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Finding Talented People and Building Sustainable Teams

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Meetups, hackathons and conferences are fantastic opportunities to promote your company's work and ethos and meet talented people. You can learn a lot more about a person if you let them drive the conversation initially in a job interview, argued Vlad Galu. Having room to grow professionally and psychological safety are key to building sustainable teams and establishing a collaborative and cohesive engineering culture.

Vlad Galu, VP of engineering at GlobalSign, presented building and growing sustainable teams at QCon London 2018. Previously InfoQ published a summary of the morning sessions and a summary of the afternoon sessions from the Building Great Engineering Cultures and Organizations track.

InfoQ interviewed Galu about finding talented people, creating sustainable teams, dealing with differences in culture in different parts of organizations or on different continents, and how the engineering culture has evolved over time at GlobalSign.

InfoQ: What works for you to find talented people who want to work in your company?

Vlad Galu: There are several factors that contribute to talent attraction, but a few stand out to me:

  1. Companies make sure their top talent is happy where they are, usually, so it is hard to reach good people through conventional recruitment channels. I find direct networking to work really well. Meetups, hackathons and conferences are fantastic opportunities to not only meet talent, but also promote your work and your ethos. Everyone wants to be part of something great and meaningful; learning about your mission straight from the source offers people a more genuine experience than hearing about it from a third party.
  2. I often see job ads asking for least X years in this or that industry, irrespective of the specific set of skills required. That is usually another way of saying "we do not have the time or inclination to explain our processes and tools, we’d rather you knew them already".

I currently work for a digital identity/PKI company with a primarily B2B business model. If we narrowed our requirements that much, the talent pool we could tap into would have been astronomically small. A lot of the challenges we face can easily be found in other industries. Our people come from areas such as airline ticketing, cloud storage, telecoms, all places with interesting hard problems that we also solve.

Other companies explicitly prefer people proficient in specific tools and processes - such as programming languages, frameworks, databases, SaaS platforms – instead of looking for problem solving skills. That may work well for short term gigs with a very narrow scope, but that is not necessarily conducive to a long lasting relationship which would require more flexibility. We have worded our job description around concepts and approaches instead of tools.

InfoQ: What have you learned and what are there things you stopped doing when recruiting people?

Galu: I have shifted the emphasis completely on what people know, rather than what they do not, which reflects on all stages of the hiring process.

Online/timed coding tests were the first to go. While suitable for situations where you need to hire lots of people quickly, I find them very one dimensional and narrow scoped. They will tell you what people know, but they will not tell you how they think. The people you screen may be able to answer your questions, but are they able to ask the right questions themselves?

My approach is devising a take home test that covers several bases (in our case algorithms, systems level programming and code readability), allows access to any documentation, encourages research before implementation and is subject to a more generous time boundary that does not employ a stopwatch. We mixed in some intentional tradeoffs, which give us a preview of a person’s thought process and strengths, as well as great solution variety. In the past three and a half years I have been with my current company and after more than a hundred interviews we have not received two identical solutions, which goes to show how differently people think.

The second thing I changed was the format of the on site technical interview. Many companies I worked for or interviewed with opened with a static list of questions that was sometimes relevant to the role but less often relevant to the candidate’s background. To emphasize what people do know over what they do not, we first ask them to tell us more about past achievements, projects, and challenges to make them feel more comfortable. We go further down that path, slowly raising the question difficulty level crossing into different areas and taking them out of the comfort zone. How they handle reaching the breaking point is a quite good indicator of their personality and professional maturity.

InfoQ: What is it that makes teams "sustainable"?

Galu: To me, a couple of things:

  1. The opportunity of bettering oneself, day in and day out. Having room to grow professionally, learning to address the "what", "how" and "why" challenges of the business. You can cover the "what" and "how" by building teams around a common core of skills while aiming for a good mix of individual strengths, this way everyone can learn from everyone else. Creating space to shift from one team, product or technology to the next when possible is a huge loyalty booster. The "why" depends on the collective drive to move up the career ladder and is different from one place to the next. But still perfectly possible by proactively monitoring your reports’ progress and their reports’ progress to identify leadership strengths and aspirations and creating space for those to manifest. Aiming for a good mixture of junior and senior people helps ensure they all have room to evolve.
  2. Psychological safety is key. Not being afraid to make mistakes or share ideas. Evolution is a very long stream of mistakes, we fundamentally learn through trial and error. Smart and kind people make up fantastic teams in this regard.

InfoQ: How do you deal with the differences in culture in different parts of your organization or on different continents?

Galu: In my experience, joint projects where people work towards a common goal in the same room are great at bridging gaps in work and communication styles. Depending on the company and the product, it is possible to introduce short milestone aligned sprints that bring together people who otherwise work together, but in separate offices. Communication between product management and engineering is critical, the more face time the better.

InfoQ: How has your engineering culture evolved over time?

Galu: It has certainly become more collaborative and cohesive. Before my time engineers were clustered around products siloed in different markets, with little to no cross-team interaction, but we have since changed our approach and built a common platform supporting all products that is jointly owned and operated by several teams around the world. Working together has certainly helped overcome cultural barriers and made our people more comfortable with offering and receiving feedback. There is still room for improvement, as our product management is not as spread out as we would like, but we are making great strides towards that as well.

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