Finding the X factor - From 1359 applications to 30 Top-gun engineers hired.

Finding the X factor - From 1359 applications to 30 Top-gun engineers hired.
Photo by Redd / Unsplash

When launching Sparkmate, I wanted to build the best engineering team on the market.

Still self-funded and two years later here we are:

  • 1359: Number of processed applications
  • 28: Headcount to date
  • 0: Number of teammates who resigned
  • 4: Number of teammates we fired. 2 because of a cultural misfit, 2 because we made a mistake in the kind of profile we needed

I am not joking, Here is our job board.

The more we were growing, the more I became obsessed with our team. And what is the foundation/first step of a great team?

Bang! Hiring only great people.

I am not going to give you our hiring process, it won't make a lot of sense (but hit me up if you want to have it, happy to share!).

Instead I much prefer giving you a couple of principles and tips that played a part in reducing our hiring fails so far.

Let's dive in.

Fuck the resumes.

Us, early stage founders, we look for doers. We want a team of warriors, a team of builders.

It's way better to ask for a Portfolio rather than a Resume.

What a resume looks like to me

There are not many engineering companies asking for a portfolio (yet), so most applicants will do it only for us. This is great to assess the determination of the applicant to join our company.

To be honest, if we were looking for resumes we would never have hired Sasha: our best front-end developer at Sparkmate and one of the foundations of the team.

Sasha came to us with no diploma, no relevant experiences. In fact Sasha was relocating from Belarus where he used to be an IT lawyer... He did an online training, came to see us with a lot of determination and a portfolio of personal projects.

Even if the products were not super impressive, we could see what would make Sasha's biggest strength - his ability and passion to build functional products, no matter which resources he got at his disposal.

One of the little games that Sasha built before applying to Sparkmate

Betting on the potential of our teammates to build a big skillset thanks to passion and natural abilities, was always super rewarding in our case.

Show me what you've built and it will tell me who you are.

Don't look only for passion.

As founders we tend to be too focused on the passion of the candidates. We are biased...

We live and breathe for our company, so when we see someone passionate and super enthusiastic... We often forget the rest. Does this person's skillset and abilities fit with what the company needs in the next months/years?

The applicant's passion for the challenge your company is going for is a prerequisite. This will play on the level of commitment of your future teammates but don't get fooled by the enthusiasm of the candidate.

Speaking about passion, let's speak about Decathlon. Everyone working there have the same common passion: Sports.

I admire that they kept a culture so cool at almost hundreds of thousands of employees. For me the only reason for this to happen at such a size is that ALL employees at decathlon have a common passion. But you do not get hired their only because you are a sport enthusiast

Common passions are what makes a team super strong. Creating common passions in our teams is also something we'll speak about in a following article.

All of Sparkmate's teammates have an addiction to building things. but that's not what makes the difference to our eyes!

The things they are great at does, and we see how they can put that into Sparkmate. That's what we call contribution.

Look for contribution and not only passion! Passion is a prerequisite not a differentiator!

It's a CULTURAL match.

What makes a great team is Competences, Characters, Chemistry. Read it in reverse. That's the right ranking.

It matters less who is in the team but rather how the team works together.

Although we make it a point to hire incredible people at Sparkmate, how we will be able to work together at Sparkmate is the most important.

A couple of things we do to make sure the culture is a match:

  • We have a mandatory personality test. It allows us to pre-process what work culture candidates will thrive in.
  • During our process we send our culture deck, a doc about Sparkmate's history with a lot of anecdotes that let them understand how it is!
  • One of the interviews, generally the one I run, is almost only focused on culture. Explaining our culture, seeing what kind of person the candidate is.
  • The last step of our hiring process is a coworking day for the candidate and one Sparkmate to #BuildTogether

Something we do also, is take the biggest champs of the culture in our company and we ask ourselves: Would these two hang-out together? Repeat the exercise a couple of times.

It's actually a very relevant question to ask ourselves. A lot of our teammates organize off-work activities together. Going wakeboarding, heading to the mountains for a ski trip, going to parties and concerts...

Being super transparent about your culture with the candidates helps a lot. Making things obvious, sharing docs, answering questions on Whatsapp... This allows the candidate to know where she/he can go. It's fucking important for her/him to choose you too. It should be a match.

The downside of a super strong culture is the potential integration of newcomers.

Pay attention to this and look for a cultural match before anything else.

Some Sparkmates hitting a good Wakeboarding sesh!

When there is a doubt = No doubt.

Follow your fucking gut. People are not science. Psychologists have been trying to understand people for decades. No one has succeeded.

Put aside your biases, but trust your feelings about people.

Not applying this principle was my biggest mistake. Let me tell you a story:

One day, we interviewed someone and had doubts about the candidate's ability to fit in with the team.

Our feeling: A bit of ego, not super cool, a bit bitter about life. It was a big red flag for the culture match. But it looked like the candidate loved the company. He had good potential. At the end our analysis it was " The candidate is just stressed by the interview process, let's give him a go."

Later on this teammate's behavior had raised a lot of red flags for me. His relation to feedback was weird. The way he was interacting with others was perturbing.

But every time we made excuses for him. Lying to ourselves. Telling ourselves that he needed more time to adapt, more support from us...

Bullshit! This person was just not meant for Sparkmate.

Lucky me, one of our clients and friend opened our eyes about the situation.

We ended up firing this teammate a year after he joined the company. Damn, it was hard, seeing the amount of time we invested in this teammate for... Nothing.

But it was relieving for all of us.

I made a fucking mistake. I should have followed my guts from the beginning.

When there is a doubt, there is no doubt. Be radical!

Bonus: tips and tricks to save your time.

Hiring takes time, checking the candidates background, processing all the applications... Here are my very best tips inspired from the Sparkmate process:

  • Use an Application Tracking System (ATS)(We use WelcomeKit at Sparkmate)
  • Configure it with the requirements of your process. Draft template emails to ask candidates the information you missed from them. Like if they upload a resume instead of a Portfolio in our case 😈
  • Redirect ALL the candidates to the ATS no matter where they come from. Make some nice templates for all the spontaneous applications you will receive on different channels.
  • Use a Personality Test, don't believe it at 100% but this allows you to get a good idea of the candidate's mindset/culture. We use Assessfirst at Sparkmate. Candidates get an automatic email with the link to the test once they apply on WelcomeKit.
  • Build a process to make sure you have all needed information before jumping on a call with the candidate. Once we receive all the information (Portfolio, application questionnaire and personality test). The candidate receives a calendar link to book a call.
  • Once you get a call, the notes and feedback should go on your ATS which should be the single source of truth.
  • Consider the candidate as someone from your team, and treat her/him like this. I give my Whatsapp to the candidates, telling me to message/call me for any questions they have.
  • Implement go/no go after each step of the interview. You don't want to make the candidates lose your time and waste her/his.

Finding the X factor?

The X factor is a concept that has been around since Ancient Greece. The X factor is the unknown: unpredictable and difficult to quantify.

There's a reason why in strategy, humans are called the X factor!

Humans are unpredictable, even with the best tools and methods you can't eliminate failure in your process, but you can reduce it.

Living for the search means taking bets, being bold, and learning from your mistakes. If you're not living for the search then what are you doing?

Living for the search ;)