#192 – Recruiting top-tier engineering talent for startups with agencies | Sudeep Sidhu & Sam Corcos

Episode introduction

Show Notes

When doing a big push for hiring in engineering and software development, it can help to enlist the help of international recruiting agencies who can help source top talent from around the world. In this episode, Sam Corcos gets advice from Sudeep Sidhu from Neo Financial about some best practices for hiring engineers and how highly rated agencies and hack days can help assess talent.

Episode Transcript

Sam Corcos (00:06):

The biggest challenge for us as the company was to trust them initially, which I know sounds really bad. I saw we didn’t trust them, but it was hard for us to give up our work and give them a share of the responsibility because for us, again, it was a pretty young company, the engineering team was fairly young, so it was difficult to give up something that you had worked so hard to build but then we saw everybody that we’re bringing it on is expected to the same caliber, so let’s start treating them as such.


I think once we passed on larger and larger projects, we were all very happily surprised that this was working as well as we thought because the onboarding again, for in this mass, onboarding was not smooth for a lot of people and they were able to lean on each other because again, if it’s one person who’s lost, they’re lost by themselves but if you have 10 or 12 people who are in the same boat, they can lean on each other to help each other out and get through it, so on the senior level, on talent quality level, we got exactly what we expected.

Ben Grynol (01:12):

I’m Ben Grynol, part of the early startup team here at Levels. We’re building tech that helps people to understand their metabolic health, and this is your front row seat to everything we do. This is a whole new level.


Scaling companies is hard, hiring is hard, scaling hiring, well that is hard too, especially when you talk about talent density and a competitive pipeline of candidates that have offers from many different startups. When you start to talk about some of the big tech companies that being Facebook, Amazon, Google, the list goes on and all these smaller startups that are just early on, well that gets very difficult when you compete for people who are engineers, and so how do you attract top tier talent to a startup? How do you scale and grow a hiring pipeline when the company is growing? It gets pretty difficult, and there are all these different avenues that you can go. You can pay top dollar, well, everyone wants to have rates that are competitive. Everyone wants to make sure that early employees have things like equity, incentives to keep them in place.


That doesn’t go away, but in order to attract talent, sometimes you have to start fishing in different ponds. Well, this is very much the case when it comes to engineering resources. Sam Corcos, co-founder and CEO, sat down with Sudeep Sidhu, one of the engineering leaders at Neo of FinTech startup based out of Calgary, Canada, and the two of them talked about Sudeep’s experience in growing and scaling an engineering network of potential candidates with the Canadian tech company, SkipTheDishes. Early on, Skip had a pool of engineers that were very much local to the prairies in Canada but over time, as the company grew, as it scaled, there was a necessity to attract more talent a lot faster, so Sudeep and the team, they went down to Brazil, they recruited in South America and they ran a process and over a short period of time, they ended up bringing nearly 100 engineers on board from this Brazilian talent pool.


Sam had a bunch of questions for Sudeep. How did they go about the process? What did it look like? What did they learn? What are things to avoid and how do you double down? Even certain things like when people go through a technical challenge, do they bring their own laptops or do you provide them? Do you plan things at advance before doing a recruiting trip? How exactly does it work, and if you work with an agency, well how should you think about the process? Anyway, it was a great conversation to dig in. Here’s where to kick things off.

Sam Corcos (03:53):

We just finished a big hiring push for engineering and I want to make sure that we’re prepared for our next big hiring push, which will probably be sometime early next year given that we operate fully remotely. We operate in basically America’s time zones. California to Brazil is our time zone. We also pay 90th percentile Bay area rates, which makes me feel like we can probably get access to some really quality talent in Latin America. I’ve also spent a lot of time down there, so I’m trying to get a sense of, assuming all of those things to be true, what is the best strategy? Is it talk to all of the recruiters in the area and schedule a bunch of meetings? How much of it can be done virtually? Is it useful for me to do a physical tour where I go down there and meet people, I just want to learn as much as I can about this.


Does that make sense?

Sudeep Sidhu (04:58):

The way I’ve done it because our company, the company that we did the big push for was Skip and we weren’t remote at all, so for us was, and we were able to get candidates at some small low pace compared to when we did our big push. Just to give you a number, I think before we were getting maybe about one or two new people on the engineering team, developers, engineers, one or two of them a week, and then we knew the company needed to grow rapidly because we’re taking us much larger parts of the market in Canada and then also internationally, and so for that, we just decided to say let’s fast track this process. We were working with this one recruitment company and they helped set up the event in Sao Paulo and we went there.


There were probably about eight or nine engineers in the interviews. We had some folks from our people team chat with the candidates as well and also our VP of engineering and the fun part was we all got to go to Brazil for the first time and that was really [inaudible 00:06:15] nice but also I think we would not have been able to do nearly as much interviewing and filtering if we were doing it all remotely because we were all scheduled for one and it would take somewhere between an hour and an hour-and-a-half per interview and it was a very long slow process, so our format was because we were interviewing 300 people over the course of over a weekend, our format was 10 minute meetings or 10 minute interviews and they would go through three rounds of those, so you would start off with maybe somebody on people team or you would start with somebody on the engineering side of things.


We were looking for engineers across mobile, front end, backend, infrastructure, really anything that we, and we need all those roles, so for us that was really successful and it wasn’t that if you made it past that step that you would be hired, it was more of let’s just try and shortlist as quickly as we can and then when we’re back in Canada, we would still go through the regular tech interview process because there’s no way to actually over 10 minutes try to tell if somebody’s going to be a good fit for your organization or not.

Sam Corcos (07:33):

Got it. The sourcing, did it all come from one agency? Is that how it worked?

Sudeep Sidhu (07:41):

We were working with them before going down there as well, and while we were there we also did try to work with, I think it was two or three other local agencies and we just didn’t have the success with that because the one agency we working with, they were qualified, well that’s their deal.


They work on international hiring and hiring from markets like Latin America, India, Europe, so they really had the expertise, they had the staff, they were fairly organized because this thing had to run pretty much clockwork, when you have only 10 minutes, even losing a minute or two minutes here and there, it really adds up to the end of the day, and so they were really set up, well set for this. One thing that we did to add a little bit of technical assessment to the process was we set this up as a hack day, so we had two batches, so one I think it was Saturday and one on Sunday, and we would have some sample projects set up for these engineers, these interviews to introduce to code so that way if we felt really good about them when we were on site, we would take a look at their coding challenge and then we would say where does the person rank?


We would prioritize the future interviews based on that list.

Sam Corcos (09:12):

Building on the technical interview process, that was one of my questions, so I’m imagining something like a super day where you just have a whole bunch of people show up all at once. Do you have people bring their own laptops? Do you set up stations? What is the tactical way that you manage 300 people all coming in or is this also handled by the agency?

Sudeep Sidhu (09:41):

They brought all part of their own equipment, like laptops. We did do a presentation about the company and I think that’s the one key part that not many people will get if you do a one-on-one session. I think before we even got into it we would say, “Hey, this is [inaudible 00:09:56]. This is what we do. We have our offices in these cities, this is some information about that city or talk about the household income, the average cost of a house, how [inaudible 00:10:11] it actually gets.”


Folks had a bit more context on what the move would be like and we just did a quick Q&A before the day got started, you could even grab, let’s say if you were in for developer, you could go chat with our infrastructure person who was there interviewing and same thing about mobile or backend, so you could really learn a lot more about the company and I think that help people push through the project and they were just a lot more engaged during the day but they all brought their equipment, we just had long table set up, so [inaudible 00:10:48], you probably had about 15, 16 people, we had brought in lunch and all that kind of stuff so it wasn’t like they had to go out somewhere to get lunch. It was all handled in the one giant meeting room of this hotel we were in.

Sam Corcos (11:04):

Got it. How much of this was either handled or organized or scoped by the agency that you work with and how much of this did you have to figure out on your own?

Sudeep Sidhu (11:16):

Getting the people, well getting a list of people, doing all the advertising, what was done primarily by the agency, we would of course, put that back in our marketing channels. We would say, “Hey,” on LinkedIn, “Hey, we’re doing a big push, here’s where we are,” and setting up, talking to the hotel and all that was done by the agency but then we had to figure out who gets to interview who, they had a Trello Board set up so you could see people who were moving through the stream and who got one check mark or two check marks getting feedback from their previous interviews. I think all the tech, the sourcing, the venue was all set up by the agency so a lot of it was done by the agency, we just had to drop in with our folks and get to interviewing, leave feedback and stuff like that.

Sam Corcos (12:10):

Awesome, that’s really helpful. I didn’t realize that agencies did that much of the work.


Did you guys do any sorts of group events like closing dinners? Also, did you differentiate between with our special processes for maybe very senior candidates or there were candidates that you really specifically wanted to close or was it more just bulk hiring?

Sudeep Sidhu (12:43):

For a group thing with the candidates we didn’t really do much. I think we had maybe with the one or two that we really liked, we would take them up because the team was going out at night anyway so it wasn’t much of a task and most of the people were local and so it wasn’t much of a task to add on three or four more people to the invite, that was easy enough. For the really senior ones or the ones that we really liked, we would just touch base with our people team and say “Hey, can we get them interview set up tomorrow or the day after, a full one with folks back in Canada?”


I think that’s what we talked about a lot in the feedback, we say “Hey, this person’s excellent, can we get them going on the next steps immediately and see what we can do to fast track their application.”

Sam Corcos (13:31):

Got it, because it sounds like you’ve had mixed experience with different agencies, how did you go about finding them? How did you decide on them and were there any things that somebody should look for that would differentiate between one that you would expect to be high quality and one that you would not?

Sudeep Sidhu (13:53):

This particular agency we have been working with for probably close to two years I want to say before we ask them or to set up an event like this in Brazil, and I think the key metric would just be who has used them before and what their reviews are because I think a lot of agencies are around this field, which is fair because there’s a lot of need for technical sourcing.


But for this particular agency, we had used them and we had good reviews. They were someone well established in Canada. I actually met their CEO when I was visiting Vancouver one day, so he’s a pretty nice guy and I think the difference just is how their reach is because from the local agency they worked with were even agencies that we would only get one or two hires from, they wouldn’t have much of a tool so they couldn’t really offer us much and we really just wanted the best of the best and so I think for other agencies you could say, “Hey I want this fantastic level candidate,” and they would just come up empty a lot of the times whereas this one agency would be fairly consistent with us. I’m not saying they were perfect because at the end of the day they have to get candidates out there and even if you want only stellar candidates, there’s always a chance that they’re going to give you somebody who’s not maybe at the level.


At that point it’s up to you still to interview them and have them go through your process to figure out if they’re a good fit for you or not.

Sam Corcos (15:38):

Got it. That’s helpful. You mentioned that you had people on your team posting and all that. Do you have a hand wavy percent of the people that you ended up hiring? How many of them came through the agency versus through other channels?

Sudeep Sidhu (15:56):

I think the majority of our international hires were through one or two agencies just because we couldn’t even fire up the referral pipeline if you don’t have anybody but we had a handful of folks that would come through the agency, they would know the people or that were already at Skip or they would be in a shared Slack space and then our engineers would say, “Hey, if you’re thinking about it, you should really come.”


“Here’s what we were working on,” but the majority of the hires were through the agency. I think for the first shift that we did, out of the 300-ish that we interviewed, we hired about 90, which was maybe a time too much from what we learned. The first [inaudible 00:16:41] went was in March of 2018 and the second time we went was close to the end of June of the same year, and the second time we interviewed about 250 but this time you only took in about 30. I think we all had learned what happens to your company when you onboard, we’re trying to onboard, when you go from one or two a week to about 10 to 12 people showing up, it’s not manageable.

Sam Corcos (17:09):

No, it’s hard. The next question is really around quality. We index pretty heavily on talent density here and I don’t have a ton of experience hiring engineers outside of the US.


I’ve hired quite a few, but they’ve always been one-offs, like a person who came highly recommended from a friend and they worked remotely so it didn’t really matter to me where they lived. I’ve never done one of these big hiring pushes. I know a lot of people who hire largely maybe junior or mid-level experienced people, which is totally fine but I’m curious in terms of the seniority and experience, were you able to find or were you looking for very senior, very experienced people and were you able to find people of the same quality as you would find if you were sourcing from say the Bay area?

Sudeep Sidhu (18:16):

The expectation was to only get very senior people. We didn’t want to get somebody who was early on into their tech career and then have them move, which I suppose is a bit different for Levels, but we didn’t want to have somebody move and then say, “Hey, it’s not going to work out,” because it is painful. It’s an extremely painful process to go through and then after three months the company just says, “Sorry, this is not going to work out,” so for us, the bar was always kept very high, and we also knew that folks who were coming in from the pipeline of this agency, they were communicating with each other quite a bit about the process so they would provide intel as to what to expect from the interview, who does easier interviews, who does the more difficult interviews, and I think because we knew that we would try to change it up a little bit or try to make the interview not so much as a checklist of things to ask, but more of a personalized conversation, which generally is my style.


But [inaudible 00:19:30] was always that these people are going to be the very top senior candidates and if we ever had a shadow of a doubt that this person would not work out well, we would just stop the process there, again, as an immigrant, I can’t think of what it would even feel like if you started and then the company was to say, “Hey, we’re terminating our employment agreement.” We were able to find a lot of senior candidates. There’s a lot of talent, especially in Brazil and senior Latin America, folks who’ve been doing this for just as long as the rest of us have. Their industries are pretty similar. They’ve got FinTechs, they got banks, they got technical branches of very large old organizations. We had this one joke where I think it was one in every fourth person that we hired, they were working at this big oil organization called PRETROPRESS and it was it pretty funny, you’ll see how many people just have, I worked there and they’re all senior and they all came and did great things.


I think the biggest challenge for us as a company was to trust them initially, which I know sounds really bad. I saw we didn’t trust them, but it was hard for us to give up our work and give them a share of the responsibility because for us, again, it was a pretty young company, the engineering team was fairly young, so it was difficult to give up something that you had worked so hard to build but then we saw everybody that we’re bringing on is expected to the same caliber, so let’s start treating them as such, and I think once we passed on larger and larger projects, we were all very happily surprised that this was working as well as we thought because the onboarding again for when you hire this mass, onboarding was not smooth for a lot of people and they were able to lean on each other because again, if it’s one person who’s lost, they’re lost by themselves.


But if you have 10 or 12 people who are in the same boat, they can lean on each other to help each other out and get through it, so I think that on the senior level, on the talent quality level, we got exactly what we expected.

Sam Corcos (21:57):

Got it. When it comes to hiring, because we narrowed it down to probably Brazil and Argentina as the two major places that we’ll be looking at, we can expand up after, but those are probably places that we’re looking at now. How did you find when it came to language communication, documentation, all of that, was that ever an issue or did you just set very clear standards of fluent in English?

Sudeep Sidhu (22:28):

The one good thing about the agency they work with is they do the evaluations for these candidates based how their English is.


They would only send us folks who were fluent or had passed their IELTS or something for a [inaudible 00:22:46], so it was never a challenge. I think the challenge is always more of a culture difference rather than can this person comprehend English. Every now and then, you do get somebody who’s comprehension is a bit wanting but it’s extremely rare, for lack of a better term. They all speak English there and they’re all very good at English and all the organizations they work for are either big organizations or multinationals, so that’s bit of a soft requirement for them to be employed in that field but there was never really an issue of English.

Sam Corcos (23:24):

That’s helpful. I also had a notes here around integration and onboarding are there, so in our case, we don’t need them to move so they can still work remotely. Are there any things we should be aware of when it comes to integration and onboarding that might be different than the way that we do it for our current employees?

Sudeep Sidhu (23:52):

What I would say is, and this is tough for me because I’ve always worked in an organization that like [inaudible 00:23:59] office, so I can only speak from that lines is we’ve had folks start remotely and working remotely for about a year or so, maybe before they were able to move to Canada just because we needed them to start at that time, and the big thing was them not buying into the company because nobody ever went up to them and say, “Hey, this is what we’re doing, this is what we’re building.” We would have the all hand meetings once a month, but then you lose so much because you’re not at the office, you’re not working around people who are on your team, but then you’re by yourself somewhere thousands of miles away, so I think for us it was really one thing that I learned later on is how often you have to engage with people who are working remotely from us because they’re in a different culture, it’s hard for them to relate to the average person here.


I really had to keep in a very open feedback loop and very consistent feedback loop with all of our international hires that were still working remotely just so they would know what the company was doing, what the mission was, why are we doing certain things, that it was okay to ask questions. Another and the big thing that goes into is the culture is more of a top down only communication, so if you have your CEO, they tell the directors or whatever to do the managers, the managers will tell the engineers to do or the product manager will tell the engineer what to do, and there’s not much opportunity from what I gather in those cultures to actually say, “Hey, I think you’re wrong, just because you said it, I’m not going to actually take it on face value. Here’s some alternative or here’s why I think you’re wrong.”


We really had to coach that as well that no, you can have an opinion, you should have feedback on a lot of these things. It’s not just talk down, here are your marching orders, go build me this thing. I think that was the biggest cultural difference that I saw was here in being Canada, folks are a lot more, they feel a lot more empowered to say give me feedback to the superiors where we were hiring people and bringing them on from Latin America, that was not the norm. We had really had to coach that.

Sam Corcos (26:29):

I could see that for sure. We even see that within our culture, one of our cultural values is you can change things here and even people who by background have a similar culture based on their work experience, it takes often months to get people to actually believe that that’s true.


It takes a lot of practice. This was very efficient. I appreciate you making the time. Do you have anything else that you could think of that we should be aware of if we were to go about this maybe early next year?

Sudeep Sidhu (27:08):

One thing I will say is the network of candidates is fairly connected, so if your organization is doing some, let’s say, shady stuff or there began [inaudible 00:27:22], that news does spread pretty quickly. Again, not saying that you guys will go down the road or this is something to watch out for right now, but the network is fairly connected, which is a good and a bad thing. I think if you do get a really good candidate, the next best thing to do is to just ask them for referrals because from my experience, folks have good friendships and they’re fairly strong friendships and they will rarely give you a bad referral.


Everyone that I’ve had refer somebody else from Latin America, to me, they’ve been as good or better than that candidate that referred them because they feel a sense of pride when they’re referring somebody. It’s not that, “Hey, can you give me a job over there?” It’s more like the person who’s already hired, they’re the ones who will reach out to network and say, “Hey, I’ve got this really good company. You could check them out. They will do all the of the advertising, they will do the pitch on your behalf. They’re happy to do so because they see it as the next big opportunity,”


I think after you do get, maybe you already have but after you do get Latin candidates, the next best thing to do is just get them to reach out in the network. One, it’s hell of a lot cheaper to go that route and second, you know this candidate will work out. Somebody has vouched for them and in that culture, vouching is fairly important. It’s a major component, so there’s a lot of just self pride that they can bring somebody else on to the team that they know and they can work with. It also bridges the gap a little bit between the cultures now because they have somebody who’s working for the organization that’s in their same culture, it makes their stay I think a lot easier.