Spotlight Q&A with Greenhouse’s Mike Boufford

As we work steadfastly behind the scenes to get ready for CTO Craft Con Winter 2021 on 8 – 11 November, we’re offering a sneak peek of some of the awesome speakers we have lined up over the next few weeks.

So without further ado, we’re incredibly excited to announce that Mike Boufford – CTO at Greenhouse – will be one of our first keynote speakers! We wanted to get to know the man behind the product and so we sat down with him (remotely of course) to hear his thoughts on how the face of hiring has changed, stepping up to support juniors and juggling remote leadership with twins and a toddler running around.

We remain in the midst of a global pandemic and while last year was all about surviving this year has been more transformative for a lot of leaders and businesses. How is your focus going to shift post-pandemic and into 2022?

Good question! I think there’s a number of specific things that people are wrestling with, one of which is ‘The Great Resignation’. Lots of people want some type of change in their lives [but given the circumstances] there is a relatively limited number of things that they can. The thing they really want is for the pandemic to be over, normal social relations to resume and to be free to live the life that had before. But given that that is something that’s unchangeable, the other big things impacting someone’s life are the relationships they maintain at home and at work. One of the easiest things to change in that scenario – especially in the context of not being able to go out and meet new people – is where you work. I think a large proportion of people, even those who have been traditionally quite happy at their company, are considering a transition, which has had a downstream impact on the hiring landscape. So every company – even those maintaining their size, might be hiring three times as much because attrition might have gone up by that amount. And any company that’s in a growth phase, (some of that growth will be pandemic-driven for certain businesses), is hiring significantly more than they would have before. So it’s changed the hiring landscape tremendously. 

We’ve also seen employees take a different perspective on what they want from their work; they care more about having a good work-life balance, more about being attached to a mission that they can wake up and get excited about. Now that their work, irrespective of the company, is going to be done from the same desk, staring at the same wall every day, with limited social contact with coworkers, mission alignment becomes even more important. As such, companies are in the process of trying to reimagine what culture should look like when you’re no longer doing everything face-to-face. 

The early company culture at Greenhouse, much like a lot of other places, was founded on spending a lot of time with each other in close quarters. Whether it was working through a difficult business problem together, going to lunch every day with your co-workers, or post-work karaoke, all those things that created the settings for a well-bonded team have sort of evaporated while everybody is distributed. We can either just accept that the old culture has atrophied and say it is what it is, or we can try to build a culture that is more context-aware and understands we’re in a different world now.

The line between professional life and personal life for many has blurred somewhat over the last two years. As such, I imagine the way that you may have responded to things as a leader or supported your team has changed. How do you see your leadership role now and what do you think your team needs most from you in the next 12-to-18 months?

There’s a multi-faceted answer to that because there are many different lived experiences among people in any large team. So I have people who are perhaps having the best year of their lives, living in a camper van and driving around America’s national parks, staying connected via a satellite dish on top of the roof and doing their work with a view of Yosemite. 

Compare that to the experience of having three unvaccinated children at home and being worried about them potentially getting Coronavirus or living with somebody who is immunocompromised or being in a high-risk group yourself and having to live a very sheltered life where you’re avoiding social interactions or essential shopping.  You may or may not have the ability to travel or the resources to do so and so as a leader, it’s about understanding that there’s a spectrum of experiences where some people are suffering disproportionately, and some are having an amazing time. You can’t treat it all monolithically one way or another, or be insensitive to the lived realities and the variation that lies within that. 

Any good company is not just thinking about the next year, if they want to keep people for a long time, that involves treating them with respect and offering support when it’s challenging. In certain cases, it requires that we accept that there will be a bit of asymmetry as there will be some people who need more support than others, and I think companies should go through that. One issue, however, that sometimes goes under-acknowledged, is that when some need more support, the extra work is picked up by coworkers. So it needs to be recognised that much of the burden actually falls on peers, far more than it does on management, even if management makes the decision to be supportive.

Absolutely. You touched on things like culture and obviously, it’s completely shifted now that the majority of people are working remotely. In light of that, how would you seek to hire those who are culture fits or culture adds now, especially where people might not even meet their team or managers for months, or even at all?

Some of the policies that companies had for hiring distributed workers, pre-pandemic, probably still apply. So there’s a certain level of independence that is required if you’re on your own and at your computer in terms of both work ethic and being able to find your way out of sticky problems independently. That level of autonomy often comes with seniority or experience in a role. 

What I actually worry about, is that it’s becoming harder to ramp up junior people. The resources to help them improve on a professional level, are no longer within arm’s reach i.e. sitting right next to them. Instead, they may feel like they are interrupting somebody else’s workflow – even if that person might be perfectly happy to take time out to support them – or feel the burden of scheduling time with peers as opposed to having those helpful, drive-by conversations that used to take place. 

The environment has changed particularly for juniors and companies will need to refocus more of their efforts on formalised training instead of simply allowing professional growth to be a byproduct of having a group of people who know how to do the job, surrounding you. To do this, the process probably needs to be made a bit more programmatic, more explicit and more measurable, so that we ensure those people are not left behind – not just in their role at their company, but in their careers. They’re at an early point where they’re developing the approach to work that will shape them long-term, and so it’s a very formative part of someone’s career. Companies need to realise that they have a responsibility to junior hires to ensure that they are able to ramp up. 

Other cultural things in terms of hiring – there’s obviously a big shift away from the physical location being a requirement, and as you know, there are furious debates happening around how we should structure pay by geography. Traditionally across corporate America, the cost of living adjusts when somebody moves from a higher-cost to a lower-cost location. At one point, we did start seeing that type of mentality dissipate slightly for some Silicon Valley companies that were well-funded. They took the approach that it didn’t matter where somebody was based, they just needed to hire developers and so they’d hire the best developer in Sioux Falls, rather than a mediocre developer in San Francisco and so they started writing San Francisco-sized cheques for people, regardless of location. 

The pandemic itself was a major catalyst for change in terms of how companies started thinking about whether or not certain roles – or all roles – should be considered in a single pay market, or continue with existing policies where it is assumed that you are in a local market and do not have access to the national market. At this point, there’s irrefutable evidence that many jobs can be done successfully remotely, which is going to force a permanent change in company cultures, even if there is a return to more in-person work. 

There is a long adaptation process involved and I think many people, myself included, were slightly in denial about how long this would last and what the effects would be. I sort of knew consciously that it was going to be a year and a half or a couple of years, could be longer, but in my gut, I didn’t quite want to accept it. I think many people believed the transformation processes that happened as a result of this, would disappear after there’s a vaccine and everyone could go back to ‘normal’. It’s becoming increasingly clear that that’s not really the world that we’re in, and that adaptation is going to be required going forward.

You hit the nail on the head that for many people applying for jobs suddenly it’s much better from an accessibility point of view. But from the commercial standing, it’s then a worry that the biggest companies will swallow all of the great people. And so, how are you dealing with the difficulties of the alleged dearth of talent this is causing?

It’s complex; there are actually lots of people who are willing to change jobs right now, but there are also lots of companies that are very eager to hire them, so there does feel like a supply imbalance. That said, there are few different levers people can use. The first of which is top-of-the-funnel: how do you ensure there are enough people coming to maintain the level of choosiness that you had before and secondly, is that selecting them for skills or culture matches probably requires more resources than you had in the past, and more strategic sourcing efforts. Where before you may have posted a job ad and waited for candidates to come to you, you may now need to specifically go out, find suitable candidates and engage them. Importantly, hiring managers are the ones who are ultimately responsible for any new hires and they will need to increase their involvement, especially if they had previously relied on a recruiting team to do all of the sourcing and recruiting.

The next point I’d make is that ultimately, even if you get conversations going with a number of people, a company still has to be an attractive place to work. You don’t make a hire just by getting somebody to apply for a job; they must be willing to accept your offer over others, and in many cases, for competitive roles like software engineer, that may mean four-to-six other offers. Candidates are becoming a lot more strategic and organised in their job hunting processes and so they’re lining up offers at the same time. And so it’s not just about money. Yes, money is a huge factor, but company culture and, being able to answer their question, ‘Why should I work for you?’ is a talent marketing problem, and a branding problem that we all need to think through. 

Fundamentally, you have to be able to communicate to the market, in advance of people applying, why you are a place they should want to work. For instance, with Greenhouse, and within my own team, I think we attract people who want to be part of a great engineering culture. But we are also doing great, real-life work that affects millions of people and building products that help to make the world a bit more equitable and help companies to diversify their teams. For people whose values align that’s going to matter more than whether an offer is $2,000 one way or another. Going forward, the resonance of your mission is going to become more important as part of your talent branding and bringing in the right people.

In terms of your own hiring process at Greenhouse, have you made any changes triggered by the pandemic and if so, what would you say were the most effective?

There certainly have been some changes. Where we used to have long onsite interviews, these now get broken apart into shorter, multiple interviews. I think that’s a fairly common trend – spending four or five hours in-person was really the legacy of the pre-pandemic world. If you take half a day’s leave, you’ll want to compress as many of those interviews as possible into that time and get an answer quickly. 

Now, it’s easier to spread four one-hour remote meetings across your calendar than it is to take four hours altogether. Especially as by hour three everyone is suffering from severe Zoom fatigue. I know, after two or three hours of online calls myself, my brain feels like melting, and that’s definitely true for candidates too. 

I also think that we’re moving more towards shared live tools; as such, where talent has the option to pick any number of companies, they are choosing those with processes that feel less cumbersome. At the same time, companies are trying to add automation to streamline their workflows and make it easier because now, when a candidate receives an eight-hour-long take-home test, they are a lot less likely to do it in this day and age than they might have been a few years back. That type of burden has become something they are no longer willing to accept very early in the recruiting process. So I’ve seen companies spend a little bit more time with candidates where the hiring manager shows up and they let’s say do a live coding exercise together, rather than send long assignments that may require a huge amount of work only to be quickly rejected from the process. 

And then unrelated to the pandemic but very much related to some of the changes coming out of 2020, many companies have started to prioritise diversity efforts in recruiting. Efforts are being made to ensure they are building truly diverse teams and not continue as places where if you’re in a minority, you’re constantly on the backfoot and suffering the consequences of stereotype threat every day they come to the office. 

I think those investments manifest in a number of different ways. First, people are trying to figure out the right criteria by which to assess people, especially where there are different personality types that might do better or worse in live programming environments, versus getting that same hour to focus in private and trying to make it a bit closer to the job. We are also seeing top-of-the-funnel changes where, when a company interviews agencies, they ask for their diversity track record and know from the outset what the mix of candidates might look like. They’re also increasing source planning efforts to figure out what blend of sources is required to create a pipeline that ultimately leads to more diverse hires.

Within our product, we now have things like demographic reporting against the hiring pipeline, and allows hiring managers to make decisions about their process. If they notice that in a certain part of the hiring process they’re seeing a fall off from let’s say, Asian American women, they can try to peel back the layers to understand what is it about the process that’s causing this subgroup of people to drop out. Both conscious and unconscious biases come into play when we design some of these exercises – even if they seem fair and innocuous on their own. And so having visibility into the outcomes of whatever those assignments are, in terms of disparate impact demographically, is probably a big shift that is here to stay.

Finally, can you recommend a book on hiring that every technology leader should read?

Talent Makers by Dan Chait and Jon Stross – the founders of Greenhouse! I would also recommend the classic structured interviewing book, Hire With Your Head by Lou Adler

But, there are also interesting books that people can read to educate themselves on topics of D&I like Whistling Vivaldi – How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do which is very research-driven. It’s written by Claude Steele, a professor from Stanford; he talks about these social science experiments where they look at the effects of being in a minority or having stereotypes reinforced (among other things) and how they affect work performance. 

It offers an interesting perspective – which is very much not in the bucket of explicit bias. It sheds light on the fact that while people believe they aren’t racist or sexist, the accidental things we all end up doing are, perhaps, a little more insidious and negatively impact the experiences of people who are in a minority within their workplace.

Thank you, Mike!


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