January 6, 2016 by Tris Hussey

What if you never spoke to the person you just hired?

What if you never spoke to the person you just hired?

Hiring the Automattic way could be the solution for IT recruiting

What if you interviewed and hired your best IT talent without ever speaking to them in person—or even over the phone? What if you relied on chat, email, blogs, and other collaboration tools to make the decision about the best people for your company? What if it worked so well that you hired all your people that way?

If you did hire this way then you’d be like Automattic, the billion dollar company behind and helping fuel the WordPress publishing ecosystem. Automattic has been hiring like this since Matt Mullenweg founded the company and they’ve been very successful at hiring this way. I pinged Matt Mullenweg to ask more about how this hiring process is going and he said they hired 139 people last year alone and going strong with a dozen open positions right now.

Business Insider doesn’t go into a lot of detail on the why Automattic started hiring this way or why they keep doing it, but I can tell you:

  • Low turn over
  • High employee engagement
  • Tapping into the best talent the world has to offer
In Vancouver alone there are almost a dozen Automattic employees and I know the hiring process works (I actually went through the process once). I believe that Automattic continues to lead the online publishing world because they can get the best and brightest talent available. So the question is: would it work for you and should all IT recruiting be done this way?

What about soft skills?

One of the most important questions about hiring this way is how do you test for soft skills? This really speaks to one of critical parts of hiring: fitting into the team. Because Automattic is a mostly distributed team, they collaborate and communicate with text. From private blogs to IM to tools like Slack communicating in writing is essential to fitting in. It makes sense then that Automattic’s email, chat, and blogging interviewing process works so well for them. The interview actually matches how they really work, a lot different from how we typically interview people isn’t it? Automattic’s check for the soft skills is based in the soft skills that you need to communicate effectively without seeing someone. What about other jobs? How would an email interview work for other positions?

Even if you aren’t a completely distributed team and you don’t rely on online tools over face to face meetings, making email, chat, and writing exercises a key part of the interview process would weed out people who can’t express themselves in words. With more and more communication done over email (and IM and forums and chat), if you hire someone who can’t wield words well, you’re in trouble. That first 30 minute phone interview could start with emails or chat where recruiters ask questions that take thought and time to answer. Perfect for email, not so great for the phone. Based on the answers emailed back, the first phone interview can get straight down to the brass tacks of how well the person fits and their qualifications.

Let’s make it a project

One of the most innovative parts (and also not discussed in depth in the BI article) is that all potential Automattic employees complete a 4-6 week paid project to see how well they work with the team, the quality of their work, and how well they work in the remote environment. The paid project is a longer term take on having someone do a series of exercises like Hubspot’s example:

Step 5: Give candidates written exercises to complete.
Every marketer needs to be a strong writer. All marketing jobs involve content creation, so the candidate should be able to create high quality content with ease. This stage of the hiring process is the perfect time to test someone’s writing skills by assigning a written exercise. This step won’t suck up much of your time, and it can be really helpful in determining the candidate’s interest in the roll.

When designing a written exercise, think about real life scenarios — your own work, or that of team members with similar roles, can be a great source for ideas. Here are a few examples I’ve used before:

  • Blog post. Ask the candidate to write a blog post for a specific topic, or have them come up with their own topic based on certain buyer persona for your business.
  • Mock case study. Provide notes from a customer interview and ask the candidate to write up a mock case study.
  • Landing page optimization. Create a worksheet with that includes organic traffic numbers and submission rates for a number of landing pages. Ask the candidate which they would optimize if they only had the time to do two, and why. You could also provide sample landing pages and ask for suggested edits.
  • Competitive battlecard. Ask the candidate to create a one-page summary comparing one of your products or services to a competitor’s.
    From: Hubspot Marketing blog: How to Avoid Costly Hiring Mistakes: A Step-by-Step Guide for Recruiting Top Talent
I really like the written exercise (or coding test) as part of the interview process, but I also think you won’t get people’s best work if you ask them to do it for free. This is why the paid project idea is so brilliant. You don’t have to pay a lot of money and I wouldn’t have someone do a project on a time sensitive or mission critical task, but something like a competitive assessment or small coding excercise would be good. Putting money on the table puts responsibility on both the company and the candidate to take it seriously. Everyone has skin in the game and gets to get a little peek behind the curtain at the other.

Be more open to distributed teams

If there is anything we can take from how Automattic hires is that they really don’t care where you live. Matt and the leadership team could have very easily hired only from Silicon Valley and the Bay Area (where the office is), but they didn’t. They hired from the wide base of WordPress developers who were already all around the world. Granted, since WordPress was then (and is now) an open source project, it’s natural that there would be key developers all around the world. Automattic could have tried to get them to move, but why? Why uproot people when they are doing great work right where they are.

And that’s the question recruiters and hiring managers need to start asking themselves:

How important is it that the person be another butt in a chair in a cubicle?

When we stop and think about how more and more companies are evolving these days, it’s natural to wonder…how many people need to be in the office?

Not ideal for all jobs, but there is something we all can learn

Realistically, Automattic’s hiring process won’t work for everyone. There aren’t that many companies with mostly distributed teams. There are lots of roles that require face to face meetings and communication where in-person soft skills are essential. However, if we start trying things like more email interviews (with tough questions), mini-projects, and practical tests that aren’t done in front of a panel of people, we could really change hiring and recruiting for the better.

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