Zach Sims of Codecademy on Figuring Out How to Hire for the First Time

After closing their round led by Union Square Ventures and finishing Y Combinator, Zach Sims and his co-founder Ryan Bubinski turned almost all of their attention to hiring. This didn’t come easily given this was the first time either had really hired anyone. Since there were only two people in the company, every minute spent not working on the product was spent interviewing and every minute spent interviewing was a minute that the product wasn't being advanced.


As Sims notes, “It's frustrating working literally 18 to 20-hour days without an end in sight. No weekends, no nothing, because if candidates couldn’t interview on Saturday or Sunday then it was a great day to get work accomplished, and then the other days we actually had to hire people in order to continue building up the product. It can be an exhausting cycle."

Sims was also faced with a stark reality of hiring people for the first time ever — it’s hard to know what to look for in an ideal team member. And, to make matters even more difficult, your first few hires will ultimately set the culture and talent trajectory for the company — so you can’t take the process lightly as it’s almost impossible to undo. So, to get their first hire, they met a lot of people, over 100.

Sims and Bubinski found themselves getting close to the finish line with dozens of candidates but having doubts at the last minute. As they went on, they refined the process and ended up spending lots of time with candidates, often engaging in two-week trials. Their first two employees had even deeper existing relationships.

Leng Lee, who joined as a data scientist, had known Sims for more than six years. Amjad Masad, who was the company’s first engineer, had worked with both Bubinski and Sims on his open source project repl.it. His interview process was a little unorthodox — Zach hopped on a plane to Amman, Jordan (where Masad lived at the time) and spent three days talking to him, meeting his family and his fiancée, and making sure there was a fit.

While in Amman, he hired Lee over the phone (he was in Melbourne at the time) and talked Masad through the company they would build together over arak and Jordanian food. Sims and Masad sealed the deal at the airport, signing an offer letter minutes before Sims got on a plane. At the time, it seemed pretty drastic to fly halfway around the world to hire someone, but it’s since been emblematic of the lengths Codecademy is willing to go to in order to find the best talent. Linda Liukas, Codecademy’s community manager, went through a similar process — Sims flew to Finland to meet her and interview her for a few days as well.

As the company moved past their first hire, they began to spend more time thinking about cultural values and non-technical characteristics that they wanted to hire for at Codecademy. Sims and Bubinski worked together with their recruiters and their early team to define core cultural values and ways to screen candidates effectively in interviews. Sims doesn’t necessarily believe that testing for cultural fit is about the cliché “Sunday test” (asking if this is someone you’d like to spend your day off with) or the “beer test” (is this someone you’d like to have a beer with) — but rather a set of core qualities that you want everyone to posses. If you only hire for the beer or Sunday test, you risk having a completely homogenous company. For Sims, Codecademy's cultural characteristics break down into:

  • Passion for education — given Codecademy is an education platform, it seems obvious to Sims that their team members should be composed of people who love to learn. During the interview process he looks for things in the candidate’s past that show their thrust for knowledge and education.
  • Missionaries — it sounds cliché, but both founders got excited about the idea for Codecademy because of its potential impact — it could change how people learn and even change the world. They wanted their first few hires to feel the same way and get equally as excited. There are lots of candidates who want to just be really good engineers, or do great business development deals, but they wanted their first handful of hires to deeply share their vision for the company and get as excited about the idea as they did.
  • Self-starter — Zach found that one of the qualities he valued the most was initiative: People who just did things and built things. During the interview process Zach asks questions like, “What have you built yourself?” or “What are you most proud of that you’ve created?” One of Zach’s first hires, Masad, built an open source project that let users execute Python and Ruby on the client side and run it in a browser. When they asked Masad why he built it, he replied, “I just needed it to exist so I went and built it.” He solved his own problem and it didn't occur to him to call another company that was building an online editor and make a feature request. He just built it. That’s the kind of culture Zach’s trying to build and thus why hiring those kinds of people is so critical.
  • Reflective — Sims and the Codecademy team have built things quickly (including the first iteration of Codecademy) and tried to learn at every step during the way. They wanted their future hires to be able to look at what they had done in the past, find out what worked, and scrap everything else.

Once Codecademy established some of these core cultural values, they refined the hiring process by incorporating feedback they had gotten from candidates and examples from other companies, along with advice from their recruiters. The current process looks like this:

  • A phone screen to get a sense of whether the person is a fit at all. Generally focused on broad questions about the candidate and selling of the Codecademy vision.
  • If the candidate makes it past the phone screen, they’re brought in for a series of interviews. Each Codecademy team member who interviews the candidate focuses on a unique area. So, one might be culture, another might be front-end technical skills and another might be back-end. This move away from everyone asking the same types of questions to one where each interviewer focuses on a different area was transformational for Codecademy, and has led to better and faster decisions.
  • After the candidate meets with the interviewing team, everyone gets in a room together and debates. They go around the room and each person shares their opinion only on the area they interviewed for earlier in the day. For example, if one interviewer focused on front-end abilities, they would walk through what they asked the candidate to do and how they feel they performed. If someone was responsible for culture, they’d run through the concepts they use to determine whether or not someone is a good culture fit and comment on how the candidate stacked up on each of those attributes. Essentially everyone is sharing what they learned from each interview.
  • Once the team has a holistic picture of the candidate, they enter into a discussion where people will talk about what's most important in a given candidate. While no one wants to compromise too much, Zach tries to figure out where they can be flexible and where they need to hold the line. For example, if someone is strong in a number of areas but very weak in one particular area, but shows a willingness and ability to learn, they’ll often lean towards hiring that person. The ability and willingness to learn is a key characteristic the hiring team is always looking for.

 

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