We all know it’s far easier to find fault with something than it is to come up with a better solution. And so it goes with the typical recruitment and selection hiring process many contend is flawed, but few can significantly improve.

In my previous Staffing Talk post, we heard from Lazlo Bock, SVP People Operations at Google, who claims big data will ultimately prove to be the ideal matchmaker between opportunities and people.

Now we’re going to hear from a trio of leaders at three very different companies, who all have just one thing in common: they employ the audition interview to find their new employees.

Trial in the Trenches

Matt Mullenweg is the founder of the 225-person web development company Automattic. He is perhaps slightly better known as the creator of WordPress.

He writes in the Harvard Business Review that they think about work rather differently at his company, and they use a different hiring process as well.

“Before we hire anyone, they go through a trial process first, on contract. They can do the work at night or over the weekend, so they don’t have to leave their current job in the meantime. We pay a standard rate of $25 per hour, regardless of whether you’re applying to be an engineer or the chief financial officer.”

During these trials, they give the applicants actual work. So if the applicant wants to work in customer support, they answer tickets. If they are applying to work as a designer, they are asked to design.

“There’s nothing like being in the trenches with someone, working with them day by day,” says Mullenweg. “It tells you something you can’t learn from resumes, interviews, or reference checks. At the end of the trial, everyone involved has a great sense of whether they want to work together going forward. And, yes, that means everyone — it’s a mutual tryout. Some people decide we’re not the right fit for them.”

Mullenweg spends about a third of his time as CEO on hiring. Overall, he says they end up hiring about 40% of the people who go through the trial.

He also says the system accounts for extremely low turnover as well, particularly for an IT company where turnover is typically quite high.

“In the past 8 years, we’ve had maybe 10 people leave the company, and another 25 or 30 we’ve let go. So it’s a system we plan to keep utilizing.”

The Uber Way

Travis Kalanick, CEO and co-founder of the taxi-busting car service called Uber, said last month there are "hundreds of thousands of partners" connected to Uber's platform and claims the company is now creating 50,000 new jobs globally each month.

If that number is anywhere close to being accurate, that is a lot of hiring. 

The Wall Street Journal interviewed Kalanick, who shares Mullenweg’s views on the use of the audition interview.

”Simulating what it's like to work together is the best way to determine whether somebody has the raw talent to not just do the job but to grow into something bigger. It's not about doing 15 interviews with 15 different people.”

Make the Juggler Juggle

And Jeff Neilsen, SVP of Technology Services at Santeon Group, an IT services company, believes a real audition is the only way to hire programmers.

”I am reminded of a little segment from Tom DeMarco’s book, Peopleware, where he talks about this fictional story of trying to hire a juggler to work for your company. This juggler comes in and they ask him about his background, and his references, and what is his theory of juggling, but they never actually asked the guy to juggle. Well, we do the same thing when hiring programmers. There are lots and lots of programmers that get hired without ever actually showing how well they program.”

Not at Santeon. He says in their interviews their candidates are asked to write code right there in the office. Neilsen outlines the process.

  1. Sit the candidate down at a computer with an integrated development environment running.
  2. Find a pairing partner for this person, or multiple programming partners, so perhaps the entire team can judge the candidate’s programming abilities. With 20 minutes per person on average, Neilsen says you can get four or five people through in an hour- and-a-half or so.
  3. Come up with the right programming problem to solve. Games are a great source of ideas for programming problems, says Neilsen.
  4. Ask the candidate to code within the timebox.
  5. Encourage them to use the Test Driven Development style. If they don’t know TDD, Santeon uses the time as an opportunity to teach it using ping pong pairing. The Santeon team member will write the test and the candidate will write the code to implement the test.
  6. Watch. Be very observant as the candidate is programming. Are they adept at using the keyboard? Do they know the shortcuts? Are they quick when it comes to cutting and pasting? Neilsen says there are all sorts of things you can pick up just by watching a programming candidate at the computer.  

And after all that, in the end, Neilsen says you are really only care about two main things: Are they smart and do they get things done?

The answers to those two questions can come, he says, through an audition interview.

In my next post we’ll hear from the CEO and founder of a new company who believes the way to get the hiring done right is through video interviewing, a process that 60% of hiring managers and 74% of recruiters say “make their jobs easier.”