How Automattic Creates Momentum Before an Engineer’s First Day

By Cate Huston    |    April 13, 2018
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You get only one chance at a first impression — your hiring and onboarding process sets the tone for how your company operates, even before your newest team members set their passwords.

“We talk about how engineers hate process,” says Cate Huston, Mobile Lead at Automattic, “but here’s my theory: engineers often love process, but when they love it, they call it culture.”

It’s a classic example of what you do being more important than what you say. Of course, put all the important stuff in your onboarding materials—but also conduct your interviews and onboarding in a way that’s honest to the culture you foster every day.

“This is foundational,” Huston says. “Think about the kind of culture you want to build on the team, then put in processes that back that up — and talk about it openly.”

In this interview, Huston shares how she uses her hiring and onboarding process to develop the culture she wants to see at Automattic — and create momentum even before individuals have joined the team.

How we humanize the hiring process

Huston emphasizes the idea of focusing on the human element in technical interviews. So often, potential hires get stuck stunt-coding live. “It’s like, is this a hiring process, or is this a hazing process?” she laughs.

Now, Huston is not suggesting you completely revamp your interview process. “The actual questions that you ask don’t have to change that much,” she explains. “But the way you ask them does. Too many times, interviewers ask harmless questions but do so in a way that puts the interviewee on the defensive. It can make for a really terrible experience. It’s about recognizing that the person on the other side of the table is also human, and then treating them as such.”

But many of us have gone through unpleasant hiring processes, and we tend to model what we’ve seen work before — often without actually realizing we’re doing it.

“That’s not necessary,” Huston says. “You can ask people technical questions in a way that doesn’t make them feel terrible. I think it’s important to practice diving into people’s understanding of technical context without being judgmental about it.”

"We’re not hiring somebody because of where they are in their career. We hire people because of where they are capable of going.”

She suggests starting by recognizing the expectations we put on potential hires throughout the process. She often observes the use of “hiring bars,” or these ethereal benchmarks that aren’t communicated to applicants but which they’re expected to vault over in interviews. It’s the approach of hunting for flaws.

“If we take a mindset of looking to get to know this person — to figure out how they work and what they excel at — we might still make the same decision in the end, but we would make it in a way that didn’t make them feel terrible,” Huston says. “We’re approaching it with this mindset of curiosity, like, ‘I’m just going to get to know you, and I’m going to try and understand what your strengths are and what areas you would need to develop to be successful on the team.’”

One of the things Huston considers heavily is an applicant’s response to feedback. She doesn’t expect anyone she hires to be perfect, but she does expect everyone she hires to respond well to feedback, which means they are willing and able to grow as individuals and as part of the team.

“We’re not hiring somebody because of where they are in their career,” she says. “We hire people because of where they are capable of going.”

Testing for how people respond to feedback

Huston has interviewees do a trial project, where they write a feature in the actual app. But there’s no way that their first stab will be perfect. So they’ll get feedback on their approach—and that’s when she really learns about the interviewee.

“You see some people, when they get that feedback, go and do a lot with it and their next PR is so much better. I feel great about hiring those people,” she says. “Then you see people who say, ‘Well, you’re wrong,’ or, ‘You should have told me this,’ or…”

Huston’s not likely to hire the latter.

You want someone who’s great at receiving feedback — it’s part of that philosophy of hiring people based on where they’re capable of going.

"We make sure that people are good enough on a number of things. For everyone we hire, we know this person is really great on some dimension.”

She stresses again that she’s not looking for perfection in potential hires—she’s looking at a person’s ability to grow from a competent baseline, in addition to some outstanding qualities. “We make sure that people are good enough on a number of things,” she says. “For everyone we hire, we know this person is really great on some dimension.”

Onboard and upward

Getting to know people during the hiring process will help you start them off in a position to hit the ground running. You’ll lose time (or worse) taking the “sink or swim” approach and letting them flounder about until you identify their strengths.

“My observation about onboarding,” Huston says, “is that you spend as much time onboarding somebody badly, as you do trying to fix it.”

"You spend as much time onboarding somebody badly, as you do trying to fix it.”

If the onboarding process doesn’t look to be going well for new hires, she reevaluates. Are the job objectives clear? Is this the project right for them? Because even with the best intentions, you can end up horribly mistaken when you give people starter projects that seem fitting.

“You can scoff at them, or be disappointed by their poor performance. You can leave them on that project, struggling and without help, for a long time. Or, maybe you eventually fire them,” Huston says. “But chances are, their bad performance is your fault — not giving them the right project or even placing them in the right role, or not giving them the right kind of guidance. Admit your mistake, put them on a different project, set them up to succeed, and hope to keep them for a long time.”

Symptoms of poor—and successful—onboarding

“I think if they don’t seem to have a sense of cohesion within the team, if they seem a little bit overwhelmed or afraid of certain things, those are the two big signs,” she says.

You probably don’t expect a new hire to understand every aspect of the job on Day One. So keep an eye on whether their contributions are trending in the right direction over time. But it’s those more primal responses—how they respond to new environments and responsibilities—that give Huston the biggest tipoffs right away.

"I feel like being onboarded well is a sense of belonging and accomplishment.”

Conversely, just like with looking for responses to feedback in interviews, she looks for signs that a team member is being onboarded successfully, and opportunities to continue encouraging it.

“I feel like being onboarded well is a sense of belonging and accomplishment,” she says. “Those are responses you can encourage when you get someone a good project, you give them some good support, you pay attention to it and you value their opinion, and you encourage them to have a voice within the team.”

Consider what this onboarding process does for your new hires. You’re actively showing your team members, right out of the gate, both a) that success is crucial, and b) that you’re investing your efforts in ensuring that success. You’re creating a clear and transparent process for making the transition into your company. And by incorporating these processes from the get-go, you’re setting the tone for the cadence and culture of your team.

About the author

Cate Huston Mobile Lead at Automattic