Hiring Engineers for Cultural Fit the Right (and Wrong) Way

Andy Cook
October 5, 2018
Interview with Ethan Chang

Ethan Chang sees many similarities between the hiring process and customer analytics. As former CTO at Dispatch, Ethan has built deep expertise in helping companies use customer analytics to make decisions. By gathering and interpreting all customer touch points, it’s easier to predict trends and determine why certain customers churn.

Too often, Ethan sees companies focusing on the wrong numbers. They ignore the figures and statistics that truly matter: where customers engage, where they exit, and when they churn.

“People take these things for granted… As long as people are buying more or are engaging more who cares, right?”

This mindset is akin to ignoring those who leave your company and focusing only on the people who apply. Instead, a good hiring manager can use data to ensure a candidate’s likelihood of success and retention on the team. Looking at your applicant pool size is focusing on the wrong numbers; looking at the number of successful hires – those where the person fits the culture and feels inspired to contribute heavily towards the team’s success – is focusing on the right ones.

This passion for data began long ago. While working on a machine learning project, he noticed that consumer data allowed for more informed decision making.

Whether it’s a software quality issue or a hiring decision, Ethan uses data to optimize the experience for all parties involved.

Cultural Fit is a Moving Target

Ethan points out that oftentimes, “culture” is situational. For example, if you’re in a growth phase, you may need certain attributes. If you’re trying to build an innovative team, you might need people who take a more strategic approach. Culture isn’t always a fixed thing; it adapts as the company adapts. Don’t look at culture as a fixed thing, or you may wind up with employees who are only able to handle the challenges of the past.

In some situations, skillset might even matter less than culture fit. If a person is capable of learning and growth, they can likely adapt to the current (and ever-changing) needs of the team. Consider the most recent “data” on what your team needs, and optimize for those factors during hiring.

Assessing Communication Fit

Just as good customer insight hinges on clear channels of communication, good hiring decisions hinge on a fit around communication style. A big part of a team’s culture is the way that they convey their ideas and needs. Make sure that your candidate can communicate in the way that fits with the rest of the team.

At the same time, don’t only look for candidates who communicate in exactly the same way you do. Ideally, you’re cultivating an environment where people can thrive, despite (or even because of) their differences.

Ethan values having “safe environment” where everyone involved feels comfortable sharing their own ideas, critiquing other people’s suggestions, and discussing things in detail. As Ethan puts it,

“Everybody should be able to vocalize their thought process.”

For your culture to thrive, you’re going to have to put in place some measures to ensure that everyone, regardless of how they approach sharing their ideas and thoughts, is heard.

“The “quiet meeting-goers”…just because they’re not saying anything doesn’t mean they have no ideas. You need to create an environment where they can share their ideas – that’s the main objective.”

Leverage Data

When assessing whether someone values the same things your team does, don’t just ask them. Look for evidence. Just as customer analytics is impossible without data, good hiring should involve data on how the person approached prior work. Ethan is self-admittedly a data-driven person, shaped largely by a book he read called “How to Measure Anything,” by Douglas Hubbard.

“Anything can, in fact, be measurable. It doesn’t mean that it will be 100% accurate, but having a fact behind your thesis is something we [can use] to improve.”

If your culture values speed over perfection, ask for details on how someone weighed the trade-offs between speed and perfection in past roles. Ask them to walk you through the pros and cons, as well as the way they assessed risks and opportunities.

These data points – in the form of an applicant’s track record – can give you important insight into how they’re likely to jive with the culture on your team and how they will perform in the long run.

Inspiration and Enthusiasm as a Litmus Test

Some of the most beloved brands seek to inspire their customers, and often this plays out in their customer data: customers churn less, refer friends more, and even buy the company’s stock. For example, Airbnb inspires people to travel and pursue adventure, and their NPS score in the 70s is through the roof.

The best hiring managers seek to inspire their teams on a day-to-day basis, but it’s also worth leveraging inspiration during the hiring process to see how a candidate responds. If he or she seems unenthused by the vision you share, perhaps the cultural fit isn’t quite right.

Ethan repeatedly mentions the importance of being inspirational within the workplace, and he reckons that is the key difference between a manager and a leader.

“The difference between managers and leaders is that you’re an inspiration [as a leader] versus just knowing how to run a process.”

According to Ethan, it is crucial to have a common goal that ties all your teams together. He refers to a great example, the US military, which ties together all types of people from all over America. Each individual has their own skill sets, specialties, and personalities, but ultimately they’ll be geared towards one common goal, regardless of what team they’re on.

The inspiration that a leader brings to the team (and to the hiring process) helps to unify the team. Again, if an applicant isn’t inspired by the goal, it might not be a cultural fit. Just as Airbnb isn’t for everyone, your team isn’t a perfect fit for everyone. Better to discover this before making the hire (or taking that trip!) Clarify and promote your inspirational vision, and evaluate if it feels like a fit with your candidate.

Keep an eye out for coachability

One of the key things Ethan has learned from hiring 200-300 people in his life is that there are patterns among great candidates. One of the big signals is coachability.

“I take a slightly unorthodox approach – really, the thing I’m looking for is coachability. The second thing I look for, or ask, is when was the last time you (the candidate) were coached, and what did you learn?”

Using this approach, Ethan suggests you can refine the field by focusing on the people that are a) willing to learn and b) can actually learn, as opposed to those who struggle to take advice. This attribute is critical in building a cultural fit. Rarely will you find an applicant who’s a perfect cultural fit on Day One. Instead, find people who can learn about and adapt to your culture.

Interestingly, Ethan then goes on to suggest that playing team sports, be it at school or college, is a crucial factor in determining whether he hires a person or not. He points to the fact that, not only do you learn about teamwork, but you usually have a coach. Thus, you understand what it’s like to learn from others.

Ultimately, a candidate’s cultural fit can have a huge impact on his or her ability to succeed on the team. Use as many data points as you can to assess whether a person can flourish in the environment you’ve created (or can learn to do so.) Like customer data, these indicators can tell you a lot about the likelihood of success or churn.