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Customer Stories

How Looker Evaluates Skills First to Foster World Class Technical Talent

Written By Blane Shields | November 14, 2017

You’ve just started a new role as the head of recruiting for a 150-person startup that powers data-driven cultures for hundreds of businesses.

The company is dependent on your team to double the size of their technical team—and you’ve hit a dead stop on technical hiring.

There’s no clear process in place at the time. There’s no clarity on neither the skills needed nor the right scoring mechanism for candidates. The lack of bandwidth puts the company at risk of losing its lead in the market.

What would you do?

We were curious how an award-winning business intelligence platformone with data at the core of its philosophy—built its technical recruiting engine.

Headquartered in Santa Cruz, Looker has grown from 150 to 400 employees over the past 18 months. It has not only won the hearts of Fortune 500 customers (like Amazon and Sony to name a few) but also earned rave reviews from analysts and review platforms (like Forrester and G2 Crowd).

Jen discusses both her broad strategy and tactical examples in this 15-min webinar:


We also got the chance to sit down with Looker’s Head of Recruiting Jen Rettig, and her colleague Director of Engineering Delaney Parker, who has been a close partner in building up the hiring process for technical roles:

Tell us, how your technical hiring was going at Looker when you started?

Jen, Head of Recruiting:  It was really difficult at first because our team wasn’t aligned internally. No one was speaking the same language or even agreed on the right technical screening process.

Plus, there’s so much noise in the job market. There are a lot of candidates. We get stacks upon stacks of resumes for a given role—but the question is: How do you not only identify the right people but also attract the right people?

We needed to grow fast but we were spending a lot of time focusing on the wrong things. To really solve the hiring challenge, it’s about crafting the right message and getting everyone on board in one streamlined platform.

What was the biggest time sink?

Jen, Head of Recruiting: Our engineering managers were spending a full work week on manual technical screening. And this doesn’t include the time from engineers who spent several hours on interviewing candidates they probably shouldn’t have met. Our biggest challenge was: How do we free up our engineering hiring managers’ time and ensure only the best candidates come onsite? Partnering with technical assessment platform HackerRank was the key to our success.

Delaney, Director of Engineering: The struggle is real when it comes to hiring. We were seeing that a lot of candidates who weren’t qualified were passing our phone screen. This meant a lot of time spent on candidates without the right technical skill set. We needed a way to benchmark, standardize, and ensure that candidates we pass through to the onsite interview have the right skills.

For instance, out of 10 technical phone interviews, which are usually at minimum 30 minutes, only one or two candidates were actually qualified. There are times when I would chat with a candidate and I knew they were wrong for the job within the first 10 minutes of the call. This time spent on the wrong candidates adds up. So this was the portion of the hiring funnel that we needed to optimize the most.

And how did you land on HackerRank as a solution?

Delaney, Director of Engineering: I had heard of it from a few friends and colleagues who had used it to practice coding challenges. A lot of our candidates have heard of HackerRank as well since it’s a free community to improve coding skills. So, I brought it to our recruiting team as an experiment.

Jen, Head of Recruiting: From a recruiting perspective we are guided by three principles: (1) everyone is a recruiter, (2) every hire makes Looker better, and (3) every candidate counts. The HackerRank platform allows our internal organizations to be recruiters, collaborate, speak the same language, and set the right technical skill expectations all in one place. Plus, there’s an advantage in being able to see the skill data from every candidate. We had to hit all three of these pillars in transforming our evaluation process. This was important.

What was the initial aftermath of implementing HackerRank?

Delaney, Director of Engineering: We saw immediate gains in time savings from our hiring managers when screening software engineering candidates. The total time we saved was an average of 12 hours per week per hiring manager.  For the first time, we could see the strengths of the technical skills early on in the interview.

Jen, Head of Recruiting: One of the biggest and quickest wins was in university recruiting. We were inundated with hundreds of paper and online resumes from students applying for internships or entry-level jobs. We struggled to review them all in a timely and consistent manner.  By utilizing HackerRank, we were able to create an online “Looker College Challenge” that we sent to all applicants and used a “call to action” and helped us get to the most interested, ambitious students.

Delaney, Director of Engineering: With interns and new grads, screening technical skills first is a huge advantage because it’s so hard to find the time to screen 200 students. And, a lot of the times, most students look the same on paper. They have the same degree and maybe one or two internships. The intern challenge is a great source of information. We create opportunities for students to prove themselves. 

And how has this process impacted Looker’s bottom line over time?

Jen, Head of Recruiting: The real success story is not just in the ability to benchmark and evaluate talent for our software engineering teams, which is important, but it’s also spread organically across Looker. There came a point when we were asking ourselves: Why aren’t we using this to evaluate our sales engineers, data analysts, customer support analysts, and basically any technical candidate who applies?

Today over 20 technology-focused roles at Looker require a HackerRank assessment at the screening phase.  

Any role that requires some technical knowledge must go through a technical skill challenge first. For instance, when I started, we only had fewer than 10 analysts handling all of our live chat customer support.  The technical testing was done manually or by using a whiteboard at the onsite interview.  

Over the course of the last 18 months, we have partnered with the team’s director and her managers to scale their team by almost 3x. The way we maintained a high bar was to make sure that we screened every candidate that we interviewed for their SQL skills up-front with a consistent HackerRank test.

It’s the only technical prerequisite for this role. It’s critical because they are the face of the company, and they must be able to help our customers solve problems and promote drive data-driven cultures. The 30-min HackerRank SQL test sets expectations for both our candidates and our hiring managers early in the interview process on what technical skills are needed to be successful in the role.

Tell us more about your philosophy on building a world-class support team

Jen, Head of Recruiting: Not only is the Customer Support team the first experience many users have with Looker it’s also the entry point and pathway to all of our data analyst roles across pre-sales, professional services, and customer success.

The customer support team is one of Looker’s biggest differentiators and is at the heart of our largest org—the customer success (CS) team. There’s high visibility of this role internally and externally. Our CTO & co-founder Lloyd Tabb interviews every single finalist for the support position, and he is energized by the level of talent he sees in these interviews.

Our CTO actually tells us that “we’re seeing the candidates we’re supposed to be seeing.”

Of course, there was a point when my team and I looked at our process and wondered if it was too strenuous with an additional step. But the whole idea of building our tech teams across the board is: Can people see themselves here?

So, we want to give them as much information about what it’s like to work here, our values, and what it means to be a Looker while also assessing their skills and alignment to those values. That’s why we haven’t changed much about the actual interview process and kept it rigorous. Working at Looker means that your day will be full of challenges. That’s reflective of the interview process.

What’s next? How do you plan to keep optimizing your skill evaluation process?

Delaney, Director of Engineering: One thing we are looking at is to see if we can use HackerRank for more project-based questions, like build an application from scratch. We want to make it more involved and collaborative to help accommodate candidates who don’t interview very well or happened to bomb the test that day.  So, we want to take the pressure off.

So, a project-based question will help us capture all of the most qualified candidates in our talent funnel. It’ll accommodate for those edge cases and, hopefully, create a better experience. We’re working on this right now, and I believe that will help us keep growing our org further.

Blane Shields is the Head of the Customer Success team for North America at HackerRank. His team focuses on making sure that our customers are happy, providing best practices to ensure they find efficiency in technical hiring.

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