Hiring Secrets From Some Of Silicon Valley's Most Influential Connectors

Top talent is still in short supply in Silicon Valley, even as the focus shifts from back-end architecture to product design and mobile. Two top recruiters on finding stars in a sea of job seekers.

The competition for top tech talent been called everything from a high-stakes game to a bloodthirsty battle. Some have even suggested software developers get loudmouth Hollywood agents to represent them, a la Ari Gold, a salient point given that unemployment in that sector is a measly 2.9 percent.

But the bid for tech talent in the bastion of geekdom that is Silicon Valley is a serious pursuit for two women who are shaping startups and high-growth companies, one individual, and one connection, at a time. Fast Company sat down with Shannon Callahan, who runs the talent network for Andreessen Horowitz (aka A16Z), and Juliet de Baubigny, partner at Kleiner Perkins, to get their take on hiring trends, essential skills to land the right job, and what makes a candidate stand out in a sea of hopefuls.

Rather than evoke a piranha circling its prey, de Baubigny sounds like an erudite British professor who just happens to be remarkably proficient in placing people in the right jobs. For this, she credits more than 15 years experience in tech recruiting. Before she came to KPCB in 2001, de Baubigny was part of the three-person team at Ramsey Beirne Associates responsible for installing executives like Meg Whitman at eBay.

Technology may have shifted since the dotcom boom and bust, de Baubigny says, but the basic premise for hiring hasn’t changed. "Companies require and demand exceptional talent," she says. That said, she has noted a more subtle shift in demand for designers, a trend KPCB sniffed out and supported early, thanks in part to backing a hefty portfolio of smartly designed pioneering ventures such as Nest, Path, and Square.

Whether she is scouring Stanford or Parsons for up-and-comers or more established candidates, de Baubigny says, "I am always very open-minded about what good talent looks like." Of course, you have to be really smart in the tech industry, she says, but she is looking beyond intellect for something she calls mental and emotional dexterity. "Funding cycles and product launches are always changing, and you’ve got to be able to go with it," she explains. Finding such a skill in a candidate may be as simple as teasing out whether the person relocated to a job or home in a place where they didn’t know anyone and had to get by on their own merit.

Another rather direct way de Baubigny finds out what a candidate is made of is to ask what they see is the legacy they’ll be leaving at their previous company. "What I want to do is find out if they had an impact on the organization," she explains. Not to worry if it’s a massive outfit like Google, de Baubigny contends. Talking about working within a small team can demonstrate if the person is ego-centric or plays well with others.

With no shortage of smart multi-taskers coming out of college (or dropping out to develop their own ideas), former debate team competitor de Baubigny is concerned that there’s still something missing in the talent pool right now. "I am watching closely and I think the education system has to adapt to the possibility that a generation of graduates is not going to articulate an argument [both verbal and written] as well [as their predecessors]."

Job hopefuls, take heed. If you do score a face-to-face with de Baubigny, be ready to make a smart case for yourself, your experiences, and your personal interests. One of her favorite questions to ask interviewees is "What are you reading?" It's a direct way, she says, to understand their curiosity and what inspires them. "They need to be able to form a cogent argument about where they are taking their interests. I really want to understand that," she says.

Though she’s experienced a similar shift in companies' hiring patterns from back end to front end, at A16Z, Shannon Callahan is taking a somewhat different approach to matchmaking for portfolio ventures. Rather than doing active placement, she and her 10-person Talent Network are building relationships with Silicon Valley’s standouts and college students and introducing them to the right people at the right startups. Then it’s up to the company to offer a job after they make the connections.

The nearly three-year old concept sprung from a theory that there was a shortage of great engineers, designers, and product managers in the Valley, according to A16Z founders Ben Horowitz and Mark Andreessen. It’s something that still concerns Horowitz, who recently blogged, "Great engineering organizations strive never to make hiring mistakes, as hiring mistakes can be very costly. Not only do you lose the productivity that you might have gained from the hire, but you might well incur severe technical debt. To make matters worse, even when an engineering manager recognizes she’s made a mistake, she’s often slow to correct it, leading to more debt and delay. In addition, building an engineering organization too quickly will cause all kinds of communication issues, which makes slow hiring in engineering a really smart thing to do."

On the flip side, Callahan points out that though engineers in particular look at their careers in a very tactical way, they don’t often think long term. Designers, she observes, are often "head down," not watching market trends. Like a mentoring program, the Talent Network aims to talk first and make recommendations later. "We make those discoveries and look at what they want to reach those [career] goals," whether it's inside one of A16Z’s portfolio companies or whether they want to start their own venture, she says.

Though the team is actively making the rounds of college campuses, Callahan says she still gets about 60 or 70 inquiries a week from people who want to get on her radar. Social media is fine, too—just be prepared to get put through the paces. Callahan says that in addition to the regular interview process, engineers are also given coding exercises to gauge their proficiency.

"The cool thing about the Valley," says Callahan, "is that people have the drive to enhance skills and learn more. We’ve seen it with engineering, and now with design." Yet one of the hardest things for startup entrepreneurs to do is understand exactly what type of talent they need to fill a role in their company, something that extends beyond a job listing.

To make the right matches, Callahan mines resumes to pick up interesting tidbits about personal interests. "We went through about three months where everyone was a musician on the side. I made a joke with my team that we had some incredible bands coming out of Silicon Valley," she recalls. Using that as a conversation opener, Callahan typically spends an hour with job seekers, either in person or on the phone, getting to know their past experiences and fielding questions such as "Do you think it’s dumb that I’ve worked at two startups and neither took off?" (Her response: "Silicon Valley is very forgiving.")

She also asks interviewees what they think are the best-designed apps or products, to determine what they see as trending. All this gives her enough insight to begin making introductions.

She continues to be in touch as they make the rounds at different companies, offering information on the market as well as on culture and management style, always asking, "What sounds good to you?" She explains, "We are facilitating discovery."

[Image: Flickr user Giulia Scifoni]

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