Sep 9, 2015

Hire People, Not Skills


Hiring is hard. It requires time, patience, and sensitivity to subtle signals that help determine whether someone is a fit for the position. I’ve spent more than a year searching for the right candidate for some positions, because I’m not just trying to find the right skills for the job—I’m trying to find the right person.

People have personalities and perspectives that influence their performance and the way they communicate on teams. These things are squishy and hard to size up, but ignore them at your peril. In my experience, the primary reasons for letting an employee go rarely have to do with a lack of technical prowess. It’s almost always a shortcoming in soft skills. Missing technical skills can be remedied with coaching, but shortcomings in soft skills are so much more difficult to correct.

Focusing too much on technical knowhow can lead companies to hire the wrong people. Job postings are too often dominated by a checklist of requirements. Interviews are filled with technical challenges and design dog and pony shows to gauge a candidate’s chops. But how do we gauge a candidate’s willingness to collaborate, or their acceptance of critical feedback? What about their resilience when faced with adversity, and how their personality aligns with team and company values? Without a sense for these kinds of traits, it’s hard to know whether someone will succeed in their new position.

When interviewing product team candidates, I get to know the person before discussing technical stuff. I want to know what they’re passionate about and how they see the world. It can sound like casual chatter, but it provides the clues needed to evaluate soft skills. Here’s what I look for when interviewing candidates:

Broad perspectives

“If you want diversity of thought, you have to bring in people around you who have diverse experiences.”
Victoria L. Brescoll, Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior, Yale University

We don’t want to hire a bunch of employees who are just like us. I’m not looking for people to hang out with on the weekend. I’m looking for people who bring new perspectives to our company. This is why we avoid the term “culture fit,” instead talking a lot about building teams with a variety of voices and perspectives. Backgrounds, interests, reading habits, and conversation topics all say something about how open-minded and curious a person is. When everyone brings a different perspective to the team, innovation happens.

Adaptation and Grit

If a candidate openly shares their life and work experiences, listen hard. I love hearing about key moments that shaped people into who they are today. Stories of overcoming adversity, not fitting in, moving to a new country–these details give clues about how someone deals with challenges. Adaptation skills show that when the candidate encounters a tough problem, team change, or new project, they’re going to feel confident they can overcome it. These folks don’t give up easily.

MacArthur Fellow and psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth calls this quality “grit.” Grit is more than just perseverance. Duckworth ties grit to a focus on longterm goals and following through on commitments. Candidates who’ve overcome adversity over a long period of time because they can see a rewarding end result are gritty, and are usually great people to hire.

Unique interests

Asking candidates about their interests and hobbies outside of work can be extremely helpful. At MailChimp, we love it when employees have side projects or part-time creative businesses. I like to ask candidates when their passion for a discipline ignited. Finding a love for a subject can change you. It builds confidence and creates intrinsic motivation to learn.

The subject doesn’t have to relate to our company. I look for people who are a little different. I love it when a candidate surprises me or says something unexpected. Misfits and oddballs tend to do well at MailChimp because, well, so many of us feel that way ourselves. This kind of person spends a lot of time on their own growing up, so they tend to be independent. And they’re usually comfortable finding their own path, which can make them easier to manage.

Being a little weird can leave you with something to prove. The feeling of “I’ll show them!” can be the fuel that pushes an already passionate person to succeed. There’s nothing like getting a taste of success built on hard work and a love for what you’re doing. That’s just the sort of person we want to work with us!

A collaborative mindset

Few skills are as important to a product team as collaboration. When interviewing an individual, it can be hard to gauge how well they’d work with others, but there are ways to pick up signals. You can start by asking them about the dynamics of other teams they’ve worked on and finding out how they like to collaborate.

In some situations it makes sense to create a small project that a candidate can work on under a tight deadline with members of your team. When the results are presented, make sure there’s a group discussion with critical feedback. Listen carefully to how the candidate responds. Are they defensive or open-minded? Do they talk more than they listen? Do they seek credit? You’ll learn a lot in that short interchange.

In this process, you can also find out if someone is a linear or conceptual thinker. We all approach problems differently. Some of us see things linearly, as a series of tasks to be completed. Some of us look at problems conceptually, seeking connections between different things and thrive in the creative process. Both are valuable if properly channeled. When you’re hiring, consider which mindset is best for the position. If you’re hiring a product designer who’ll be working on new products, a conceptual mindset is a must. If you’re hiring someone who will follow a well-defined process or may be digging through mountains of data, a linear mindset will be best.

Social aptitude and energy

Social time with a candidate gives you and your team a chance to ditch the high-pressure interview process and get to know each other. Personalities come out if you make the space. Later in the interview process, we invite candidates to lunch or to spend an entire day with us.

After spending time with them, are they still excited to be there? Do they seem to gel with your team? Can they hold a conversation, or is there a lot of awkward silence? Any uncomfortable situations you experience may be amplified if the candidate joins the team, so pay close attention.

I always look for the right energy fit too. I once interviewed a candidate and knew from his crushing handshake and deafening greeting that he would be too overbearing for my team. As the interview proceeded, my hunch was borne out. Gut feelings can tell us a lot if we’re willing to listen.


Humility is a core value at MailChimp. Humble people tend to be quick learners because they’re willing to listen to and learn from others. They don’t crave credit, so they’re natural collaborators. They treat others fairly and with kindness.

Humble people make great teammates. A candidate’s humility, or lack of it, comes through in a longer interview process. When they checked in, how did they treat the people at the front desk? Did they ask a lot of questions? Did they take the time to learn about the company, you, and your team before the interview? Humility is not a trait that’s easily turned into interview questions, but if you tune into subtle behavior cues, you’ll quickly get an accurate reading.

Is it worth it?

It can be time consuming to evaluate soft skills, but trust me, it’s worth it. Hiring too fast fills your company with people you don’t want to work with, who will derail your progress and demoralize your best performers. Fast hiring often leads to slow, painful firings.

If you lead a product team, there’s nothing more important than hiring. So put in the time. Get to know each candidate well. Choose people who bring new perspectives to your team, and people who will be happy in your company for years to come. Each new hire has the potential to make a big impact on your business, so treat them like a person, not a checklist of skills. If all goes well, you’ll be spending a lot of time with them.

Oh, and did I mention we’re hiring? Check out our new jobs page.