10 June 2015 by Karat

Etsy CTO Kellan Elliott-McCrea on the Craft of Hiring Engineers

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.

Etsy CTO Kellan Elliott-McCrea has seen tech companies of every shape and size. Before joining Etsy, he was an architect at Flickr, joining several months after Yahoo acquired it. He was an early employee at Odeo (re-incarnated as Twitter) and helped launch the citizen journalism network And Elliot-McCrea’s first company, MetaEvents, was acquired by Palm in 2000. He now leads a team of about 250 engineers at Etsy.

We talked with Elliott-McCrea to understand his philosophy of hiring and what he’s doing to build a great team at Etsy. Here are the three essential tips he’d offer after having been through a rapid evolution in hiring engineers at Etsy.

1) Know what you are looking for

Elliott-McCrea observed that the biggest problems in hiring stems from teams lacking clarity on the traits they are hiring for. “One of our interviewers says, ‘I didn’t like them, they didn’t have ten years of iOS experience’ but we’re trying to hire a junior Javascript engineer.” Ensuring that interviews are aligned with the core competencies is critical to doing this right and something that’s taken time for Etsy to get right.

Moreover, Etsy increasingly recognized the importance of differentiating between required skills and skills that could be learned on the job. Elliott-McCrea told us the story of a departing employee who said in his last lecture (an Etsy institution to preserve knowledge for posterity) that, had he been interviewed today, he wouldn’t have gotten the job. Their interview process today sets a high bar for coding skills, and the employee only became a strong coder by acquiring those skills on the job. Ironically, the reason he got the job in the first place is that the interview process at the time emphasized theoretical questions — which he answered well — but didn’t test anything particularly useful.

Elliott-McCrea talked about two different hiring profiles: junior candidates who may be weak in key skills but show high potential, and more experienced candidates with strong skills. In his view, a healthy team needs a mix of both. But it’s crucial for the managers of the hiring process to recognize the the difference between these two profiles and take a distinct approach for each.

"The best candidates are T-shaped"

It’s one thing to test for skills, but how do you identify people with high potential? Elliott-McCrea said that Etsy values “hard-coreness”: you don’t have to be good at the particular skills required for the job, but you have to be great at something. The best candidates are “T-shaped”: they have breadth but also one area where they’ve gone deep.

Elliott-McCrea also noted that hiring senior candidates is harder than hiring junior candidates. Often their depth and experience establish a pattern that may not be aligned with company values. He’s observed a higher failure rate for senior candidates (i.e., they get hired but either they or the company end up deciding soon that it isn’t a good fit).

2) Ensure the hiring process reflects your values

Elliott-McCrea made a statement that, while intuitive, is quite profound: “Hiring is the first place where your values get tested.” Etsy is a company that emphasizes humanistic value - it’s very mission is to build a human, authentic, and community-centric marketplace.

Etsy’s hiring process reflects these values. While they’ve added more structure to their interview process over time — this has been an evolution as they’ve scaled and matured as an organization — they do not believe they can standardize or automate the human part without compromising their values. Elliott-McCrea notes that “there’s a lot of power in people’s intuitions” and that interviews are an opportunity for interviewers and candidates to connect.

But Elliott-McCrea acknowledges that the same human element introduces the risk of bias. Etsy mitigates bias by trying to have all of their interviews shadowed (which also helps interviewers learn from one another), as well as by having a diverse set of interviewers along a few axes: skills, experience, backgrounds, etc. They also use homework as part of the interview process, noting that homework is less susceptible to triggering interviewer bias — though homework does introduce its own risk of favoring candidates willing to invest more time in the hiring process. “No system is perfect.”

3) Measure, measure, measure

Emphasizing the human element does not preclude Etsy from bringing analytics to bear on the hiring process. Here Elliott-McCrea was emphatic: “If you’re not tracking things like your base rates and your success rates and your completion rates and your turnaround time and your long-term outcomes, then you have no business being in the hiring game.” To measure the success of hiring, you have to turn it into an ongoing, living system that gets smarter over time.

“It’s such a data-rich system, more than any other form of management. You have more people, in a more structured format than you’ll have at any other point in your career.”

Etsy mostly uses their data to debug failure modes at different points in the hiring funnel. For example, if they find they are rejecting too many candidates that they bring onsite, then they look for signals they could have used to arrive at that decision earlier in the process.

Every engineering hire is a miracle

A final thought: Elliott-McCrea observes that even through software development in general is getting easier (a la Moore's Law) and we are “no longer looking for unicorns,” we, as an industry, still struggle to hire the right engineers. Perhaps that’s because we overemphasize specific technical skills, many of which will become obsolete in a few years. He believes that the key to success is understanding what will make someone a successful contributor to a given engineering organization over the long-term, not just in today’s environment.

And when you do find those engineers who are a fit? Cherish them, because “every engineering hire is a miracle.”