Searching for an “All Around Great Human Being That Knows Tech”: How Shutterstock is rethinking hiring

Have descriptors such as “wizard” and “ninja” lost all meaning?

Sifting through job postings for a position in the tech sector, it’s impossible to escape the types of listings claiming to want “coding rockstars” or “ninja developers”. But the overuse of hype-words like this have made them ineffective at attracting the kind of standout candidates many startups are searching for. In order to stand out to potential applicants, attract individuals that would be a good company culture fit, and reduce turnover, some startups are trying a different approach.

In searching for a new developer, Montreal-based PremiumBeat (a Shutterstock company) recently posted an ad for an “All Around Great Human Being That Knows Tech.” It’s part of a hiring philosophy that privileges well-rounded individuals who mesh with the culture over purely technical abilities.

“Its something that we’ve actually been doing from the get go, but it’s always been hidden by all those of those tech postings that we keep seeing,” Jean-Philippe Leblanc, VP of Product Engineering at Shutterstock told MTLinTECH. “It dawned on us that we always see the same type of job posting that’s focused on hard skills and the classic behavioral traits, like teamwork and being able to communicate properly. Those are all things you would want in a human being anyway, so people don’t really click on any of those job openings unless it’s from a reference or friends of yours.”

The original team in Montreal expanded through friends and references, and as they continued to expand, they realized they wanted to keep hiring the types of individuals they had found success working with so far.

“We used our referral network a lot to lay out the foundations of the team, so there was a lot of people that we already knew. And this is when it dawned on us, that that’s what we need to continue building. How do we continue building with people we trust and we’re safe with and we can be ourselves around?”

The solution they came up with was to reinvent the hiring process, avoiding cliche questions and uncomfortable interview settings in an attempt to get to know applicants as fully rounded individuals.

“The space in which we work, we can hire for the long term. So we’d rather focus on actual human traits and being an awesome human being instead of hiring a key skill, like hiring a Node.js developer. You’re just a software engineer and you happen to know Node. Today is Node, tomorrow is going to be Scala or something else entirely. It actually works pretty well. There’s been a lot of people who’ve applied who are completely outside of my network that got wind of it and wrote some really interesting cover letters to prove that they’re awesome human beings that know tech. So it’s a pretty interesting experiment.”

Since the posting went up on LinkedIn, there has been a flood of applicants, including from people outside of the tech sector.

“Of course there were the classic people who would apply to any job in tech, around 10-12 of those typical applicants that you see. But some of them actually took the time to write a message with the proof that they have passion, they are humble, they are honest, they are genuine, and with examples. Some of them are literally 1,000 words of a cover letter. And some of them are not even tech people who responded that they’re awesome human beings, they’re not tech, but they could probably help out the business in different areas. All the way from a music content creator, some marketing analyst SEO people and whatnot. So it actually reached more than just the tech guys/tech girls we were looking for, and reached a broader range of people.”

Once in the interview phase, they continue to try to avoid cliche questions and uncomfortable interview settings.

“We always focus more, especially at the early stage of the interview, on the behavioral traits, the human traits. We try to have a conversation. There’s a component of those classic HR questions, the behavioral ones like ‘Tell me about a time you were faced with a sticky situation with your manager’. Everyone knows how to answer that, you do not get honest answers. It’s always the same thing that you hear anyway. So we switched things around where we actually, instead of doing that, have normal everyday conversation and we try to keep the candidate out of the office. We go have breakfast or lunch, we have happy hour instead. We try to put them into a normal state, not a stressful state, so we can see actually what kind of person they are.

You don’t really need coding tests and whatnot to get 80% of what someone can accomplish from a tech standpoint. Through a meaningful conversation you can probably reach a high level of certainty about what kind of depth from a technical standpoint they have in key areas.

It takes about 15 minutes and then they let go because we crack jokes or I make them uncomfortable with some weird joke. I want to make them loose so they can start opening up on some of the real experiences they’ve had, some of what motivates them outside work – the real human stuff because work is an extension of your life. We want people who are genuine and honest in the way they conduct themselves at work.”

The strategy seems to be working. In the past two years, they have hired around 40 people in tech. In that time, they’ve lost only one individual.

“The attrition rate has been extremely low. It’s also helped on the interview side, with some of my team members that are conducting the interviews. I don’t have to bog them down with clear HR-type questions. I try to make those HR-type questions in a normal, slow conversation. People really appreciate that. They’re tech guys and tech women, so sometimes it’s hard for them to actually conduct interviews and make them feel comfortable. They appreciate the conversation style interview more than anything else.”

Going the extra step to put candidates at ease is proving beneficial to both parties. Applicants feel assurance that the company takes an interest in their well-being and the startup has a higher chance of finding and retaining a candidate that is the right fit on top of possessing the necessary skills.

“I want them to ask more questions than us if anything else. We get more insight into them anyway when they ask questions. They need to be as comfortable as we are coming into our day to day lives and being absorbed into this new culture and environment that they’re joining, so it’s very important for them.”

The original LinkedIn posting is still live. If you are an All Around Great Human Being That Knows Tech, consider applying here.


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