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18 May 2015 by Karat

Building a World-Class Tech Team in a Non-Tech Industry

At Karat, we are passionate about improving the effectiveness and efficiency of hiring. We’ll use this space to post interviews with top engineering leaders so they can share what they’ve learned from their personal hiring experiences.

Camille Fournier is the CTO of Rent the Runway. She previously worked at Goldman Sachs and Microsoft, and she has computer science degrees from CMU and the University of Wisconsin - Madison.

Clothing is a trillion-dollar global market — over $300B in the United States alone. And yet, to many software engineers, apparel feels like a niche market. It isn’t what first comes to mind when they think of working in the technology industry.

So how do you build a world-class technology team for a revolutionary company in the apparel industry? To find out, we talked with Camille Fournier, CTO of Rent the Runway.

Launched in 2009, Rent the Runway is a fashion company with a technology soul: an online service that provides designer dress and accessory rentals to its over 4 million members. Over 50 of their nearly 300 employees are in Engineering. Her keys to success? High quality sourcing, interviewing, and closing.

From Big Data to Big Fashion

Fournier herself came from a traditional technology background. She graduated from CMU with a degree in computer science, then went on to work at Microsoft as a Software Design Engineer before completing a Master’s at the University of Wisconsin - Madison. She then joined Goldman Sachs as a Vice President and Technical Specialist. Fournier thinks of herself “first and foremost as an infrastructure engineer,” and her work has included massive user-driven data analysis over very large data sets, as well as cutting her teeth building distributed systems before those were commonplace.

Why did she decide to join Rent the Runway in 2011? “It seemed like a great business with very smart executives that had a tech problem that I could solve,” she says. But it was a challenging ride: the previous head of engineering had just left, and it was her first experience with management at this scale. “I had to learn how to hire, how to set up standards for everything from engineering ladders to postmortems to on-call policies. The architecture was the easy part, the people side was a real trial by fire.”

Building the Team

A major challenge for Fournier is that Rent the Runway is not a household name for engineers. Indeed, Fournier’s own reaction when she was initially approached was: “renting dresses? I'm not sure they need my skills." So she’s had to work hard to persuade candidates to take the company seriously as a technology opportunity.

So, how do you go about attracting great engineers when your core business is not top of mind for them? Here are Fournier’s suggestions:

  • Lean heavily on employee referrals. No surprise there. But one advantage she feels she has is her willingness to hire people outside of tech. They welcome both “CS supernerds and others from non-traditional backgrounds.” This includes her former world, the finance industry, where she is well connected. She’s observed that “many startups in New York are biased against people from finance,” but she’s had great luck hiring from that group. In addition, friends of hers refer candidates that they like but for whatever reason can't hire themselves.

  • Hire on potential. Rent the Runway has a large college hiring program for a company of its size. They also hire a lot from Recurse Center (a New York programming boot camp previously known as Hacker School), because their graduates tend to be a good fit for Rent the Runway’s engineering culture. It’s clear that they create a welcoming environment for recent and soon to be grads.

  • Build an engineering brand. Rent the Runway faces a number of challenges that appeal to engineers. It’s mostly a matter of getting the word out about their unique tech challenges. Their service sits at the boundaries of e-commerce, mobile, analytics and shipping/fulfillment, and the backbone of their business is served by a custom logistics management system. Think Amazon distribution but then add in a huge return center--remember, every single dress is returned eventually. In addition to posting regularly to an engineering blog, Rent the Runway hosts monthly tech talks and open houses for both prospective candidates and the general tech public.

Interviewing Candidates

Rent the Runway follows a fairly standard process for technical interviewing. They start with a phone screen that includes writing pseudocode in a Google doc, and then move on to in-person interviews. But recognizing that they aren't a traditional tech firm, Fournier has adapted their process to optimize for their candidate pool.

Here are a list of tactics that Rent the Runway uses to get the most out of their interviewing:

  • “Quarterback” the interview process. Keeping the process smooth requires robust planning and communication — from knowing the candidate’s expectation before the interview to having interviewers coordinate throughout the day to make sure that collected feedback provides enough information to make a decision. “If you know before the candidate comes in what level they are at, what role they are expecting, whether or not you will be able to meet their salary/equity/position expectations, you're ahead of the game. If you know what types of questions each interviewer is going to ask, and the interviewers communicate between interviews on areas to dig in further, that means you finish the interviews with all the information you should need to move forward.”

    Rent the Runway now has a "quarterback" for each candidate who makes sure interviews run on time, organizes the collection and discussion of feedback, and makes sure the interviews cover all of the important areas — typically coding, design, culture fit, and communication.

  • Ensure diversity in the interview loop. Fournier believes that her team’s diversity helps them reduce interviewer bias. “Beyond your standard gender and racial diversity, we also have a diversity of backgrounds: CS majors and English majors who switched into programming after college; folks straight out of college; others who have been in the industry for 20 years; single people; parents.” With regard to gender bias, she tries to include women on every interview panel, even though it means a heavier interviewing burden for her team’s women (herself included).

  • Give candidates the best chance at success. Fournier is vigilant about types of interview questions that favor certain kinds of candidates such as “study your college algorithms textbook" questions. “You want to give candidates the best chance for success. Sometimes that means getting away from the whiteboard and giving them a real IDE to write code, or pair programming with them, or having them read code and explain it to you.”

  • Take control of the interviews. “Interviewers must remember that they are in charge of the interview.” It can be challenging for interviewers to politely maintain that control, especially when candidates try to say too much — or too little. But it’s a critical skill that great interviewers develop with years of practice.

Fournier describes their process as a “work in progress” and notes that it’s easy to forget “how much time and effort goes into basic coordination for interviews, for capturing feedback in a timely manner, and for making the process good for both the interviewers and the interviewees.”

Closing the Best

Fournier stresses that it is critical to be able to close high quality candidates fast to move quickly and hire well. Having a clear idea of the role you are hiring for (e.g. what is a senior engineer? what is a systems engineer?), as well as the hiring criteria for each role and how that translates into the interview process goes a long way to setting the company up for success.

But to actually get to yes with the best, it also takes knowing what top candidates need to be convinced and who needs to do the convincing. “For a long time it was up to me to close candidates, and there are some candidates where that is the best thing possible, and others where it just doesn't work. It's not 100% in my skill set. Now that I have a strong recruiter, she is great at knowing which candidates should talk to me personally to close, or to a senior engineer, or which just need her to create the right offer package.”

Standing Out

Rent the Runway is sometimes called the “Netflix for fashion.” Like Netflix, it’s taking an industry not traditionally associated with cutting edge technology and transforming it.

In order to stand out as a non-tech company, you need to be creative and efficient in your sourcing, your interviewing, and your closing. You don't have the luxury of resting on your laurels. But you do have the benefit of aligning with other engineers who believe in your mission and vision.