Hiring For An Unfamiliar Skillset
Director of Engineering at Coinbase
At my last company, my co-founder and I ventured into a very different space. During our time at YC, we went from being a software startup to being a hardware startup. While we had some experience with the space, we needed to hire three very distinct skill sets that I were very unfamiliar with. We needed a really strong Electrical Engineer who could design circuit boards, a Digital Signal Processing engineering who could write audio firmware in assembler and C, and a Mechanical Engineer who could design the physical device and get it ready for mass production.
Before we started sourcing for these roles, we decided to focus on what characteristics we should be looking for. The most useful thing we did was to talk to people at other companies who had gone through this before. We asked them what they looked for and what they would do in our shoes. We learned some counterintuitive things during this process. While startups often look for people who can move quickly, our advisors suggested looking for an Electrical Engineer who exhibited diligence. This was because simple mistakes in the design phase could lead to expensive mistakes in manufacturing that could significantly shorten your runway as a startup. This isn't something people often optimize for, because larger companies have a well-established design and peer review process, which would mitigate individual mistakes.
"While startups often look for people who can move quickly, our advisors suggested looking for an Electrical Engineer who exhibited diligence."
Our next step was sourcing the engineers. We started with our network, first and foremost and made our first hire through direct connections. But we ran into a wall soon after - we didn't find anyone else who would fill the other roles. We started sourcing more directly in communities we had an affinity towards - one of our hires came from cold outreach on AngelList, and another from a recruiter who specialized in signal processing engineers. While I don't usually recommend external recruiters, they can be useful under the right conditions.
Judging whether a candidate was the right fit proved to be a challenge, especially since weren't technical experts in all these domains. We relied on our mentors to help with interviews - they did an excellent job of helping us identify the characteristics we should look for in someone's background, and soon we were able to do these interviews ourselves. We also got candidates to come in for a day, and would ask them to sit down with us and think through a problem we were currently working on. There's no better test than having someone jump directly into what they'd be doing if they were here. This gave us confidence that we were hiring the right people, and also gave the candidate transparency into how we operated.
Our very first hire ended up not being a fit, and the big lesson we all learned was that the trial had to map closely to what they'd do over the next 6 - 12 months. We tested them for their ability to design hardware, but most of the role ended up being worked with manufacturers and productionizing a process, which was a very different skill set. Being able to anticipate what the role you're hiring for will be like and testing for those attributes is, therefore, key.
When interviewing outside your domain, learn as much as you can from mentors, and leverage them to do final interviews on candidates. Design a process that simulates real work as much as possible, and define a rubric up front to assess a candidate's technical strengths. This is especially important to guard against unconscious bias, as there will be so much uncertainty in this process that you'll be really tempted to just go with your gut on how you feel about a person.
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Director of Engineering at Coinbase
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