We liked interviewing Shannon so much for the last con, we couldn’t get her back quick enough. And it was, as always, a pleasure. Fresh from a recent round of funding that gave Karat unicorn status, the forward-thinking, champion of diversity and inclusion shares her insights on refining and optimising the hiring process, making data-driven decisions, and how she will continue to fight the good fight in the future.

We’re so pleased to have you back in the hot seat, Shannon! What have you – and Karat – been up to in the last year?

Amazing! Since the last time we spoke, we’re growing so quickly; my team alone has quadrupled. We’ve also just completed a huge round of funding so Karat is officially a unicorn –  all pretty cool! I’m just so excited. We’ve also worked with organisations like Jopwell to build out our initiative with Harvard University: The Interview Access Gap for Black Engineers, so we’ve been doing a whole lot of work there and dedicating a lot of time and resources to underrepresented communities in tech which is great.

We also had our first conference last week which was so much fun. I actually ended up taking over the MC-ing at the last minute, so I had to bring some energy which was a little bit nerve-wracking but my team here got me through it. The responses were really good and the content was incredible. It was brilliant how they put it together; pairing engineering leaders with people leaders. In my experience, that relationship is critical to be able to move at high speeds and it’s sometimes a complicated relationship. We talked before about it being like speaking a different language; often if you don’t have the right rubric or what I would call the ‘translation layer’ in between you, it’s really hard to quantify rejecting candidates and trying to explain to recruiters exactly what you’re looking for. We are all human and we inject bias into the majority of things we do, so I felt like those conversations at the conference were just so insightful and critical for everybody. 

The last time we caught up, we were in the middle of lockdown. Now, both here and across the pond where you are, things are opening up a bit more. 2021 for many people and businesses, was often simply about putting one foot in front of the other and getting through the year rather than a long-term outlook. That’s shifting now, especially for those companies that have gone through very speedy transformations. How is your focus shifting going forward into 2022? 

A lot of the best practices that we’ve been introducing with our clients are continuing. The biggest shift we’re seeing with clients that have grown really quickly over the last year is that they’re suddenly distributing the hiring work. We call it: going from centralisation to decentralisation. And that can be very tricky because with centralisation you have complete control; you know exactly what your hiring bar is, you know your CTO could say I want to hire for X and quantify that with Y.  All of a sudden you’ve hit your numbers, and now you have to relinquish a little bit of control and move to a more decentralised environment. With less control over the bar, you start to see biases injected and so it becomes ever more important to continue to track your hiring practices around the world. As you start to expand into different regions, for example, making certain adjustments may be necessary but the core of those practices should still be there, as we talked about last year. 

Karat is growing exponentially and your focus as a leader will be changing.  In the last 18 months, we’ve seen more people bringing their ‘whole selves’ to work, not just because they want to, but due to the pandemic situation, they have no choice but to. With that in mind and being more aware of people’s personal needs and how they impact their professional needs, what do you think your team will need most from you as a leader?

Trust. It’s the most important thing when you’re a manager; you have to trust people and trust that they know when they need a break and believe that they’re doing the best they can. You have to know that they’re coming to work with their best intentions and that sometimes things are stressful. I’ve had to have a few conversations recently with folks that have worked constantly because they’re working from home and they’re feeling the pressure because they feel like it’s the only thing within their control. I’ve asked them how they are feeling and say I’ve noticed a bit of a shift – things like their responses are a bit shorter or their anxiety a bit higher. But it’s difficult as a manager, you can’t just tell them to take time off because they might not be able to or say they are fine. So I find it more helpful to start the conversation and eventually they will come to you and ask for that time – don’t force it. 

Having said that, also give your staff extra time off when they really need it. We’ve just increased our paternity leave to 16 weeks now, which is incredible. Your job as a leader is to put all of the pieces in place to enable people to take that space away from work and that includes hiring.  When you’re a smaller company growing into a much larger one, often you’re used to working on a shoestring budget: the bare minimum amount of staff doing a huge amount of work. And that’s not setting up your team for success. Those who have the power and influence should go back and advocate for the resources they need and set realistic expectations so that when it comes down to it, people can take some time with their families or get outdoors or whatever they want/need to do. Because that refresh, that energy you get when you take a break is a lot more beneficial to your business than the negative impact of somebody who’s burnt out, or hasn’t been out of their house because they’re working 24/7 and feel nervous that if they don’t, they’ll be fired. As a leader, your job is to make sure they feel safe and trusted. 

Talking of hiring specifically, what are the most effective changes you’ve made to your process since the pandemic began? 

For us it’s that we continue to be remote-first. Because we’re an interviewing company, we do really well on that rubric i.e. when somebody is doing their first tech screen. But what I’ve learned personally – especially when working with new recruiters – is that I need to have a rubric for that recruiter screen as well. 

I regularly hire solutions and sales engineers and sometimes it’s a difficult role to explain to someone not familiar with the roles; you have to have the right balance of working with clients and technical skill. And so what I’ve done recently is put together a working document, where we have a baseline rubric including questions. As candidates came through the process and were more successful over time, we adjusted the questions according to what we were looking for. Levelling based on that and on the recruiter screen, saved us a tonne of time. 

Putting processes and metrics in place earlier and as we talked about previously, really thinking about your job descriptions and how to optimise them to attract more diverse talent is still increasingly important. 

What we’re also seeing in the industry – with the way the job market is changing – is that people have less patience to endure lengthy hiring processes, as well as candidates receiving multiple job offers. In this scenario, what do you recommend companies do to avoid losing top talent?

I think you actually touched on the core of what’s happening – it’s that people really feel as though they had to jump through the hoops and they’re over it.  When you have a recruiter screen, then a manager screen, then maybe a take-home test and then, if the candidate is a tech lead, meeting several different engineers as well as someone in leadership. The coordination of that alone takes a huge amount of time and as you say, we’re seeing over and over again, if you do not make your funnel as short as possible, you will see a drop-off.

So we’ve done a few things to navigate this; first is as I mentioned above, optimising our screener process. As soon as the recruiter meets somebody that fits the hiring criteria, we have pre-determined slots that they can schedule for that person to get in and meet someone internal for the initial engineering screen (which is somebody like myself or my leads), within 24-to-48 hours. After that, we have a work sample that candidates go through which for us, is essentially like a technical presentation, but we make sure it doesn’t take more than an hour.

A key point is, if we know that we need to have one of our senior leadership or one of our co-founders meet a candidate i.e. if they’re a certain level, we have already locked in that time before they’ve even met the team.  It can be hard to get time with C-level team members, so we schedule everything as quickly as possible – and if it doesn’t happen, they’re always happy to get 30 minutes of their time back! 

We also refined and removed folks from the process; we actually only have four teams of people meet with a prospective employee. So we have the hiring manager and one of their peers, someone from a third party team e.g. commercial or marketing, and then if they continue to move forward, senior leadership. This means we can get through our process on average, within four-to-six days now and we’ve had a lot of success. But you need to make sure you are evaluating every single data point along the way in order to optimise the process.

Lastly, we had to get a little bit more competitive with our offers. Going from a small startup to getting funding, luckily for us, we could get closer to market. One thing we’ve come to understand – and I’ve been learning in the process – is make sure that when you’re recruiting, you understand what a candidate’s needs are from a pay perspective early on. This is so you can go and advocate for what they’re looking for as quickly as possible. If I have a candidate who’s fitting within our band and they need X,Y,Z, and we need to make adjustments, I will start working with finance immediately. This is before we even do everything else, just to ensure that if we love this candidate and want to hire them, we have the offer ready as soon as they’re done with their interviews.

There is a lot of talk about ‘The Great Resignation’ as it’s being called. How are you dealing with this alleged dearth of talent, when there is so much more movement in the market and companies are facing even more competition?

We just have to be really strict with our process, because that’s the only way we’ll get through it.  We were struggling for a little bit and then we sat back and realised that: 

  • We were wasting several hours of the candidates’ time on site 
  • We had too much time in between interviews 
  • It was taking too much time to get everybody in a room to do the roundtable after the interviews 

and we just had to get everyone in the organisation to commit to the timelines that we put in place. It does mean that with my team in particular, we may have to adjust the expectations of our other team members and clients when we’re in the middle of hiring, because we need to dedicate ourselves to the process. It’s about prioritisation and yes, the fact is I lose a little bit of productivity now, but it’s for the longer-term gains because it will get incrementally better over time. 

You have to be able to make that commitment as a company and to me, hiring is the most important thing that you can do. When you’re hiring and interviewing, you’re setting the tone for who you are as a business. You have to be able to go to your leadership team and say look, we need to hire and that will mean that we’re going to shift the work a little bit but it’s going to be worth it because in six months time, we’ll be hitting the numbers you’re looking for. And in the meantime, we are building a fair, predictive, enjoyable and equitable process. 

It can be hard though; trying to do quality work and get things out the door all while growing. And while it’s often an exciting time for many startups, it’s also challenging. One of the things that can suffer during high growth, is culture. The pandemic has greatly improved remote and flexible working options, but it’s also increased loneliness and isolated many of us from each other. Obviously, there are numerous things companies can do to encourage connection but when hiring during a growth phase, do you think it’s better to hire for culture fit or culture add? 

I always hire for culture add. Because you can add and fit at the same time, so why not overcorrect towards culture. It’s really interesting because a woman I know from Flatiron Health, called Kat – we’ve done several talks together – went through this as an engineering leader. Her company had to hire hundreds and hundreds of engineers in a very short period of time, and she always talks about the balance between getting ‘butts in seats’, and making sure that they still met their hiring for diversity goals. What she learned over time is to focus on hiring and recruiting the diverse candidates, because the rest of the candidates will automatically come. And it’s true.

Diversity and inclusion is clearly a passion point for both of us. Tell me about your latest initiatives and all the great stuff you’ve been doing on this front. 

I am so excited to talk to you about this! As mentioned, we just released The Interview Access Gap, where we partnered with Jopwell and Dr. Legend L Burge III from Howard University, and we did some huge studies with students in Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), to figure out exactly what’s going on in the industry when it comes to hiring more diverse candidates and Black candidates in particular. We wanted to understand the lack of access to internships and interviews, and we really are learning just how heavy an impact it is for these students, that are in college, or qualified with a great education, or in these great programs and yet still not getting access to internships or opportunities. What we’re learning is that there’s a huge discrepancy in their network, and not having connections with experience in technology or white-collar jobs. And because they don’t have that access to people that have trodden the path before them, they don’t have that level of confidence or anyone to practice with. So it’s even more important to have practice programs for candidates so that they feel comfortable and can build their confidence. 

If you read through all of the findings, it’s enlightening, especially in areas like compensation negotiation. One of the really interesting pieces to come to light was because of the lack of practice or awareness, only 40% of Black technologists negotiate compensation. It’s not just about performance in interviews and having access to internships, it’s even after they get access, you’re still seeing evidence of that imposter syndrome when they’re working with companies. To me, this is a huge loss for the industry – these people are coming into tech and they’re changing their lives and their families lives for generations – and yet despite being in that same seat as their white counterparts, they are not confident enough to advocate for their worth to be reflected in their pay, which is why they’re there. 

We did a few studies around ensuring that your job descriptions aren’t filtering people out before you have candidates come to you. Last year, we talked a little bit about using less masculine verbiage but we’ve since found that it’s not just women, but also underrepresented communities that don’t respond well to that over-the-top ‘TEDx-style’ language. 

I wrote some pieces for publications around being a woman in tech i.e. the lack of opportunities and the way people speak to you and I’m looking forward in the next year to getting even more personal with my stories and having a stance. I really want to be able to do more and advocate for women in tech because there’s still a lot of work to be done. But I am also excited because I feel we have so many opportunities to do this through things like CTO Craft Con, where I can share data and help people understand the importance of diversity in tech. I do see a positive shift and that makes me really happy. 

For some, the pandemic has levelled the playing field a little bit more from an accessibility viewpoint, in tech as well as some other industries. This idea that we’re all a bit more even when we’re working behind a desk from home. Has that been your experience?

Totally. Remember those old school biases you hear about like: ‘tall men with light eyes do better at business’ and so on and so forth? If we can start to eliminate things like that because we’re no longer sitting next to people, it has an impact. It may sound ridiculous but it’s really true. 

If we can give people the opportunity to showcase how important that culture add is, they will see the dividends. We’re already seeing the results of having access to more diverse candidates because we’re hiring remotely and advocating for data-driven decisions. It’s invaluable and there are no words to describe just how happy it makes me that we are seeing change and those conversations are happening. 

It’s about acknowledging differing needs – some will need to come into the office but there are many that don’t and shouldn’t need to. The conversation around neurodiversity in tech is huge right now, especially in the United States. It seems a bit short-sighted to require everyone to attend in-person to do a job when we have found so many ways to collaborate as human beings, across oceans, especially over the last few years. Because of the pandemic we’ve seen this significant evolution in tooling and processes and I don’t see those going away. I believe that those fighting the last bastion of big change just won’t attract great talent anymore. 

Can you recommend a book that every leader or manager should read that will help with their hiring processes? 

The most impactful one that I’ve listened to – I listen to my books as you know! – is Rise: 3 Practical Steps for Advancing Your Career, Standing Out as a Leader, and Liking Your Life by Patty Azzarello. She’s an exceptional leader in technology, who talks about hiring people smarter than you. It’s more about leadership than hiring but undoubtedly has an impact on the process. 

It talks about the fact that people tend to hire candidates that aren’t as experienced as they are, and that can be quite limiting. It’s insecurity, and Azzarello helps you understand that you don’t have to know everything or know more than your team. In fact, your job is to hire people who know more about certain things than you do. That shift can be really hard, but she gives a really great-step by-step program on how to do this. She also talks about having mentors that aren’t just older and more experienced, but mentors in their 20s, which I think is fascinating and highly important. I’m a technologist, but there’s so much new technology out there that I don’t have exposure to on a day-to-day basis and so to me, it’s exciting to think about having a younger mentor alongside those mentors that are more senior. 

Thank you, Shannon!

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Catch Shannon and lots of other brilliant speakers at our forthcoming CTO Craft Con Winter 2021, 8th – 11th November. Get your ticket here now!

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