The recruiting and onboarding process allow an employer to set the tone and expectations for a new employee’s experience with a company. So how do you ensure that it’s a successful process that attracts not only someone with the skills for the job, but someone with the right “fit” for your company? Jenny Berkedal, Director of Employee Experience at Metal Toad Media, joins the podcast to share how she approaches hiring and to offer tips to hire for cultural alignment within a competitive industry.
Brandon: Hey there, welcome back for another episode, I’m your host Brandon Laws. Thanks for the download today, and if you are a returning listener, thank you. If you are a new listener, thank you for giving us a try! We’ve got over 100 episodes right now and hopefully you will stick with us for the long haul. But you’re welcome to go back, they’re all free.
For today’s episode I interview Jenny Berkedal, the Director of Employee Experience for Metal Toad, a Portland-based technology company. They build websites and applications for a lot of enterprise clients and a lot of websites that you probably use on a regular basis. They do some awesome work. They’re constantly looking for amazing talent and we talk about the balance of hiring for culture versus competence.
Jenny talks about the entire recruiting and hiring process and I think you’re really going to love how deep we dive into the technical aspect of how they recruit at Metal Toad. If you’re in the technology space, you’re going to find this interesting I think and maybe you’re going to get some tips. If you’re not in the tech space, I think you’re still going to get a lot of value from it because you might hear some of the things that they’re having to do because of how competitive the environment is for hiring and recruiting. So I will stop rambling; here’s the conversation with Jenny!
Brandon: Hey Jenny! It’s great to have you on the podcast, welcome.
Jenny: Hi Brandon! Thanks for having me.
Brandon: Jenny, at Metal Toad you have a robust recruiting process. Your role is heavily involved in that. You’re out trying to find people that really fit your culture and are really good software engineers. You have something that you use called “cultural alignment” and I really want to know what you mean by that.
Jenny: Cultural alignment for us is a pretty simple concept. Really it’s just alignment with our company’s core values. When we talk about core values, we’re talking about respect, curiosity, health, provide value and experience. Really pretty basic core values.
One thing we do not mean when we talk about cultural alignment is cultural fit. To distinguish that, I will say a lot of companies hire based on, would you like to have or drink with this person? or would you invite this person to dinner at your house? I’ve heard that used a lot. I think it’s kind of an antiquated question or philosophy for hiring, but it’s still definitely out there. We don’t use that because you generally hang out with people that look like you.
So we actually think that focusing on, Is this person helpful? Are they respectful? Are they curious? expands the net of who you bring in to your organization.
Brandon: Yeah. That’s an interesting one because I would think if you hire people that definitely fit the culture, that’s obviously great. You’re in a really highly competitive environment though where you have a lot of competition for software engineers. That’s just a hot field or a hot position right now. What’s the balance between hiring for culture fit or hiring somebody who’s super competent? Because those seem like they could contradict each other if you’re hiring just for culture but you don’t have somebody who’s necessarily competent. It seems like you’d have to have both. So it’s a unicorn.
Jenny: That’s a good point and honestly we hire for both. We just weight the cultural alignment more heavily. If we had to break it down, let’s say it’s at least 55-60% of cultural alignment fit and then the skills as well. I mean, the engineering that we do is really robust and really heavy lifting, so we do look for senior level skills and architect level skills. But I don’t know if it’s just that we’ve been lucky, but we have not had a hard time finding those individuals. They’re out there.
Brandon: Are they usually in the backyard in Portland? Do you have to find them out of state? How are you finding these people?
Jenny: A few things. One, Metal Toad is really committed to local talent. When possible, we always hire locally and we always try to grow people locally as well. That could be a whole another webinar or podcast. I would say 95% of the employees we hire are currently already living in Portland.
Every Saturday we open our doors to what’s called Mentorship Saturday which is a group of various skilled level developers that get together for informal mentorship, working on projects and there’s probably about 30-40 that come every week. So it just gets us visibility. We’re out at a lot of communities. We sponsor a lot of events. So we just try to get out there as much as possible.
Then when it comes to posting our jobs, we make sure that we post to a wide net. The basic ones, LinkedIn, Craigslist, Indeed. But then we also post to local job boards such as Women Who Code or the PDX Women in Tech or People of Color in Tech as well.
So yeah, I would say we try to cast the widest net possible and it has been pretty successful in finding talent here.
Brandon: Yeah, it seems like in your particular industry, diversity would be a huge thing to go after because you want diverse backgrounds, diverse minds, and of course people that align with your culture. You’re casting a wide net, but I’m sure that you’re looking not only in different areas but just different sort of micro-cultures in the area to find people that kind of fit what you need. What are you doing from that perspective?
Jenny: I’m not exactly sure from a micro-culture perspective, but we also utilize our developers. When we were looking, for example, recently for a senior mobile developer, that development team actually got really involved in the recruiting process. They reached out to some of the Android meet-ups that they’re involved in or a conference that one of our developers was involved with just to reach out and ask, do you guys know anyone?
We actually found a candidate that way, so utilizing your current talent to help find talent at the skill level the team is looking for and empowering your employees to be active in that recruiting process especially when you’re a recruiting team of one, that’s super helpful!
Brandon: I imagine it’s hard for you because you’re probably like, Oh, I’m alone in this trying to find the talent. But is there any risk if you have mostly the developers’ friends and family or people within their network applying, that you’re just going to hire more people exactly like them? I don’t know if you want that or not. But is that a risk?
Jenny: It is a risk and to answer your question, if we want that, we do not. We actually want people to hire people that are not like themselves for a lot of different reasons. For diversity reasons, for business reasons. Statistically, you actually are a more efficient, more creative company when you have diverse perspectives.
So I think there is a risk but I think that there’s less of a risk when they’re just utilizing the networks they have as far skill-based networks. When it comes to friends hiring friends, that does become more of a risk. But as long as you have a comprehensive approach and watch for that, you can mitigate some of that risk.
Brandon: Talk to me about the wider recruiting process and backing up all the way, what kind of language are you using? You mentioned you’re on LinkedIn and a couple of other places. I’m really curious from an employer brand perspective, what kind of words you’re using to sort of tie in people and to make sure that they – like oh wow, this is actually the place that I’m looking for, to kind of hit that culture piece first?
Jenny: In our job descriptions, one, we make sure that we just include the essential qualifications to be successful with that job. One of the two top requirements on our job descriptions or qualifications is read and adhere to our company corporate values or our core values, and, two, believe in the company mission.
When you put that front and center as the first two qualifications for a job – I mean I’ve had a lot of candidates say, Wow, I totally understood what you’re looking for when I read that. We also blog heavily on our website not just about the technology we do, but about how we create what we create from a more cultural perspective and what we look for out of candidates and what we demand from each other that really adheres to those values. So there’s actually quite a bit of communication before the initial interview that a candidate can get of what we’re looking for.
Brandon: So talk about that process, once you get a candidate in the door. I imagine since you are a tech company, to a certain extent you have a really seamless process. Applicant tracking system, custom-written responded emails – I’m sure it’s a great process.
I want to know about that first experience. Is that an over the phone interview or is it in person? What’s your first step in that process?
Jenny: Our first step is a phone conversation and that is with me and it’s a two-pronged approach to a screen. One is definitely focused on that cultural alignment, so a lot of questions about, What is this candidate’s past history of mentorship? Tell me about a time that you were able to respectfully work a dispute with a coworker. A lot of questions that really get to the core values.
I also do a lot of talking and career mapping with our recruits because it’s really important to me to understand where each individual wants to go in their career and how Metal Toad could fit into that picture. If there’s un-alignment there, just giving that candidate a chance to talk about the narrative of how, if it’s not a direct alignment, they see it working.
“I do a lot of career mapping with our recruits because it’s really important to me to understand where each individual wants to go in their career…”
Brandon: In that first phone interview, you really try to hone in on that cultural alignment, if they’re a fit or are they not. Do you ever talk about money during that process?
Jenny: Yeah, at the very end, generally. In our applicant tracking system, there is a field for desired pay and if the applicant has put it in, then I don’t bring it up. If they leave it blank, then I generally do ask, but I ask in a way that I think is a little bit different than other companies.
Brandon: How do you ask it?
Jenny: I simply ask, Where would you like to be financially if this position works out or if you were given the opportunity to work in this position? I think if you ask, Where would you like to be financially? that’s different than What do you currently make right now? and that’s an important distinction because I think a lot of wage inequity happens when you base someone’s salary off what they’re getting paid currently instead of what is this specific job and where do they want to get paid and what’s there in the market for that specific job. We do hire quite a few career switchers as well.
Brandon: Yeah, that’s actually a really good distinction. I imagine that’s really tough for a lot of recruiting or HR people who are going through that first process when the money thing comes up. It probably would be easier if you never asked about past pay. To your point, this position is scoped much differently than what the last position was and industries may not align. So profit margins might be different or maybe just less compensation or more compensation.
So I imagine that’s kind of awkward. It’s nice that you can kind of get around that without it having to be an issue. Or maybe it is an issue for you?
Jenny: No, it’s not. I feel like it’s just a more respectful way to ask it so it doesn’t become an issue. We still have candidates that say, I would rather not say right now. I would rather see if this is a good fit, and generally why they’re saying that is they’re looking for something that is a great fit for themselves as well.
Often we will have candidates that end up taking slightly less than what they wanted because of the culture fit and it being a place that they really want to work. We have a really strong benefits package, so total comp, and our salaries are great. But for different reasons, a candidate may choose Metal Toad over a higher-paying job and they don’t want to get to that point until they’re ready to and that’s fine. We make room for that as well.
Brandon: During the process, you’re obviously asking questions that are about culture and whether or not they align with you. But in your field of software engineers, they need to be competent. How do you find that out during the process? Every resume probably looks very similar. They’ve worked on similar software, they’ve done similar projects. It all looks pretty similar. Do you ever get them in there and actually see them in action and see how they work with the team? How does it all work?
Jenny: Yeah, that’s a really good question, especially when your recruiter, like me, has not ever been a developer!
Brandon: You’ve never coded before. How interesting.
Jenny: Never coded. So I look at resumes and sometimes I’m totally off. Like I mentioned, that first step is an initial phone screen. Really the purpose of it is the value alignment and career mapping. The second step is an onsite interview with a hiring manager for the position and that is the skills portion.
When it’s an engineering position we will have a hiring manager who’s generally a senior developer, an architect on the team that’s looking to add a person and they do a coding challenge. They do some hypotheticals and some white boarding. They use consistent questions for each candidate, or I should say consistent base questions for each candidate. But depending on skill level, they will flex up or flex down if needed as well. That’s really at that point where we get the skills, that second step. Usually if I was far off, then we will see it really soon in the process.
Brandon: Do you ever get to the point where you do what I call a dreaded panel interview?
Jenny: We do!
Brandon: Oh, gosh. Those are so nerve-racking for candidates.
Jenny: That’s actually the third step of our process. First step is that phone conversation, second step is the onsite interview, which is skills-based, and then the third step is a panel interview, which is really for the members of the team that we’re adding the person to. And more importantly, it’s for the candidates to meet the members of the team that they will be working with to make sure on their end too. Like, yeah, this is the type of team I’m looking for. It’s pretty much equal time. So the panel is asking the recruit questions and the recruit getting a chance to ask the panelist questions.
At that stage, too, we’re looking for weighted number of questions on the cultural, behavioral aspect and less on the skills. The idea at that point is that the skills interview happened, the team said yes, they’re totally aligned on the skill levels, let’s go back to alignment and what we’re looking for on the team as far as culture.
Brandon: So after that point, you’re ready to make an offer, somebody accepts an offer. What are the next stages of the hiring process that aligns with your culture in all those steps?
Jenny: Actually this is something that Xenium has really helped us out with as far as streamlining this process. All of our pre-onboarding or orientation-level paperwork is handled through Xenium’s payroll electronic onboarding system, which has been really great.
So basically, to walk you through the process. Candidate accepts the offer, I send an email, outlining the steps of what’s going to happen prior to their first day, which includes confirmation for your first day. So, we’re a casual dress code, we’ll be taking you out to lunch, please let us know if you have any dietary restrictions, what time to come in, the fact that they can reach out to me. But in those steps is also Lacey from Xenium who is our partner. We mention that HR is going to be reaching out to you as an introduction. Then we will also be sending you a link to get you started on some paperwork. It’s optional if you want to do it prior to joining. Otherwise, you can do it on your first day.
Just kind of what to expect from the process. Then we send every candidate, as long as there are a few days in between offer and start date, a fun little postcard in the mail from their team that basically just says, Welcome! We’re so excited to have you and we will see you on whatever day it is that you start.
Brandon: That’s really nice. So what about their first day? What does that look like?
Jenny: In a tech company, the first day is a little bit different because it takes a lot of time to set up computers for the dev environment. If they’re a developer, the first day is generally like “welcome,” they attend the team’s stand up, which is kind of a nice way for them to hear what’s going on during the week and to meet everyone again. Then they’re just given a lot of time and space on that first day to get acclimated to their space. They’re given a tour of the company. They are given brand new technology and some documentation guides to get set up and to start downloading things and their team brings them out to lunch.
I circle up with them at some point to finish any of the paperwork that didn’t get done electronically and just to give my spiel and welcome and all that kind of fun stuff. But it’s a really relaxed day actually.
Brandon: I love it. So I’m going to ask you the tougher question because we’ve all probably been here, when you make what in hindsight would be a bad hire, so somebody you thought was culturally aligned, and they just aren’t necessarily who you thought they were, whether it’s the competence or just the culture piece, they’re just not a fit with the team, what do you end up doing? Do you make a switch after 90 days? What’s the process there?
Jenny: Yeah, that is a tough question. I think luckily, we haven’t experienced this very much. Actually at all since I’ve started with Metal Toad.
Brandon: Oh, wow. So it’s hard for you to even speak to this!
Jenny: We absolutely have a process that we would take, though. I think generally when there could be some cultural un-alignment, let’s assume one, that there was just a misunderstanding or a lack of transparency. So the first step would just be for myself or their manager to sit down and be like, Hey, how are things going? Do you have any questions? We’ve noticed this. Let’s talk about it.
One thing that’s really important in our culture is open communication, and let’s assume that this person wasn’t communicating openly. So just like a refresher of the values because if they’re new, Metal Toad always assumes positive intent, so let’s just assume that they just didn’t know. When that has been discussed, then I would hope that that behavior becomes extinct. If it doesn’t, we always utilize performance improvement plans or we go through the process that we take when things aren’t working out and that would include a series of written communications and some coaching, definitely actionable steps and some achievables for that individual to get where they need to be. Luckily, we haven’t had to do that since I’ve started.
Brandon: That’s good. That means you have a really good process and that you are probably so defined on what your culture is and who you’re looking for that if you ask all the right questions throughout that process, there shouldn’t be many mistakes, I would imagine.
Jenny: That’s definitely the hope. When you ask about what happens after an offer and pre-employment, there are actually two other resources that we use to help bridge that gap, which I forgot to talk about. One being our employee handbook, that’s kind of like the more legalese, the policies. But it does explain our culture and our core values as well. You get that before you even start.
So if there are any questions or concerns, an employee has an opportunity to air those prior to their first day. Then secondarily on the first day, each employee is given what we call “Toad Lore”. Have you heard of Toad Lore?
Brandon: I’ve seen it. I haven’t read it. I think I saw Tim Winner who has been on the podcast before actually from your company. He posted about it on LinkedIn, it looked pretty cool.
Jenny: Yeah, he uploaded the whole thing. Toad Lore is just a really fun way to explain some more of those like cultural norms and expectations of the company.
It answers a lot of the questions that new employees have from more of a socialization aspect, less legal. We have kegs on site and I know every person wants to ask, Well, when is too early to have a beer? and no one actually wants to ask that because that’s an embarrassing question maybe to ask on your first day. So it preemptively answers a lot of those types of questions a lot of those types of questions and really should give that person an insight into a lot of those cultural and kind of social norms.
Brandon: I can’t believe I forgot to ask you this question, but during that recruiting process, maybe when you’re involved or during the hiring process, do you ever use assessments like a DISC assessment or Myers-Briggs, just anything that highlights either their work habits or personality?
Jenny: We do use the DISC, we use it after employment.
Brandon: Ok, so when they’re an employee, they’ve been hired at this point.
Jenny: Yes. Actually, I love the DISC. Personally what I used before coming to Metal Toad was more of the Gallup StrengthsFinder, which I absolutely love.
Brandon: Yes, I love that too.
Jenny: The DISC is really interesting because it gives you visibility of the people on your team and their modes of operation. It explains how they communicate and maybe what they need out of communication in order to be the most effective. I like it a lot and I think that it certainly helps each team. But it is something that we do post employment offers.
Brandon: When you think big picture about when you hire for cultural alignment and you have this really strong culture where everybody is super aligned, all that, what’s the big picture benefits of doing something like this?
Jenny: I think that when it comes to alignment, and alignment around core values especially, I mean they’re simple as respect, curiosity, helpfulness, providing value and experience. When you have everyone centered around those, things like curiosity. So we’re a tech company. Tech is constantly evolving. Our teams are working on projects right now with companies that are so robust and they’re in technology that did not exist a year ago. If we don’t look for people that are constantly wanting to grow and to be curious and to dive into things, then we’re not going to evolve as a company as fast as technology is evolving and we will become extinct.
As far as respect, I think if you can respect others and really listen and communicate in a way that is just not assuming positive intent, if it’s not getting to the heart of what are we both trying to accomplish here, and we might be trying to accomplish it in a different way, that’s fine. But we need to acknowledge that and then move forward.
If you don’t have that basic sense of respect going into difficult conversations, you’re just not going to be a very productive company. So, really, core values are at the bottom line of company evolution and productivity.
Brandon: When you’re in a highly competitive market like you’re in where talent is hard to find, could the cultural alignment and just the core values piece really help you fight for that talent?
Jenny: Yeah, absolutely. I mean we have candidates that apply for jobs at Metal Toad because of what they’ve heard about us as a place to work. It’s such a strong tool. If you look at industry averages, especially when you’re hiring local talent, so you’re not bringing in all your high level talent from California or wherever, it can be difficult to find that level of talent here in town because it’s super competitive. They exist, they’re just generally employed.
But when you look at our statistics on time to hire, we’re actually doing really well. I think this year we added about 14 positions since January. I don’t have the numbers off the top of my head. But our time to close, so basically between when position is listed on the website and the employee’s first day, is about 30 business days. And from position open to offer accepted, it’s about half of that, 15 business days. So we are able to find that highly skilled local talent and I think one of the main reasons is because when you hire for cultural fit, you become a place that other people want to join as well.
Brandon: Well, good stuff. Jenny, anything you want to kind of wrap up with? Where can you find Metal Toad’s work? Your website is great. Maybe give the URL for that, if you don’t mind.
Jenny: Yeah, of course. We’re MetalToad.com and you can find our work there. You’re probably using it in a lot of different ways and you just don’t know.
Brandon: That probably means you have really good products, if people are using it with some of the big websites out there.
Jenny: Yeah. So take a look and you might be surprised that for a company that’s here in Portland with 55 people, the caliber of the work that we do and with the size of the companies that we work with is pretty unique.
Brandon: Do you mind mentioning some of the websites, the work that you guys have done? Would that be ok to disclose?
Jenny: Yeah of course! We’ve worked with companies locally like Daimler. We work with Sony. We work with Intel, ABC, the Grammys, Emmys – our industries are pretty diverse. But we do seem to have like DC Comics as well and we do lots of work with Comic Con.
Brandon: It’s no wonder that you have to have the best of the best. All those websites tend to be really interactive, so you probably have to have some really sharp people behind the scenes.
Jenny: Actually a lot of the development we do is not website work, it’s more of that enterprise application level development. So building tools for companies. A lot of that is actually protected by NDAs so I can’t get into the specifics of what we do, but for companies, yes, I think once they release, we certainly could talk about it. But a lot of what we do is really at the forefront of machine learning, data science, data visualization and a lot of the new age of technology, the internet of things, it’s pretty cool. It’s an exciting time for our company.
Brandon: Awesome. Well Jenny, thanks for coming on the podcast, I appreciate it!
Jenny: Thank you very much and have a great day!