As we all know, diversity at technology startups has come under scrutiny — especially in engineering departments. Earlier this year, I went on the record about “bro” culture with Business Insider. I strongly believe leadership has a prominent role in preventing these sorts of toxic cultures, and I have seen firsthand how they can disengage current employees as well as recruiting prospects.
Chris Rice, Kazoo’s VP of Engineering, is one of the leaders helping shape our culture. The Kazoo team has doubled in size multiple times since Chris joined (Side note: We’re still hiring!), and in dealing with the challenges that come with growth, we’ve applied our company’s “Leave it Better” core value to everything from hiring practices to community outreach efforts.
We recently sat down for a Q&A with Chris (seen on the left in the photo above during one of our Leave It Better volunteer days) on our engineering hiring process. It was a great reflection on where we’ve been, where we are today, and where we’d like to go with it.
Our #LeaveItBetter blog posts aim to answer pressing questions about inclusion, leadership, and building a strong business culture. While Chris and I will both tell you our engineering hiring process isn’t perfect, it’s certainly come a long way. If your company is tackling these tough questions, we invite you to browse this Q&A and learn along with us.
What led to wanting to #LeaveItBetter with our engineering hiring process? What needed to change in terms of what Kazoo had done in the past as a much smaller company?
Chris Rice, VP of Engineering: For me, as I reflect on our previous hires, I think we’ve made some really great hires. The question I asked myself was: “Have we turned away really good engineers at times? Are we currently looking at talent that we shouldn’t? Are we positioning our career ads in ways that end up neglecting parts of the population?”
I reflect on that in terms of wanting to grow and learn personally; wanting to find the best talent possible for our team.
Then you look at the fact that we currently don’t have any female engineers. You say, “No, that’s not intentional!” but it certainly warrants investigation. We began asking ourselves why things are the way they are. This doesn’t just come down to gender, race or anything else, it’s simply, “Are we excluding people from the running by not having the best testing possible or testing for things we don’t care about?”
For example, one of the first things we did was start to break down what the aspects of an engineering candidate that we care about as a team are, then separate the aspects we don’t care about. Medium actually posted their own hiring standards publicly for the qualities they do and do not look for in people — we thought that was a great approach and decided to mimic it. We wanted to make sure we’re evaluating what we care about and not evaluating what we don’t.
A lot of has been said about inequality and unconscious bias at tech companies recently, particularly within engineering teams. What has stood out to you? Are there any anecdotes or other input that have sparked the team’s thinking around this?
Chris Rice: This is something that’s pretty hard to ignore in the industry these days. It’s talked about a lot, and it’s definitely an issue. You think about certain perspectives that have been voiced about female engineers, and it’s hard not to react to that as someone in the industry.
Yes, the headlines have definitely had an impact, but the thing that’s most impactful is that even without these really salient incidents, we have people that we’ve brought on that are really empathetic and fair. And no matter what, they want to be fair to others. Even if the industry weren’t up in arms, I think we’d want to be looking at the same things we’re looking at today.
What specific actions has Kazoo taken to address this?
Chris Rice: We started stripping personal information from resumes and reviews. We wanted to get to the basic facts about experience and skills. We’ve stripped education information as well — this was identified as an aspect we don’t care about for candidates. There have been enough examples in the industry that tell us where you went to school — or whether you even went — doesn’t necessarily matter. At the end of the day, you can have a fantastic candidate who’s had any level of education.
We also took a close look at the take-home quizzes we were giving to engineering candidates. For the most part, we’ve always avoided the typical “brain teaser” problems, but in evaluating it, some of our questions didn’t deal with engineering problems that were relevant to the job they’d be doing here. Those might have been excluding certain candidates and their experience.
We also changed how we evaluate the take-home exams. We used to administer it, then give a pass-fail grade based on what was turned in. Now we have a collaborative interview along with the submission of the solution. What were they thinking when they came up with their submitted solution? Then we do a pair programming session with them on the solution to work on ways to improve it. That ends up being a fairer evaluation than someone’s ability to respond to a timed quiz devoid of teamwork aspects.
In interviews, there’s this balance between wanting to really dig in and understand the person — their motivators, their skills — with the team’s time being precious and having an effective process in place for evaluating multiple candidates. If you’re not careful, the mechanisms on either side can be too “greedy” and rule out people they shouldn’t have.
Where would we like to be with this? What does success look like?
Chris Rice: The end goal is more diversity on the team. (Diversity can come in all shapes and sizes. Diversity of background, race, gender, etc.) To elaborate on that, I’d say the end goal is fair hiring practices, and diversity is the end consequence of that.
Ignoring signs of a potential problem — signs of potential bias — is the biggest failure.
Chris Rice, VP of Engineering, Kazoo
One measure of success is that we’re looking at and analyzing these areas of our process in the first place. To me, ignoring signs of a potential problem — signs of potential bias — is the biggest failure. Taking the time to analyze that and make sure we’re being both fair to candidates as well as casting a wide net and bringing in the best people we can is one measure of success. If you’re doing that, then diversity naturally follows.
Kazoo has been having company-wide discussions on unconscious bias and encouraging employees to look into “bias busting” materials that deal with these. Have these been useful for you? Has anything in particular stood out as something to take action on?
Chris Rice: I was able to take one of the exams today. (The gender-career test.) The result of that test was a “slight” bias registered for “Men in Career” and “Females in Family.” For me, that’s something that needs to be investigated. I think it’s great that Kazoo is doing these discussions and trainings. Rather than say, “I’m not biased!” it gives me an opportunity to be more conscious of this and consciously fight potential bias rather than assume that I’m unbiased.
Leave it Better with Autumn Manning is a Q&A series with Kazoo’s CEO to discuss hot topics in leadership, culture, and women in tech as part of our ongoing effort to leave business better. Send questions or comments to [email protected] or via Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook using the hashtag #LeaveItBetter.
About Autumn Manning
Autumn Manning is co-founder and CEO of Kazoo, a leading HR SaaS company that improves bottom-line performance metrics by enhancing the employee experience. With a background in human capital management and expertise in enhancing corporate culture, she carries out the company’s vision to improve the lives of employees everywhere, one company at a time. Profiled in The New York Times and HuffPost, Autumn’s thoughts on culture and leadership have been featured in Inc., Business Insider, and Entrepreneur. Under her leadership, Kazoo created the world’s most robust employee experience platform and was named to Entrepreneur Magazine’s list of Best Company Cultures in 2017.