When I tell my friends that I talked to over 50 companies, most of them are understandably shocked. Seeing this number at the end of my process, I’m a little daunted myself, even though I didn’t kick off interview processes with all of them. There are countless companies that are solving meaningful problems, so I needed to figure out which ones I wanted to learn more about. How would I validate that these companies aligned with what I was looking for? In case context is helpful, I wrote about why I started recruiting again in the first place here, which elaborates on my goals.
Building the List
When I started interviewing, I already had a list of companies that I was interested in. “Interested” here means anything from “I ended up on their website and thought it looked cool” to “I knew a friend who worked on a team with open headcount who seemed really happy.” I keep a running Notion page of the companies I think are cool, so when I started recruiting, I already had a pool of close to ~40 places to start with. Not many of them were in the three areas I wanted to work in (climate tech, health tech, and fintech), so I had to do some extra research to put companies specifically aligned with my interests on the list as well. There are a few things I did to source interesting companies:
- I turned on the option to signal interest and expose my profile to recruiters and hiring managers on LinkedIn. Prior, I’d been getting a few outreach emails a week about joining a company. Once I did this, the amount of inbound increased to a few emails a day.
- I reactivated my profile on Work at a Startup. I was surprised that most people I spoke to didn’t know about this job portal for all YC companies, but it was an underrated resource in my search (full disclosure: I know the person who is building it, and have a lot of respect for him). While YC isn’t the only place to look for promising startups, it’s still where many successful ones have gotten their start. The profile I filled out was a lot more intentional than LinkedIn and prompted some healthy reflection on my part, and it was clear that most people took the time to read through what I was looking for. I had a lot of strong leads from the product and recommend it to a ton of my friends who are looking for new opportunities.
- I reached out to a few friends in the investing and startup space to ask if they knew of anything interesting. Any of my friends having confidence in a company is a really strong sign to me.
- I looked at companies with founders and investors who’d had a good track record of success. YC, Sequoia, a16z, Greylock, and First Round are a few portfolios I perused to see if anything aligned with my interests, and I looked at individual investors I respected to see what they’d invested in. I was also actively looking for female CTOs and leadership.
Detecting Signals Among Noise
I think what I really want to communicate is that a compelling narrative and a good reputation made a big impact at the beginning of my job search. At this stage, it was the difference between me pursuing or not pursuing a role because I didn’t have firsthand interactions to draw from, and limited time to interview. So while these signals are imperfect, publicly available information was all I had to work with at this point. Tangentially, a recurring theme of interview processes that I noticed was there was no single factor in my job search that could commit me to a job; it had to be a combination of the right things coming together. However, there were some things that could cause me to quickly lose interest, and I imagine some of these are true for when companies do due diligence on candidates too:
- Words of warning from anyone I trusted
- Employee reviews on Glassdoor and Blind. Blind gets a bad rep (some of which is deserved), but I found it useful to see unfiltered discussion from employees about their own companies and how they felt about the future outlook. It also gave me insight into the types of people who worked at various places (as in, were they assholes in anonymous forums?).
- Companies who seemed to be endlessly embroiled in Twitter drama.
On the flip side, here are a few unique things companies did that really piqued my interest in talking to them:
- Documented engineering values: As someone who believes in the power of documentation and writing, I really appreciated when an engineering team published their values! I usually ask about these in the interview anyways, so it was great to have a lot of my questions answered up-front.
- Public roadmaps: Similar to documented engineering values, some companies published their roadmaps for everyone to see, which I thought was awesome. It gave me a clear sense of how prioritization worked, and how the company viewed transparency.
- Transparency around the interview process: Many companies (yes, even tiny startups) have internal documents that detail their interview format, timeline, expectations, and example problems, which is then sent to candidates at the beginning of the process. This is a signal of effective organization and candidate empathy to me, and I wish more companies would share these publicly so others could see good examples of well-run processes.
- Examples of team socialization: I really liked seeing pictures and videos of team members and hearing them describe their workplace. It was a nice personal touch to put faces to names in remote times, and to see a slice of different personalities that I might get to work with.
I now had a list of about ~60 or so companies, and ordered them by how much I thought I wanted to work at that place. The guiding question I used to rank companies against each other was “Based on what I know right now, would I be more excited if I woke up tomorrow and worked at company A or company B?” which is a very personal thing! There were a handful of companies where the answer to this question ended up being “Eh, I think I’d want take a few more hours of sleep instead”, and I cut them from the list. At this point, I was back to ~40 companies, but over the course of my recruiting process, I added a few more that reached out and seemed interesting.
Leveraging Warm Intros
I perused LinkedIn to see who I knew at these companies, or if I’d had contact with them in the past. If I didn’t know someone at the company, I found people who knew people who knew someone, and asked them for intros so I could make a direct connection with the company. I also reconnected with recruiters from these places who had emailed me in the past, as a way to get my foot in the door. This brings me to the next point I want to emphasize: there were only 4 companies I cold-applied to, and I didn’t end up interviewing with any of them. All of them responded several weeks later, when I was well into my onsites. Warm intros have always been the most effective way for me to recruit, especially because I neither studied CS, nor went to an Ivy.
What I’d Do Differently Next Time
No process is perfect. Throughout mine, and since it’s concluded, I’ve been reflecting on what I’d do differently in the sourcing stage next time around:
- I think I’d be more strict about adhering to my non-negotiables. When I started sourcing, I had written down my non-negotiables, but I was also spoke to companies that didn’t sit exactly at the confluence of these three things (they were usually lacking in one), so I accumulated an unmanageable volume of interviews. I ended up with offers from a few of these places, and realized that the hesitations I’d had from the start never resolved themselves throughout the process because my non-negotiables were simply that: crucial pieces I needed to feel really excited. Someone once told me that I should feel more and more excited as I go through the interview process and gather more signals, and that definitely resonated with me.
- I would quit my job and recruit full-time. I didn’t do that this time around because I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to land any offers (hello, imposter syndrome) I felt really excited about, and that I’d be left stressed and jobless, in a poor position to negotiate or push for what I wanted. In addition, I think the context-switching between work and recruiting multiple times a day contributed to the feeling of total burnout by the time I’d finished. On top of that, I didn’t like having to keep my process secret for 3 months so my team wouldn’t find out. Stealth recruiting limited my ability to freely talk about my process and interesting opportunities on public channels like Twitter and LinkedIn.
- Next time, I actually don’t plan to cold apply to any companies; it’s never been a tactic that has worked out for me. I think this is one of the core issues that makes designing an effective recruiting process challenging: how can candidates and companies who would be a good fit for each other connect with each other? Unfortunately, I don’t have a great proposal; some of the ones that come to mind all have their own tradeoffs that I think companies need to test out and wrestle with depending on what type of skill they’re looking for.
If you read this post, let me know what you thought on Twitter @chrystalzou, or leave me a note in the comments, especially if you have thoughts about how to improve the discovery process among candidates and companies!
Special thanks to Rochit Gupta and Sharon Xie, who gave me a lot of support in my previous role, and provided feedback on this post 🌱