism: I might just throw in a friendly “no, I don’t think so” and I don’t expect a certain answer. What I am interested in is if that person always says “yes, you’re right”. Not good. Or if they get offended. Not good. Or if they re-think and sometimes stick to their opinion and sometimes see the mistake. Good. 
    • Speed of re-thinking a task: I sometimes just say something like “And if you have to design this product for France, not Switzerland?”. The answer might be the same, but you want to see the applicant take a step back and challenge their results. And how does it affect them?
    • Presentation skills: This is important if you work in product. You always have to present something; results, designs, reports, KPIs.  Often your stakeholders are not convinced (because they believe they have a degree in product). So presenting well is super important. I look at how they visualize the issue. Do they structure it on the whiteboard? Do they talk to you or to the wall? Do they look at everyone in the room or just the highest ranked? Do they explain their thought-process or keep it locked up? Of course, this might be more important for one role than another, but generally it helps you understand how someone acts and works with others.
    • Creative thinking: This is always fun. You talk about something (for example a UX process) and suddenly you ask “Could you please show that in a matrix?”. Seeing if someone can let go of the familiar structure they were working with and completely wrap their minds around the same problem in a different setting is super helpful to understand. 

The Team meeting

If I like a candidate and believe they would be a great fit we usually invite them for lunch or coffee or a team-afternoon. If this person is going to manage people within the team, we work with vetoes. Currently, we’re looking for a new team lead at PUX. After talking to an applicant, the team gives feedback, and if they are not convinced, the search goes on. This is sometimes frustrating because you were so close, but then again, if your team is not happy you’ll create much more of a chaos. Of course, we don’t do this with every hire. For most hires we invite them for coffee to meet some of their potential colleagues, but this is more for the candidate than the other way around. 

  • What I’ve learned, though, is that setting a stage is very important. Meaning, if you simply put everyone in a room and you want them to talk and ask questions it quickly gets awkward - for both parties. You need to moderate. Also, if you invite them for lunch, make sure that you mix the people who sit together and that you have a dedicated table where you can chat. We’ve been in horrible rochades around the table which, again, can feel awkward.
  • If you have enough time, it’s always nice to show the candidate around the building, even the more unpleasant parts (the open office). You don’t want them to start with a bad surprise.
    Make sure you don’t run into Andreas Schlenker or Christoph Brand, both not suited for healthy small talk.

Interview Questions

Especially in shorter interviews, I have a set of questions from which I like to ask a couple. They might sound a bit off, but they help me to get a better understanding of the person in front of me. 

  • What would be a question you do not want me to ask you?
    One of my favorites. There is no right or wrong. You cannot fail. But I know you a little bit better depending on your answer. Most say “there’s nothing you cannot ask me” - “Ok” answer. You’re a professional, but a bit boring. “I’d rather not say” - your choice, but you feel easily attacked. “Oh, tricky, because if I tell you, this is going to be my next interview question” - shows a strategic thinker, one step ahead, but a bit too strategic for my taste. “How much chocolate did I eat yesterday” - a good example of one of my favorites. Just say something. Funny, not funny, it doesn’t matter. For me it means the candidate is open and not afraid. For the record, “What’s a question you would like me to ask?” is what I usually follow up with, and then I give them the choice to answer one of the two.

 

  • Cats or dogs?
    A little distraction question. I don’t care about the answer. But are they confused, do they answer seriously, do they make a joke? It’s a nice way of cracking open that professional interview mask

 

  • Would you allow dogs in the office?
    This I like to ask people who apply for a leading role with direct reports. What I am looking for is not a yes or no, but whether they are team players. If you say yes or no, you take the decision. You might have a good reason and I can appreciate the answer, but the best answer is to say, “Well, I (don’t) like it, but we would have to ask the team if it’s ok.” This, for me, is one of the easiest ways of identifying team players

 

  • Is there any topic (even hobbies) you could talk to in front of fifty people spontaneously?
    This question shows you if the candidate is confident (if that’s important to you), if they like presenting or right away say “I don’t like giving speeches” (both are ok). And it shows you if they are show-offs, because my follow up  then is “Please present that topic to me right now. You have five minutes”. I’ve had people who had to admit that they exaggerated a bit with their knowledge before…

 

  • Would you rather hand in a project 90% on time or 110% with some delay? 
    Mean question, most people struggle. But the choices are both extreme and this attitude is super important to me. There is one way out: “I would hand in the 90% and offer to make it 100% by Monday”. And most consultants would say “There’s always enough time to make it 100%”...

Help me

Now this was a lot of “what I’ve learned”, but there is so much I still need to improve. If you have other ideas, ideas on hiring, interviews, etc., please reach out to me. I would actually like to set-up a little meetup where we can exchange war-stories and learn from each other. If you’re interested drop me a mail or slack me!

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