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3 exercises to craft the kind of employer brand that actually makes engineers want to work for you

Introduction

Aline Lerner

Aline Lerner

Aline is the CEO and founder of interviewing.io.


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3 exercises to craft the kind of employer brand that actually makes engineers want to work for you

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If I’m honest, I’ve wanted to write something about employer brand for a long time. One of the things that really gets my goat is when companies build employer brand by over-indexing on banalities (“look we have a ping pong table!”, “look we’re a startup so you’ll have a huge impact”, etc.) instead of focusing on the narratives that make them special.

Hiring engineers is really hard. It’s hard for tech giants, and it’s hard for small companies… but it’s especially hard for small companies people haven’t quite heard of, and they can use all the help they can get because talking about impact and ping pong tables just doesn’t cut it anymore.

At interviewing.io, making small companies shine is core to our business, and I’ll share some of what we’ve learned about branding as a result. I’ll also walk you through 3 simple exercises you can do to help you craft and distill your employer brand… in a way that highlights what’s actually special about you and will make great engineers excited to learn more.

If I have my druthers, this will be one of three posts on brand. This first one will focus on how to craft your story, the second will show you how to use that story to write great job descriptions, and the final one will focus on how to take the story you’ve created and get it out into the world in front of the kinds of people you’d want to hire.

So, onto the first post!

What is employer brand, and why does it matter?

Companies like Google have built a great brand, and this brand is largely what makes it possible for them to hire thousands of good engineers every year — when you think of Google (or, more recently, Microsoft!), you might think of an army of competent, first-principles thinkers competently building products people love… or maybe a niche group of engineers working on moonshots that will change the world.

This is employer brand. Put simply, it’s what comes to mind when prospective candidates think about your company. Employer brand encompasses every aspect of your narrative: whether people use/like your product, the problem you’re trying to solve, your founding story, your mission, your culture, and what generally what it’s like to work for you. Put another way, all of these attributes (and others besides!) coalesce into the visceral feeling people get when they imagine working for you.

Brand is the single most important thing for getting candidates in the door — even if you have a stellar personal network, in most cases, that’ll usually only last you until your first 30 hires or so — after that, your networks begin to sort of converge on one another. Even so, despite how important brand is for hiring, building it is one of the psychologically hardest things to do at the beginning of your journey because the opportunity cost of spending your time on ANYTHING is staggering, and it’s really hard to justify writing blog posts and hosting events and speaking at conferences when you have to build product and make individual hires and do 50 kabillion other things.

But, until you build a brand and get it out in the world, you’re going to be hacking through the jungle with a proverbial machete, making hires one by one, trying to charm each one by telling them your story. And once you have a brand, all of a sudden, sourcing is going to feel really, really different (just like it feels when you’ve found product market fit!).

Over time, if you continue to tell your own story, you, too, will see how much easier sourcing and hiring can be. So, let’s talk about how to craft the right narrative and then proudly shout it from the rooftops.

Why interviewing.io knows about branding

I mentioned earlier that a lot of what we do at interviewing.io is help our customers put their best foot forward and present themselves to engineers in a way that’s authentic and compelling. I’ll show you some examples of good copy in a moment, but here’s a bit of our flow to put it in context.
When engineers do really well in practice, they unlock our jobs portal, where they can see a list of companies and roles, like so:

As you can see, companies simply describe who they are and what they do, and top-performing engineers just book real interviews with one click. Because our goal is to remove obstacles from engineers talking to other engineers, we don’t have talent managers or talent advocates or, as they’re often called, recruiters, on staff to talk to our candidates and try to convince them to interview at a certain company. As a result, we often find ourselves coaching companies on how to present themselves, given limited time and space. We do work with quite a few companies whose brands are household names, but a good chunk of our customers are smaller, fast-growing companies. What’s interesting is that while, on our platform, a household name can have 7X the engagement of a company no one’s heard of, companies no one’s heard of that have exceptional brand narratives aren’t far behind burgeoning unicorns! (We define engagement as the frequency with which candidates who look at our jobs portal then choose to visit that employer’s page.)

Candidate engagement as a function of employer brand

And that’s why having a brand story matters… and why we’re equipped to talk about it at some depth.

What constitutes brand

Below are some attributes that can make up a brand story. As you look at the list, think about what each of these corresponds to in your company, and then, think about which of these are the most unique to you. For instance, every early-stage startup can say they have a culture characterized by autonomy and the potential for huge impact. It’s become a trope that doesn’t differentiate anyone in any way anymore and is therefore probably not worth emphasizing. On the other hand, if you are solving a problem that a lot of your candidates happen to have or if you use a really cool tech stack that attracts some niche community, that’s really special and worth emphasizing.

  • Your product and whether people have heard of it/like it
  • Your growth numbers if they’re impressive
  • Your tech stack and how flashy and cool it is
  • Your founding story and mission… are you working on a problem that people care about personally? If not, are you disrupting some outdated, inefficient way to do things?
  • How hard are the problems you’re solving? Both technically and otherwise?
  • How elite is your team?
  • What is it like to work for you, both with regard to overall culture and then eng culture specifically?1
    • Overall culture:
      • Are you known for kindness/work-life balance? Or grueling hours? (Either can be good depending on whom you want to attract.)
      • What portion of your employees have gone on to found startups?
      • Do you have a lot of organization/structure or are you chaos pirates?
    • Eng culture:
      • Are you more pragmatic/hacker-y vs. academic?
      • Do you subscribe to or actively reject any particular development methodologies (e.g. agile)?
      • Do you tend to roll your own solutions in house or do you try to use 3rd party tools wherever possible?
      • Do you open source parts of your code? Or regularly contribute to open source?

How to craft your story in 3 easy exercises!

There isn’t a single good formula for what to focus on or highlight when crafting this story, but there are a few exercises that we’ve seen be effective. You can do them in the order below, and by the end, you should have a concise, authentic, pithy narrative that you can shout proudly to the world.

We’ve found that it makes sense to do these exercises in the order below. First, you’re going to go with your gut and craft a high-level story. Then you’ll embellish it with details that make you unique and with anecdotes from your employees. And finally, you’ll edit it down into something crisp. As you work, you can use the list from the “What constitutes brand” section above as a reference. Note that, in general, your story plus details shouldn’t have more than 3 distinct ideas total or it’ll start to feel a bit all over the place.

Exercise 1 – The story itself

Imagine you have a smart, technical friend you respect but who doesn’t know anything about your company’s space. Quick, how would you describe what your company does and why it matters to them? Write it down (and target 5-6 sentences… but don’t worry too much about editing it yet… we’ll do that later).

If you’re feeling a bit stuck, here are some questions to get you started — think about how you might answer if your friend were asking each of these:

  • Why does the company exist/what does your product do, and why does that matter?
  • Why are you going to succeed where others have failed?
  • Why does the company matter to you personally?
  • What do you know that no one else does about your space?
  • What is your company doing that no one else is doing, and why does that matter?

As you do this exercise, note that when talking to your friend, you dispense with flowery language and explain things succinctly and clearly in simple terms! And that’s the point — the audience you’re selling to is not different than your friend, and your friend probably shares the same cynicism about disingenuous branding that they do!

Exercise 2 – The unique embellishments

Once you have the story you came up with above, which will likely be at a pretty high level, it’s time to drill down into the details that make you special. These details will likely be 2nd order, in the sense that they won’t be as broad or all-encompassing as the attributes that came to mind in the first exercise, but they might still be special and unique and worth noting.

Some examples of unique embellishments can be:

  • Your tech stack
    • Do you use any cutting-edge programming languages that one might not often see being used in production? If so, it might be a bit polarizing but attract the community around that language. More on the value of polarization when it comes to unique embellishments below.
  • Unfettered access to some type of user/a specific group you care about that your product impacts
    • Do you build products for Hollywood? Or for VCs? Or for schools? Some portion of your candidates, depending on their interests outside of work or their future career ambitions, are going to be really excited that they’ll get more direct access to users who operate in these worlds.
  • Unique lifestyle/work culture stuff like working remotely or pair programming
    • E.g. 37Signals and Pivotal respectively
  • Access to a ton of data/ability to work on massively distributed systems
    • E.g. even in its early days, Twitch had almost as much ingest as YouTube, and this was a meaningful selling point to candidates who wanted to work at scale but didn’t necessarily want to work at FAANG

The surprising value of polarization

Today’s job seeker is in equal parts jaded and savvy, and we’re currently in a labor market climate where talent has the power. The latter makes branding especially important, and by now, engineers have been told all manners of generalities about how much impact they’re going to have if they join a small startup and how whatever you’re working on is going to change the world… to the point where these things have become cliches that shows like Silicon Valley deride with impunity. To avoid cliches like this, think about what TRULY makes you special, and even if it’s a bit polarizing, own it. It’s your story, and the more honest you are about who you are and what you do, the more trust you’ll build with your audience and the more they’ll want to engage.

Another way to say this is that the most memorable stories might be shrouded in a bit of controversy. That’s not to say that you have to be controversial or contrive it when it isn’t there, but if you do operate in a space or have some aspect to your culture or tech stack that not everyone agrees with, you might find that the resulting self-selection among candidates can work to your advantage. Below are some examples of polarizing narratives.

  • Your work style. Some companies really value work-life balance, whereas others exalt burning the midnight oil. Some run on chaos and some take a more orderly approach. Some work by the book, and some choose more of a bulldoze your way to success and ask forgiveness rather than permission approach. An example of the latter is Uber — for a long time, their culture was known for a take-no-prisoners approach to getting things done, and this approach has a certain type of appeal for the right people.
  • Your tech stack. Certainly choosing your tech stack is, first and foremost, and engineering decision, but this decision has some implications for hiring, and choosing a fringe or niche stack or language can be a great way to attract the entire community around it. The more culty a language, the more fiercely passionate its acolytes will be about working for you (e.g. Rust… though by the time this guide comes out it might be something else!). Note that it doesn’t have to be thaaaat fringe of a language choice as long as there’s a tight-knit community around it, e.g. C#.
  • Your engineering culture. Do you subscribe to any particular type of methodology that might be controversial, e.g. are you super into TDD? Are you adamant about rolling all your own everything?

Note that there is no right or wrong here — to loosely paraphase Tolstoy, every startup is broken in its own way, and one saying we’ve heard is that, especially during the early days, The only thing you can do wrong is not own who you are — if you misrepresent how you work or make decisions, you’ll find yourself in one of two regrettable positions: either your hires will leave well before their time or you’ll have a bunch of people marching in different directions or completely paralyzed and unable to choose the right course of action on their own.

Exercise 3 – Your employees’ unique perspective

As your team grows beyond you, you will find that your employees’ reasons for working for you are likely different than the answers to the questions above. Talking to them (or, if you don’t want to put them on the spot, having another team member do so) can surface gold for your narrative. In particular, when I was a recruiter, one of the most useful exercises I did was asking my client to introduce me to a very specific handful of engineers. In particular, I was looking for people who 1) didn’t come to the company through personal referrals and 2) had a lot of good offers during their last job search. Why this mix of people? Because they’re the ones who, despite no personal connection to the company and despite other having other options, actively chose to work for you! You’d be surprised what stories I heard, and they’re rarely just about the company mission. For instance, one candidate I spoke to was really excited about the chance to closely interact with investors because he wanted to start his own company one day. Another was stoked at the chance to use Go in production.

Sometimes you’ll be surprised by what you’ll hear because the people working at your company might be there for very different reasons than you, but these anecdotes help flesh out your narrative and make it feel a bit more personal and real.

Once you have a few choice tidbits from employees, ask yourself whether each one is somehow charming or unusual and whether it’s a reason that a lot of people would find compelling about your company. If it’s all of these things, it should likely make it in your narrative. If it’s not particularly original (e.g. short commute) it may not be worth calling out in your primary narrative, but it’s well worth repeating and telling once you actually interact with candidates.

The finished product

So, what should the finished product look like? At a minimum, it’ll be some concise, compelling copy that you can use in your job descriptions. Hopefully, though, it’s more than that. Hopefully it becomes a consistent refrain you and your team use during calls, interviews, maybe investor pitches… a way to highlight all the things you’re most proud of about your company and the things that make you special… without having to reinvent the wheel every time.

Is brand the be-all and end-all of hiring? Not quite.

In closing, I’d like to leave you with a word or two of encouragement. Sure, as you saw in this post, brand matters. Having a great story will you get somewhere, but it won’t get you everywhere with candidates, and the truth is that the more established you are, the more candidates will come to you. But… there’s one piece of data we found in our interviewing and hiring adventures that flies in the face of brand completely proscribing your hiring destiny.

When we looked at how often candidates wanted to work at companies after interviewing there as a function of brand strength, its impact was not statistically significant. In other words, we found that brand strength didn’t matter at all when it came to either whether the candidate wanted to move forward or how excited the candidate was to work at the company. This was a bit surprising, so I decided to dig deeper. Maybe brand strength doesn’t matter overall but matters when the interviewer or the questions they asked aren’t highly rated? In other words, can brand buttress less-than-stellar interviewers? Not so, according to our data. Brand didn’t matter even when you corrected for interviewer quality. In fact, of the top 10 best-rated companies on our platform, half have no brand to speak of, 3 are mid-sized YC companies that command respect in Bay Area circles but are definitely not universally recognizable, and only 2 have anything approaching household name status.

So, what’s the takeaway here? Maybe the most realistic thing we can say is that while brand likely matters a lot for getting candidates in the door, once they’re in, no matter how well-branded you are, they’re yours to lose.

So, take heart.

Portions of this post will also appear in part in an upcoming, comprehensive Guide to Technical Recruiting and Hiring published by Holloway (where you can sign up if you’d like to read, review, or contribute to it).

1The 2019 Stack Overflow Developer Survey recently came out, and it turns out that in the US the most important thing for engineers is office/company culture… which realistically refers to the eng team culture because that’s engineers will spend most of their time. Anything you can do to call yours out (assuming, well, that it’s good) is going to be a win.
Aline Lerner

Aline Lerner

Aline is the CEO and founder of interviewing.io.