We recently chatted with Mario Behrendt, Head of Engineering at tails.com, who used Stack Overflow to hire one-quarter of his engineering team in the last 12 months. We discuss the hiring process and what quality talent means to him and the tails.com team.
Congrats on growing your team! You tripled it in the last year. Tell us a bit about that.
Thank you! Yes, tails.com is on a rapid growth trajectory. I oversee the software engineering department, as well as the growth and retention of engineers. Tripling the team size with the right quality of talent has been vital to ensure that we are geared to support our ongoing expansion in the UK and beyond.
Stack Overflow has provided the best performing source of candidates and hires so far for us. And we have tried a lot of different ways.
Can you tell us a bit more about the different ways?
As a business, we are very comfortable with the ‘test and learn’ approach! We’ve used basically everything that exists in the recruitment world, and they’re all a couple of years behind Stack Overflow if you compare Candidate Search with other CV searches. It’s simple enough for ease of use, but it also gives you all the tools to filter. For example, you can look specifically for active Python engineers in a particular area, and then you can drill down to the people you want to have access to.
The same with the job listings. The whole backend for that is very easy to use. At the same time, it’s quite powerful, how many people you can access, and the statistics are quite helpful as well.
Tails.com is quite a well-known brand, with lots of TV and other marketing exposure. But is it well known among engineers?
This is the challenge. You need to become known as a tech employer. Most engineers will be on Stack Overflow on a daily basis and just seeing the tails.com logo that they might have seen somewhere else on TV or on Facebook before, making that connection in their minds that, “Oh, this is actually a tech company.” Because at first glance, we are selling nutritionally tailored dog food. That might not sound technical, but actually, the tech department is our second biggest department after our customer experience team.
So we are very technical, and it’s quite hard to tell from the website unless you dig deeper. But seeing us on Stack Overflow is really helpful for potential candidates to make that connection.
So let’s get the big one out of the way…do you have dogs in the office?
Yes, absolutely! We have a Vet and a number of nutritionists on the team as well. Every person joining tails.com can apply to bring their dog to the office. We have a total of 56 registered office dogs over both our sites and on any given day we probably have about 20 in the office.
Can you talk a little bit more about the relationship when it comes to employer branding and HR, how do you make sure that you’re all on the same page in terms of what a good engineer is?
Tech employer branding sits with me and a person dedicated to it in our People team. For general hiring tasks, we basically involve everyone who is out of their probation period in the interviewing for engineering. Except for the first phone screens, which are always done by the hiring managers and the more senior engineers.
You work with recruitment agencies too, how does that marry with Stack Overflow and how you use the platform?
We use Stack Overflow internally and work with recruitment agencies because they really understand how we market ourselves and what the very important things are to mention when you talk about tails.com. They know exactly what we’re looking for and they provide very strong candidates.
There’s a lot to know about our brand and business, and particular things about the opportunities here that really grab engineers’ attention. And then, as I said, Stack Overflow is performing very well. And the rest of our candidates actually come from direct applications.
And how do you typically use Stack Overflow?
We have one person who manages the whole recruitment process through Stack Overflow, using it to handle the job listings and the company profile, and also to do proactive outreach to active or passive candidates. And then everything ends up in our applicant tracking system, which we then use for the next stages of the process.
And we always A/B test our job listings, change a couple of other things and then a week or two later we check if the impressions went up or if the click-through rate went up or if the applications that came through that ad went up or down.
Also, Stack Overflow has a massive reach. We have two listings at the moment, one for Europe and one for Bulgaria specifically where we have a second office with engineers. So we can target very distinctly for certain countries, and that’s great. So passive hiring works really well.
Have you had difficulties hiring in the past?
With engineering, especially in London, top-quality talent is quite hard to find. With the sheer supply of engineering jobs, you can get decent opportunities without doing much legwork. Finding people who embrace our values, and who are really driven to change the world of pet food for good, is much more important to us than just pure engineering capability, but obviously, that has to come with it as well.
We are based in Richmond in southwest London, which is leafy and on the river but an odd spot for tech hiring. However, we’re in good company with Graze, eBay, Paypal and many more around the corner!
And how important is setting the bar in terms of hiring the right people for Tails? What do you look for in a candidate?
We put a great deal of emphasis on all of our team living the values which are in keeping with our culture and purpose: we expect all our people to make each day count, to be game-changing, to be customer-led and to be team-spirited. So we have a very high bar. We’re actually sifting through somewhere between 50 and 100 CVs a week.
We also take pains to make sure we are not a mono culture. We are a very diverse company, with 26 nationalities across 200 people. We’re looking for people who have different skills, approaches and experience but with similar values and a lot of drive.
We are a Scale-Up; in early 2018, we attracted significant investment from Nestlé Purina. And with the biggest food company in the world backing us, we have quite a lot of stuff we want to achieve. We’re looking for people who want to achieve something too and who want to be part of driving something purposeful forward.
Have you changed how you approach hiring? Will that change in the future?
Yes, we are constantly scrutinising our approach. It’s either by candidate feedback or looking at ourselves objectively to ask, “Hey, they did the tech test, but can we actually be 100% sure that they are a good or bad engineer based on what they have submitted or did we actually give them a tech test that doesn’t give us enough value to evaluate them?”
And then we do the same for the interview questions: anytime we notice something that wasn’t quite right or probably wasn’t the best experience for the candidate. Because we think a candidate should get the best experience possible from tails.com in the same way, a customer should get the best experience possible.