Recruiting & Hiring Top Innovation and R&D Employees

A significant portion of the value proposition of our corporate skunkworks and R&D program is our access to talent that many large enterprises just don't have. Even if this weren't the case, it would be an important pillar of our company. In all reality we owe a a great deal of our success to our team. We work hard to evaluate reasons why people choose to work here (both before they were hired and during their tenure) considering many of them had other offers from larger organizations such as NASA/gov agencies, large "unicorn startups," or corporations with likely more stability and better benefits. We also make sure to ask all of our potential hires to evaluate our hiring process. I would be the last person to claim we're perfect, but I feel we've had good results.

We also have a lot of insight into how corporations hire. If large enterprises want to recruit the disruptive, change-the-world type of talent, then there are some significant changes that can be made to improve. We've collected and summarized responses from 20 odd employees, extrapolated methods we used for our top hires, and did a post interview follow up with 50 or so potential hires below. We focus mostly in software (web, mobile, machine learning, AI, robotics, etc), but the lessons are the same with marketing, hardware/electrical engineers, etc.


Recruiting

No BS job descriptions

The old-school way of doing things is to hand a job description to HR, HR standardizes it with some carefully drafted, bland, PR-approved description of the team and company, and the job description is posted to Monster and the company's job portion of their site.

A job description and hiring posting shouldn't be written by HR. It should be written by the leader of the team. Just as it is the most important job of a CEO of a startup company to recruit and hire, so is it the most important job of a leader of an internal team.

It should be free of buzzwords and corporate-speak. Be direct, succinct, and focus not only on what you are looking for, but also what the potential hire is looking for.

  • Include skills you're looking for
  • Avoid ridiculous experience expectations (i.e. 5 years experience with a technology that has been out for 2 years)
  • Be as direct and blunt as possible about the projects they'll be contributing to
  • Focus on the team they'll be working with
  • Make sure this is geared towards your teams core values (i.e. we value work ethic and ability to learn quickly over existing knowledge)
Post job ads in the right places

Most applicants, unless you're a company like Google, are not going to know much about your R&D or innovation efforts...at least not enough to entice them to come check out your company's job board.

You should be advertising in the right places, the places where they spend their time -- both online and offline. Monster.com is not focused enough. For software engineers, we post in the monthly thread on Hacker News, AngelList (we actually have hired marketing, product people, etc from here as well), StackOverflow, etc. For machine learning engineers and data scientists, we post in their forums. For hardware engineers, we post in robotics forums. You get the idea.

LOOK in the right places

This is probably the most overlooked piece of advice I give our corporate customers, but also the most important. GO OUT and SEEK these individuals. We attend hackathons. We contact contributors that stand out on open source software projects. We speak at events. Your hiring should rely heavily on recruiting if you want to stand out. We also incentivize employees to take notice when they see a genius piece of software or a interesting article.

Some of the best candidates aren't actively looking. It goes a long way to build connections and relationships with these people.

Incentivize properly

401K's are nice, but I've yet to see that be a deciding factor when applicants are choosing between offers. Our semi-tested order of importance to our employees is:

  1. Freedom - Freedom to choose technology that they feel will best accomplish project goals. Freedom to work from wherever they want. Freedom to take the time they need to recharge.
  2. Control and ownership - Not the same as stock options. Having control and ownership of the projects they're working on enables a passion for what they're doing. Knowing that we trust them to do their jobs goes a very long way.
  3. Input on all projects - Just because a machine learning engineers hasn't worked on mobile doesn't mean he won't necessarily give input on the interface. All of our disciplines have the freedom to give input and thinking to any of the projects.
  4. Projects that matter - This is a common thread for our engineers. They want to know that the projects they're working on matter - whether the research value, commercialization to lots of people, or just doing something that no one has ever done before.
  5. Salary + stock options - Not one of our employees nor potential hires that met the snuff of our interviewing valued this as the top incentive they look for. I'm not sure if that says more about the types of people we look for or great talent as a whole, but its worth noting. That being said, you have to compete on this. We live in a free market. It's not about beating all the other offers, but rather providing a comfortable living during tenure and a large upside to success.

Make your innovative efforts known

Many people are not keen on talking about the work they're doing for fear of coming across as braggy. I'm one of them. I prefer to let my work speak for itself. Unfortunately, you need to get the ball rolling on this. It's hard in big companies to go through the approval processes it takes to get work published, publicized, and talked about, but it could not be more important towards the long term success of your department. There are a whole slew of benefits that come with making innovation efforts known to the outside world, but one of the biggest is your recruiting efforts.

People passionate about their field, read about what others are doing in their field. They look up to companies that are doing great things. They approach these companies. They keep an eye on their job boards for openings that apply to them. The best bang for your buck when investing in your talent pipeline is this. Innovate in the open. Google is a master at this as is IBM and Intel. They talk about their programs. They welcome contributions. They show early ideas to the world and get a lot of value in return. It may not happen all at once for your organization, but you can begin to take baby steps that will go a long way.

Interviews that match the talent

Interviewing should be just as much about them finding if you're a good fit for them as it is about you figuring out if they're a good fit for you. Our interview process generally follows this structure:

  1. Pitch the team/company to the interviewee! Get them excited (or not) about what you're doing.
  2. Have them pitch you! Talk about their favourite project they've worked on, what made it challenging, how they overcame challenges.
  3. Work through technical problems together
  4. Take home problem (usually reflects a real problem we're working on)
  5. Meet the team casually

This combination does a few things for us. Namely, it is a gradual progression so that nerves don't get in the way of getting an honest read on the candidate. We also combine teamwork challenges with working on their own. Different people work differently and it is important to give everyone an opportunity to shine. Should you hire them, the moment they walk through the door, you'll know how they best work. This is also a very pragmatic approach. We couldn't care less about their transcripts. If a C student can solve real world problems directly related to their (possible) future work more elegantly and better than an A student, then I'll go with the C student every time.

Nearly every person we've interviewed has made some mention about how refreshing the interview process was and it has worked extremely well for us.

Interviews can excite and motivate a candidate to work for you even more, OR they can raise red flags for them. Say your team is working on Big Audacious Ideas, but then your hiring process is handed over to corporate bureaucracy? Those candidates will likely not get the impression that you're trying to convey.

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Written by
Cody Littlewood 25 Jan 2016

CEO

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