Why Engineering Hiring Should Be Culture-First

March 23, 2022

min read


Anna Wang

In the past few months, I’ve hired engineers in SF’s hyper-competitive talent market. I’m proud of how we ran a structured, culture-forward process to build a team with 50-50 gender diversity. Notably, several of my candidates sent me notes like this: 

You guys have a really great software engineering interview process and felt much more real to day to day work than other processes that I have gone through.”

Amazing candidate testimonials like these are a competitive advantage in today’s hiring market. I attribute these results to my personal hiring philosophy for engineers: Hire for culture, and technical capability will follow.

I implement this framework in two ways:

  1. Deeply understand the core attributes of my current team, i.e., the unique DNA that makes my team high-performing. 
  2. Assess candidates in realistic scenarios to identify my team’s core attributes in them, so that I can be confident that they will feel empowered at Searchlight and add to our culture.

‍Understanding My Team

Why is this important?

  • Every team is unique. What makes someone an A-player at Google wouldn’t necessarily make them an A-player in my early-stage environment.
  • Everyone knows the price of a bad hire. There’s the first-year salary, the cost of onboarding (which the recruiter Jörgen Sundberg pegs at $240,000), and the unquantifiable bad hire’s morale and productivity impacts. Combining these all together, the cost of a bad hire is solidly in the mid 6-figures. No wonder GitLab reports that “For a small company, … [investing] in the wrong person is a threat to the business.”
  • Rejecting good candidates is just as costly as hiring bad ones. Hiring takes time (my company’s most precious resource), and interview fatigue is real. Failure to align the team on the most important attributes prolongs hiring cycles because people default-no when they aren’t sure about a candidate. A standardized framework creates unity and clarity when making the crucial yes or no decision.

Here’s How I Did It

I revisited our values: 

  • Put users first
  • Be owners
  • Seek first to understand
  • Learn collaboratively
  • Win with integrity
  • Stretch pennies into hours

I also interviewed our current team members to ask them what they found unique about Searchlight’s environment compared to their past role and what has helped them be successful at Searchlight.

Then, I created a comprehensive list of attributes and whittled it down to the most essential. It’s impossible to find someone who is great in all dimensions, so being clear about the most important traits sets me up to hire for strengths and not lack of weakness.

These attributes made up my Ideal Candidate Profile / Persona (skills and behaviors needed to perform well in a particular role):

  • Humble
  • Self-starter, results focused
  • Comfortable with ambiguity
  • Structured problem-solver
  • Clear communicator
  • Committed to learning

I also came up with a Technical Success Profile:

  • Engineers who are builders and can take an idea from 0 to 1
  • Engineers who primarily driven to make impact, not just to use the latest and greatest technologies
  • Engineers with very fast learning trajectories
  • JavaScript and React experience was a nice-to-have

Assessing for On-the-Job Skills

Why is this important?

  • The goal of interviews is to be predictive of what someone is actually like to work with.
  • In an early-stage environment, we spend most of our time implementing high-quality MVPs to customer requirements, deploying fast, and iterating continuously. Mirroring the realities of the job is therefore more high signal than whiteboard exercises.

Here’s how I did it:

  • I reviewed all the engineering tasks that we had completed in the previous month, and picked tasks that were well-scoped and had a solution that would be reasonable for a candidate to solve within 30 minutes.
  • I chose tasks that were representative of all stages of the software development cycle that a new hire would participate in within the first three months. This included writing engineering specs from designs, writing a peer review, tackling a bug bash, and building a server that interfaced with a third-party API.
  • Each candidate was assessed on how far they were able to progress through each of the challenges, as well as their ability to communicate their approach and listen to the interviewer’s opinions when we tried to unblock them. The main question was: Were they able to complete the challenge, and were we able to collaborate and learn from them effectively? 
  • For behavioral questions, each attribute in our success profile was mapped to an interview question and discussed during our debrief on a scale of 1-7 on how strongly a candidate exhibited that quality. For example, to assess “commitment to learning,” we asked, “Tell me about a time when you had to learn something new to ship a product,” and then followed up with “why” questions to understand if the candidate was excited to pick up the new skill. 

We asked candidates to submit their references through Searchlight before the on-site interview. It was important to me to understand each candidate’s unique work style and abilities from the people who know them best. And people who know a candidate best are the people who’ve worked with them before. 

I used the insights from Searchlight to understand a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses and their alignment with my Ideal Candidate Profile / Persona.

For example, here are real strengths and weaknesses that Searchlight highlighted for a candidate:

Strengths and Areas for Improvement

From the Strengths data, I saw that references independently corroborated that this candidate fit the “self-starter” and “commitment to learning” attributes of my Behavioral Success Profile!

And, from the Areas for Improvement, I knew that I would take time during the on-site interview to double-click on the candidate’s ability to ask for support and stay self-motivated. 

Important note: The existence of coachable areas does not signal that a candidate is bad. Everyone has growth areas (I can confidently say that I’ve never hired anyone with zero weaknesses). So, the follow-up action here is to understand if I will be able to coach the candidate on their specific growth areas and set them up for success on my unique team.

Getting these Searchlight results during the hiring process was like being able to read each candidate’s most recent performance review. These learnings validated my team’s conclusions from the intro phone call and technical screens, filled in information gaps about the candidate, and set me up to make the best hiring decision.

Find the Right Hire Faster

As Peter Oh, Director of Engineering at Optimizely, shared with me, “No technical gap is too large for a highly motivated individual to cross if they’re in the right environment and know that this is what they want.”

With this in mind, you too can hire a diverse team of high-performing engineers while maintaining a great team culture by:

  • Being aware of what makes your team unique
  • Focusing your interview time on identifying these attributes in potential new hires
  • Validating your interview takeaways through references so that you don’t miss out on your amazing next hire

Anna Wang


Anna, our co-founder & CTO, merges engineering and AI with a passion for fiction and history. Leads teams for faster, right-fit hiring insights.

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