talent March 31, 2020

“Recruitment is a little bit like dating”. Rodeo’s CTO tells us how it takes more than tech chops to impress him.

We sat down with Hans Leautaud, CTO of Rodeo, and discussed what it was like to build an engineering team from scratch, his three rules for hiring the right candidate, and how it's less about tech than you might think.
Avatar for Medi Madelen Gwosdz
Content Strategist - Former

Tell us a bit about your role at Rodeo.

My role is chief technology officer, which means that I am responsible for anything tech-related. When I joined Rodeo about nine months ago, there were two intern engineers in-house. The product that we were building was built by an external company and the decision was made by the founder to start in-sourcing, to build our own software development company, basically. And that’s where I came in.

Hans Leautaud, CTO at Rodeo

And you had to grow a team from zero to a full-fledged team?

Yeah. So the interns were very junior, and they left soon after I joined. So, indeed, I had to start from zero. And that meant not only developers but also a product owner and a designer. The team is now five engineers, one UX/UI designer, and one product owner.

How did you go about building the team?

I looked at different platforms and I looked at recruiters that I worked with in previous companies. But I found that using Stack Overflow and one other platform called Honeypot, which is also quite big here in the Netherlands—worked best.

I know that recruiters were also reaching out through LinkedIn, but I saw that the response rate wasn’t there and the quality was very low. I looked at Indeed and saw the same thing. So I was really looking for platforms where the engineers were. Stack Overflow was one. And you see that the quality of the candidates is significantly higher than on a standard job or career platform. 

“The quality of the candidates on Stack Overflow is much higher than on a standard job or career platform.”

The reason I didn’t go down the recruiter route is that in the end, if a candidate talks to me as CTO directly, I think that the conversation quality is much higher because they feel like, “Great I am talking to a person who really knows what they are talking about.” They also get a sense of the person that they’ll be working with on a daily basis.

Would you say that you used Stack Overflow primarily for active sourcing?

If I look at the current team in total, I think that half of them I reached out to, and the other half, they reached out to me. So it’s both active sourcing and applications. I must say that the number of good applicants that apply for the job via Stack Overflow to Rodeo is pretty high. I’m really pleased with that.

Your company page says a lot about Rodeo’s culture. What do you think attracts people to your company? 

It’s a couple of things. First of all, we are a product company. The end product we develop is tech. In a lot of companies, you have something in between. Previously, I worked in a fashion company and we built a webshop. And even though it is still seen from a technology perspective, in the end, the product is clothing. Here, tech is the core of our business and being in the center of it is something that I think is very attractive for a lot of engineers. What I hear most from engineers is that they want to work on a product that is being used by users.

Secondly, we are a small, flat organization, so they can really make an impact on whatever we’re doing. I think that a lot of engineers don’t want to enforce whatever they feel is right, but they at least want to have a say in it. And they definitely can here. 

I think a lot of engineers value the fact that their CTO has a background in engineering. Some of them may have been working with a CTO who has a sales background or whatever, and they just don’t feel heard. With me, they feel like, “this guy knows what micro frontends are,” for instance. So I think that that also helps. Also, they talk directly to the CTO, which sometimes sounds like something very intimidating. I make sure to be approachable. I speak the same language. I don’t wear a suit or anything, so they really feel like, “I can really make a difference here.” 

And lastly, our tech stack is very good. 

When you were building the team, were you mainly focusing on juniors, or were you also hiring senior second hands? What’s your makeup of the team now?

It is very diverse. I believe in diversity in general, from a cultural, seniority and personality perspective. Some people are much more like, “Let’s really think this through,” and others are like, “don’t think but just ship it.” I’m looking for a good balance there.

When it comes to junior versus mid-level versus senior, I think that we have a nice spread. And I’m still close enough to the team to be able to really feel what is needed. Currently, I’m looking for 7 engineers and 1 UX/UI designer. We want a good mix of juniors and seniors on the team and I make sure that the pyramid is stable. Seniors at the bottom, they’re the foundation. On top of that, you can build the mid-levels, and on top of that, you can add the juniors.

I’m close enough still to the team to be able to really feel what is needed for the team.

Are you planning to grow the team?

We have the ambition to grow, definitely. We are doubling in size. The product development team that is. We have enormous ambitions. Product development is hard, right? We just need to have more manpower behind it. And I think that with adding a new team, we can go significantly faster.

Hiring at speed is tricky at the best of times. How did you build a diverse, well-functioning team in the time you had?

It’s a gut feeling. I see recruitment a little bit like dating. You can have a nice time together during a first date, but then after you’re like, “Hmm, no.” And it’s tough to put your finger on what it is that wasn’t right. Of course, you work with the benefit of the doubt, but in the end, it is whether or not you get excited by the candidate and the candidate gets excited by you, as a person but also for the company, of course. So there’s a huge dating element, in my opinion.

I see recruitment a little bit like dating. In the end, it is whether or not you get excited by the candidate and the candidate gets excited by you.

How did you select people? 

I always look for three things. Can the candidate teach us something? A lot of candidates are focused on “What can I learn from the company? How can I grow in this role?” But in my opinion, it’s a two-way street; Can the candidate be taught something? So, can they learn, can they grow? And then last but definitely not least, is the person fun to be around? There’s the airport test. Let’s say that you’re stuck in a gate for nine hours waiting for your plane. Are you having fun with this person? And I think that that is essential.

What’s your interview process? 

I always do the first screening interview. I prefer doing this in person because then you get a better feel for what type of person this is, but of course, we also do Skype or via Meet. And in that, I basically check: what is the person looking for? What kind of culture? What type of team? What experience do they have? And so forth. But I also check technical skills and expertise; does this person really know what they’re talking about?

Is that just through conversation, or is there some kind of test?

That is just a conversation. We’ll talk about concepts like SOLID principles, or continuous delivery, these kinds of things. For instance, one of the things I ask is, “What do you think quality software is?” And then you have a topic that, in my opinion, I can talk about for half an hour, but if the candidate only says, “The code needs to be readable,” then I already know; it shows how much experience the person has with building quality software.

And then, if we’re both positive, we go to the second step, and that is always with two engineers. That is definitely focused on technology, but they also look for the three things that I just mentioned. So, teaching, learning, and fun to be around.

They have an assessment during that technical interview. We give the candidate the laptop, and they get an engineering problem. It’s not an algorithmic test, and it’s also not about getting to the right answer as fast as possible, but more about seeing the candidate’s thinking process. It’s not about writing perfect Javascript code or whatever; they can also solve it in a different language. It’s about getting a peek into how someone thinks and works. “Is this person smart?” in my opinion, is something that you can test with that.

The third interview is in two steps: two half-hour conversations. One is with the product owner where we test a bit on the process: Does this person know what Scrum is, how we work, how they see that, and so forth. Because we really believe in self-organizing teams, that means that a person needs to be bringing up new ideas, being engaged in refinements, for instance.

The final step is a meeting with the founder. And that is just to make sure that the person is anchored within the organization. If you meet the founder, it feels like you’ve met the heart of the organization. And you can ask him questions like, “What is your vision?” Or, “What is your biggest challenge right now?” These kinds of things. So they feel connected to the company already, and the founder gets the last check: ‘Does this person fit?’.

Are candidates already in the Netherlands or did you get people on board from further away?

Both. The preference is from within the Netherlands. But as I said before, I believe in diversity, so that also means different nationalities. We also look within the EU and the rest of the world. It basically starts with the Netherlands, then Europe, then the rest of the world.

You could say that you’re the CTO of a team that is potentially already working too hard, and then you’re trying to grow ambitiously. How do you manage it all?

Well, initially, it wasn’t that hard. There were no engineers, so I was working with a couple of contractors, and they were just doing their thing, so I had a lot more time to focus on recruitment. I must say that during the last couple of months, it has become harder and harder, and we’re now saying, “we need some help here.” You need to be on the ball. You need to give the candidates the attention that they deserve, in my opinion. So responding one-and-a-half-day late with feedback is just not acceptable. And at the same time, there are other things that require my focus as well, so it’s a bit like Chinese plate spinning. We’re coming to the point that support is needed.

What are some of the biggest challenges of tech recruiting for you?

I think that the biggest challenge is finding good engineers. Especially with a small organization like this and it becomes more difficult as you grow, of course. But I think that we’re quite attractive for a lot of engineers, so I can’t complain about the number of candidates that are in the pipeline and have been in the pipeline during these nine months. But finding people with the right mindset and who are genuinely good engineers, that’s difficult.

Not everyone can be a good engineer, in my opinion. Pinpointing this and then also finding someone who meets all three criteria is difficult. I’ve had candidates that were very good engineers. And then the question was, is the person fun to be around? It’s like, “Hmm, no. They just aren’t.” And that is essential as well because, in the end, it is teamwork. You work with people, and you need to be able to work well with someone on the team. 

Finding people with the right mindset who are genuinely good engineers is difficult.

Do you have any advice on how to make the relationship between a technical hiring manager or CTO and the recruiters work better?

I worked with recruiters in the past, both with recruitment agencies but also corporate recruiters. For both it requires building a relationship, good communication, ramp-up energy and some trial-and-error with the initial candidates to really make it clear what kind of people you’re looking for. Because as I said, it’s in the details. The recruiter really needs to know and understand that it’s not about hard skills, in our case anyway. Every recruiter I worked with in the past asked, “What technologies do they need to be able to work in, and what kind of languages do they need to speak?” It’s not about that in my opinion. It’s about attitude. And how do you test for attitude?

It can be tricky, but what I’ve learned is that if you bring it down to values or principles, things that you can “measure,” that makes it much easier. What we did, for instance, is that we wrote down our values and we communicated them very clearly to the recruiter.

Making it measurable on what you’re looking for is essential. And working long-term with the same person is necessary as well, in my opinion. As soon as you switch, you start from scratch, and you need to build that relationship again.

And how did you find using Stack Overflow to help you internally?

I think that Stack Overflow has a unique position. It’s a platform that every engineer in the whole world is on. That creates a unique selling point because you just know engineers are there. What I like about the talent part is that you can match the Stack Overflow account with the right candidates. 

And I can see who is active in the Stack Overflow community as well. I believe that as an engineer, you should pay back or you should be involved; you should not be a ghost in the community. Three out of our five engineers were hired through Stack Overflow. 

Stack Overflow has a unique position as a platform that every engineer in the whole world is on.

What are you most proud of since you started building your team?

Being a people manager is very hard, and being a recruiter at the moment is very hard because it is so delicate. People are unpredictable. Hiring someone is always a risk. 

But a couple of weeks ago my team said to me, “You know what? Let us do this. You don’t have to define how we need to do X, Y, Z, for instance. We can take this on ourselves.” 

After the planning meeting, they started drawing on the whiteboard, defining the whole solution, doing everything by themselves. So it’s a little bit like stepping back and hoping it works, like Dr Frankenstein looking at his creation and then, “Oh, my God, it’s alive!”

And it makes me very proud of our people. I care for them deeply, and I care for the team. And seeing that it works is the most amazing thing, in my opinion, that you can see.

Read the full Rodeo story in the case study.

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