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Attracting Top Talent & Engineering Branding

with Cosmin Nicolaescu, Kris Rasmussen, Brad Henrickson & Sam Wholley

August 3, 2021
Attracting Top Talent & Engineering Branding
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SPEAKERS

Cosmin Nicolaescu, CTO @ Brex

Kris Rasmussen, VPE @ Figma

Brad Henrickson, Leadership Coach / Former CTO @ Scoop Technologies

Sam Wholley, Partner @ Lightspeed Venture Partners


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Show Notes

  • What are the most important things you can do to attract top talent? (1:52)
  • How have you changed how you attract top talent post-pandemic? (4:44)
  • Tactical tips to overcome the gap between virtual and onsite employee experiences (8:00)
  • What IS engineering branding? (9:10)
  • Easy, immediate actions to improve your engineering brand (15:18)
  • How do you retain & engage engineers in the company long term? (20:09)
  • Controversial, but effective approaches to branding & attracting talent (23:33)

Transcript

Patrick Gallagher: Thanks everybody for joining us and come on in.

Sam Wholley: Thanks, Patrick. Appreciate it.

Cosmin Nicolaescu: Thanks.

Kris Rasmussen: Yeah, thank you so much.

Patrick Gallagher: Take it away, Sam.

What are the most important things you can do to attract top talent?

Sam Wholley: All right. Well, we appreciate everybody joining us. I just started at Lightspeed this week, but before this, I spent almost nine years at Riviera partners building a firm that built engineering teams, and you've got three of the top leaders who've built some of the top teams in tech.

And so we'll start out just talking about how do you attract top talent. And how does engineering branding play a big part in that?

So I guess we'll start out talking about what are the most important things in attracting top talent to your company and what are some tips and tricks or some actionable things that you can do to start doing that.

So I guess Cos we'll start with you.

Cosmin Nicolaescu: Sure. Hi everyone!

I think the main things that I found useful nowadays, like, let's be honest, everybody has quite a lot of options. And people are looking at companies in different industries, different sizes, different locations, especially with everything going remote.

And so I think the things that matter to people are what's the mission of the company? What are the people that I work with? What is kind of like the work that I'll be doing? How does that help my career in the long term? If I know I want to be in at someplace, I don't... like people want to feel connected to what they're doing day to day because they have so many other options that if you don't have that pretty well defined AND consistent, I think throughout the interview process it starts being pretty hard for, for folks to get a good sense.

So I found that pretty useful to focus on early on as you're building the company.

Sam Wholley: Great, Kris, how about you?

Kris Rasmussen: Yeah, I think everything that Cosmin just said, but also I think it's important to recognize that people do have so many different options and we all need different things. And so I don't think there's like a one size fits all branding approach for any given company. I think we all need to understand what we actually need, that's unique and what we can providethat's unique, and we need to figure out a way to align our team and align our content around that message so that candidates really understand concretely what they're getting when they join our company versus some other company and how that aligns with their own desire to grow and develop.

Sam Wholley: Mhm And Brad, I know you've been working more recently with a number of companies. Have you seen any trends or patterns amongst the cohort that you're working with?

Brad Henrickson: Yeah, it's a really, I think, important question today about establishing your engineering brand. I think it's very easy to do like these lightweight efforts where you go out and you put something on the internet, you like you open source something and don't really support it. And these are all pretty easy to see through. Authenticity becomes a really critical component to being able to build a strong engineering brand.

And a lot of times when I, when I talk about this or think about this right, What I'm trying to demonstrate to people is what is it really like to be here? Like, what is the experience that I will have? What is the, what is the real nugget that's going to say this is a place where I see myself really spending my days, right?

We spend 40 hours for it to be more, maybe a little bit less a week doing this thing. And to me, engineering branding is really telling the story about what is that thing that you're going to be doing? What is this journey? What is this mission that you're part of?

How have you changed how you attract top talent post-pandemic?

Sam Wholley: Mhm. So, obviously we've been in a bit of a different modality the past year. How have the three of you seen the process change and sometimes the results change in terms of what you've done and what you've observed in the market in terms of how you go about doing it. And what do you ultimately get from attracting top talent?

Chris wanted to start with you.

Kris Rasmussen: Yeah, I guess, for us, like one of our strengths has always been this sense of community we have within engineering at Figma and within the company as a whole. And I think that really helped us in the early days in terms of recruiting when our brand wasn't as strong. And I think we've, we've really had to adapt how we convey that to candidates during the pandemic.

I think, you know, we've run into situations where I think candidates have come out of our interview without really understanding what we're about, or really connecting with people on a personal level.

To make it concrete like I was trying to close an engineering manager recently who ultimately chose a different company. And when we dug into it, we realized that one of the ways we failed her is we, we gave her an option to meet with her peers, but we didn't actually like make it a part of the process.

And when you're talking to a bunch of different companies, it's pretty overwhelming to meet with more people. You have to be prepared with questions and things like that. And so we've gone back and looked at our interview process and really made sure that those strong peers are a part of the process. rather than an option at the end of the process going forward.

And then similarly, I think one of the ways that we've figured out how to kind of convey what we're about is we had some really awesome people just like bottoms up, build a musical at Figma.

And I think we're all really focused on, you know, branding the technical side of our organization. But I think it's really important to also look at the other side of the organization, the people side as Cosmin was talking about. And really giving our teams time to focus on that.

Sam Wholley: Cos how about you? What's changing?

Cosmin Nicolaescu: Yeah, I... echoing what Kris said. I think initially if I go back, let's say a bit over a year ago, the feedback that we started getting from candidates was that it felt very transactional. Like you go on a Zoom, you meet with some people, you ask some questions and you go to the next one and you don't really get to learn the company.

The offices that we had was a big part of the culture of the company. Like I think a lot of companies take pride in their office and you can kind of get a sense of how they organize, what they invest in. And you don't get any of that.

And, and spending more time on making sure that people understand what the culture is like, what success looks like. Just things in general that you, you would kind of get a sense from just observing, being more explicit about it. Like we've, we've tweaked our interview process as well, to reflect that.

Most of the time I still meet with, with as many people as I can and over a certain level, everybody... and most of the time I spent on that rather than actually interviewing it's mostly, let me tell you about the culture and like be super transparent about what's good, what's not, what's different.

The other thing that I think has changed quite a lot is, not just the reporting process, but in general, the whole onboarding process.

So right now at Brex, more than half the company has not met the other half. Like it's just the reality of, of hiring in, in this environment and not having the option to kind of, meet at all. And so figuring out how you build that empathy, not just within the team, because I think those, you kind of can do team events and you get to know them like virtually. but, how do you replicate the having lunch with someone from a completely different part of the company and just getting to know them and building those types of relationships. Or just going on a coffee walk or...

Those kinds of things are much harder to do in a remote environment. And similarly, in terms of connecting with the company, I think that's really important, especially in your first few months.

Tactical tips to overcome the gap between virtual and onsite employee experiences

Sam Wholley: Mhm.. Are there any tactical tips and tricks, specific things that the three of you have done to overcome the distance gap between zoom and onsite, you know, things that make it a little more personal? Brad, anything you've, you've seen work well?

Brad Henrickson: Well, Well, there's definitely been a intentional carving out of time in organizations where we're, we have to be a lot more intentional than we were before, because on the margin before you just pass by people in the hallway, you'd be having lunch with people. People might go out for dinner or whatever it might be immediately after after work.

And last towards the end of last year, and a lot of the companies I've been working with this year has had to be a lot more intentional about saying, "Hey, we're going to create these social events that people have of different forms for people to do it."

There's also been this really wonderful aspect that I've seen a couple of times where people go and like create something and, and like physical. So kind of getting away from the computer in some sense. So like little baking things, other ways to kind of show creativity and other facets of people.

Because one of the big challenges that really cropped up as we've gone so much to this virtual setting is just being people, being able to show them full their full selves. Things become a little bit more transactional. There's has to be like a large investment to break that up and not make things just around tickets or on docs and make it a lot more personal.

What IS engineering branding?

Sam Wholley: So, what is engineering branding? Engineering branding is it's a topic that everyone needs to know. Kris you mentioned this in a way being, being a narrator and a storyteller is incredibly important as an engineering leader. So it's exposing the what, the why, and the how people do what they're doing.

What, what would you say you think of as engineering branding, starting out here. Kris we'll start with you.

Kris Rasmussen: Yeah. I mean, I think like the thing that we all probably immediately go to is the sentiment and perception that the external community has around our engineering brand. And ultimately I think we're all aspiring to build the kind of company that companies in the future will look to and try to model themselves after.

I think what we oftentimes don't realize is that it's just as much about our internal engineering brand as it is our external brand. Because at the end of the day, like one of the biggest influences we have on people's perception is what the people who work at our company say and how they present themselves during the interview process.

And so I think there's a lot more that we all probably could be doing to really reinforce that, especially during the pandemic, when we're so distant from our teams.

Sam Wholley: Yeah. Cos?

Cosmin Nicolaescu: Yeah, I, I think one, it's an addition to, to what Kris said, how does what is the company kind of, culture and how does engineering fit in there and how does it influence it? Because I think that does differ from company to company.

Two... the easier you could explain I think what's unique about your culture I think the better it is. I, most of the reason we think about companies over the last 10, 15 years who are have built really good brands. So Google, Facebook, Twitter, et cetera, like obviously these are the big ones. predominantly will be like, oh, it's really neat because we have this!

Like Facebook was all about like move fast, break things. For example, and I think that resonated with people. It doesn't matter as much what it is, but having some sort of identity, I think helps. Obviously like if something toxic or bad, it wouldn't work. But to the extent that it's it's something that people can see. Like that's, what's different there.

And it has to be real. Like if you talk to people in, in the team, they have to basically say like, yes, I feel that this is kind of the case at Brex. Otherwise it's kind of fake.

And then the last thing I would say is like, in general I think people think about their work in terms of like support. So like what kind of support am I getting from the company, from my management, from my team, et cetera, in order to grow.

And then the freedom. like how much freedom do I have to be able to do things on my own. tied, to work, tied to things that are personally important to me. Expanding outside of even engineering, for example. And how does that work within the company?

And I found those to be useful in terms of like, explaining to people how that works with the company.

Sam Wholley: Brad how would you define it?

Brad Henrickson: To me, it's, it's a lot of what is the sentiment that people have who are not necessarily employed in the company.

So as people are looking in and there's, they're looking to list a bunch of companies. They're like, what does that look like? What does it look like for me to, to be there? And there's so many facets which go into inform what that is.

I think one of the crucial parts that we miss and this was touched on a little bit here is, is people coming through sort of the recruiting process. It could be partners that you, that you have like third parties with your business, where, where people start getting a strong sense of what, what your business is really about. What your company's about and what your, what your culture is really about. And so it really starts showing up a lot in all those different interactions that are present.

And so for me, that it's, it's, it has to be about authenticity. And so it really comes down to those actions that people are really taking in those interactions. Like that's where all of this stuff really starts becoming real and moves from marketing copy to, Hey, this is, this is a really a, a lived thing.

And so it also helps give people a clear signal. When they're like, Hey, this is something I really want to be a part of, or also the alternative, which is this is not in alignment with what I really want to be doing. Both of those are really important positions, which people I think need to be able to self-sort in some degree, as they're looking at companies and get a sense of what, what they're about.

Easy, immediate actions to improve your engineering brand

Sam Wholley: So what would you recommend to the audience? What are some things that are easy to do that you could do immediately, that the three of you have found have had some great impact? Cos?

Cosmin Nicolaescu: I think, I mean immediately, I would say... I think Chris alluded to this I want to produce questions. I would go through our interview process and make sure that you understand whether, how it's it needs to change or how it's working in, in an environment where everything is basically all remote.

Two, get an understanding of how much in, especially if you're like leading engineering, and how much of what's in your mind about culture and brand actually is something that people know like, is that something that's been well communicated is it consistent, is a structure? Or is it just like random ideas that you've talked to people in one-on-ones So being more explicit about that.

And then I would say three, think about things that you can do on an ongoing basis, like monthly, or whatnot around enforcing some of that and be able to amplify that.

This is kind of the same thing with like values and all these things that people do. Like it's, it's one thing to just come up with them, but you have to enforce them. You have to demonstrate. You have to operationalize them. Otherwise they don't really stick.

Sam Wholley: Chris, what are some of your secret weapons?

Kris Rasmussen: Oh, man. There's so much to think about here and it depends on what stage you're at as a company. But I think like a, a couple of interesting insights I've learned over the years is...

I mean, one is you have to make sure through your interview process is evaluating aptitude in addition to experience. A lot of companies over index on experience, and then they get people who can only work in a certain way on a certain technology stack. And if you have hard and novel problems, you need people who are just really good problem solvers to begin with. So really looking critically at your interview process and making sure you have a good mix depending on the seniority of the candidate.

I think it's also just really important to make sure that your interview panels are, are set up to actually represent like a good peer group and the diverse kind of company that you want to build. I think it's just something that's really easy to overlook. But if you're interviewing a senior engineer, you want to make sure you have other senior engineers on your panel who can actually give them a sense of what it's like to work there.

And then the last thing is, I think it's really important to tailor your interview process, to actually show the candidate what it's like to uniquely work at your company. It's a really good opportunity to sell the candidate.

So for example, if you can come up with an architecture question, that's grounded in some real architecture that your team is working on or has built. and actually walked them through that architecture and then have like a more collaborative discussion around that. Rather than just some like abstract problem. I think you'll end up in not only like getting a better signal on whether or not that person can work at your company, but also giving that person a better sense of what's unique about working at your company.

Sam Wholley: Yeah, Actually, I'm really glad you brought that up. I want to kinda of give an up vote to two things you said, number one, define what top means. I have found that when companies define their values, rather than "culture" ... Values will enable lack of bias and ultimately a more diverse pipeline coming in.

And then working sessions will give people who may not have that experience in the resume, the opportunity to prove it. So if you want to include improved diversity in your company, Outline your values and then use working sessions because you will ultimately find out just in general, whether it's experience or background or ethnicity, et cetera, you will have a more diverse company for sure.

Brad, what other things have you seen, especially as you've been helping, you know, some companies that are trying to get up that curve you know, tactical things that you've seen work?

Brad Henrickson: Yeah, one thing which I think is really crucial is to showcase what's really happening, what's really getting done.

So this, like, for example, if a project just shipped, like go write something about what did it take to actually build this thing. Like what, what was that experience really like? And just start getting that as a recurrent piece.

One of the from a while ago, like Etsy started "Code is Craft" for example. And like, this has become like for me, a phenomenal place to read to see about how to certain people like approach some of these problems. And so I think that's a really straightforward thing you can do. You can just go look at what did you ship in the last month? What's there that would be great to write about and talk about? What, what can you share out with the public. So that's one.

Second one is pretty easy to hire a videographer at least in the day when we're at present, remote's, a little harder, but to talk about like, what is the, what is the reality of working? What are those interactions look like? You probably do something fun over zoom about like product manager calls, engineering calls, and all of that.

If you don't have faces of the people who are working at your company, get them on your site. Right? Like if it really does make a difference for people to say, who are the humans? What are the faces of the people that I'll be really working with? That's I think a really good one.

And a basic one that you could probably start today is just start asking for feedback of what it's like to work at, what is like to go through the interview process? What is like, Hey, just go and do a survey of people who are out maybe in market and say, what is your impression of our company? And just start listening and get a sense of what your brand looks like today, cause you probably have one particular perspective of it, but there's a whole nother one that's the lived perspective that's really happening. That's important to get data about.

Sam Wholley: The process by which people enter the company and enter the the, the loop will definitely determine an exit to the loop... Determine if they refer people. So you can get a really aggregate effect if someone, if you didn't get the job, but they refersomeone who may get a job with your, with your team.

How do you retain & engage engineers in the company long term?

So attracting top talent, that's one piece of it, but retaining them is important.

So how do you keep engineers engaged in the company long-term?

Kris Rasmussen: Yeah, it's a, it's a good question. I think it really depends on the individual and really understanding what they need to feel like they're continuing to grow in their careers. I think all of us have learned that, you know, we go through these sort of S-curves as we develop. And at a certain point, we don't feel like we're learning anymore.

And sometimes that's because the person's actually afraid to tackle the problems that they need to tackle to learn the next thing. And, you know, we need to make sure that our management teams are coaching them through it. Other times they just need to change. And we just need to be willing to find new places in the organization for them.

So I think it really needs to be tailored to the individual, but being flexible and allowing people to move around and showing that you're a company that doesn't just, you know you know, squeeze out all of their experience, but also gives them new experiences in the process.

Sam Wholley: Brad, any thoughts there?

Brad Henrickson: Yeah, absolutely. I think this is a crucial thing, particularly within, within the tech world. Like there's a lot of, there are a lot of different options out there for people to kind of say, Hey, this is really what I spend my time.

There's a couple of pieces here I want to touch on. So trust-building is really, really key. Like the second that trust is gone, like, people don't want to be... people don't want to be there anymore. So you really need to invest in that with like authenticity and transparency.

And there's a lot of hard work here. Like there's a lot of sitting down with people, having the real honest conversations about what do they really want to do? What are they excited about? What are their real goals? And being able to orient around that. Right?

So I see a lot of people miss drop the ball here, where, for example, if you're going through a recruiting process, that there was like a certain thing that was sold to the individual and they came on board and then it didn't end up being there. And there's no conversation to clean that up. So to me, it's really crucial to invest in those regular conversations, honest conversations about not just what needs to be done. But what do you want to do? How do you want to grow? What's the path that you want, that you want to be in?

Usually when someone says "I'm opting out of something" is because something else has a bigger draw and they know what that is. If you have a good relationship with your team, you can have those conversations about what is it that you're really driven for? And let's make sure we can either we have it here, or we don't, let's be honest about that.

Sam Wholley: And Cos I know you've had people move around too. As you've as the structure has changed at Brex, what have you found to work?

Cosmin Nicolaescu: Yeah, I would say one, impact. Most people are, are driven by impact. They want to work on impactful things. Everybody understands there's like there's some things of the job you like. There are some things they don't. I don't think anybody necessarily likes getting paged in the middle of the night, for example. But they understand the impact of being able to provide a really good service for your customers. And I've seen many companies that may make it very hard for people to understand how their work really ties into the bigger picture and how their impact is materialized.

and two on the mobility part... the thing that I've found useful is many people either don't know what they want to grow at some points in their career to, to Kris's point. Or they get comfortable and like it's easy to be like "Yeah you know, I kind of wanna do something different, but like, I kind of also know this team, the space, this work..." and it's actually pushing people to move around as we've had to help us.

So for example at Brex, every 12 to 18 months, every 12 to 18 months, I, I... if people aren't moving around doing rotations, doing some things differently than what they've been doing, I generally go in and start, start pushing them, especially IC's. I think managers are a little bit different because you're supporting people. But if you're like an IC I'm like, "Yeah, you've been working on this problem or this space for a year or two years, like go do something different. You can always go back to that, but at least try different things to kind of expand your horizons."

Sam Wholley: Excellent.

Controversial, but effective approaches to branding & attracting talent

So, one last question. I think there are some best practices. Is there anything, one thing from each of you, if you have that, that might be controversial, you might have an approach, a tactic, something you've done that may be controversial, but it's worked. Kris, do you have a secret sniper shot?

Kris Rasmussen: Yeah, I guess, I think that every part of every organization that I've built has had a focus on craftsmanship as a core value. And I think that there is this kind of idea in our industry that we as engineers always want to over-engineer things. And I think that's very true. I've definitely been guilty of it myself.

But at the same time, I think the best engineers want to know that they're improving their craft and that they're not just like, you know, seeing engineering as a means to an end, but you know, also focusing on being a better engineer in the process. And so for me, I've always made that a core value of the engineering teams I'm part of.

Sam Wholley: Brad. How about you?

Brad Henrickson: It's interesting that comes up Kris because I do believe engineering is a core value for sure. It's an important thing that we do. Cause engineering's kind of the special sauce and a lot of the startups.

But something which I think is really important to keep the, keep the hat on for is like, we're doing engineering and service of building this business, right? So we're not here to do engineering for engineering sake. We're here to build something. And that's very, that's a very crucial north star for me when I'm talking to people. Cause you might want to work on a particular engineering problem. But if it's not relevant to what we're trying to do as a business, like we need to figure out like, how does that, how does that align? Or if that's the right thing for us to be focused on.

Sam Wholley: Cos, what's one of your secrets?

Cosmin Nicolaescu: I mean, what's funny is that Kris mentioned, one of the engineering values of Brex and Brad mentioned the other ones. One of them being, "Be Proud of your Craft." The other one being "accelerate the business"

The thing that I found useful is also the "the How."

So one of the other values of living engineering is impatient optimism. Basically like I, people it's very easy for us as an engineer to be hyper-critical and everything is like right or wrong, black and white. But in general, things are much more nuanced and people want to do the right thing. And, and bringing that positivity tends to lead to better outcomes, both in people's day-to-day jobs, but also the broader culture.

So that positivity is something that I found to be useful in building orgs.

Sam Wholley: Awesome. Well, one thing I will say because the three of the panelists won't say, this is one thing that is huge in branding and huge in attracting and retaining is humility. And these are three very humble, but very successful companies. So be humble about the opportunity to interview the people you get to interview. And they will have a better experience.

So they won't say that about them, but I will.

Patrick Gallagher: Sam, thank you so much for leading such a rapid-fire session. Brad, Kris, Cos... The density of, of takes here was incredible! I don't think there's ever been more branding takes in twenty-five minutes. I've never found a source of information like that. So just want to say, thank you.

Cosmin Nicolaescu: Thanks for having us.

Sam Wholley: Thank you.

Kris Rasmussen: Thanks, everyone.

Brad Henrickson: Been a pleasure.

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