That’s me in the center, c. 2016, back in the Airbnb offices in San Francisco. (Airbnb)

These Are the Top 3 Lessons I Learned Hiring During Airbnb’s Hyper-Growth Years

Whether you are hiring one person or hundreds of people, a great candidate experience is the linchpin to attracting the best talent.

9 min read August 14, 2023
Running Your Company Early Growth Seed

At BCV I work with our early-stage portfolio companies to implement strategies to attract and hire top technical talent, and I often find myself drawing from my four years at Airbnb, from 2015-18. 

This was the sweet spot of the company’s hyper-growth era, ahead of its IPO in 2020, and we developed a reputation for exceptional candidate experience as we expanded the team. I saw firsthand how it was able to drive value for the business, and believe every startup should prioritize an interviewing experience that reflects your culture, leaves candidates with a great impression of your company and is able to be scaled. The competition for the best technical talent is always high and with these hires being so critical to building the product, every candidate and interaction becomes important. 

In this article, I’ll lay out a set of pointers to keep in mind as you develop your technical hire interview process and recruiting team, whether you’re still in the early or growth stage. It’s easy to skip over these details, thinking you can just wait until you have a recruiting team and are hiring at scale. But the reality is that many of these tips are equally if not more important (not to mention much easier to implement!) when you’re only hiring a small number of people.

Acknowledge and empower your recruiting team and invest in great recruiting coordinators

No matter how much time you spend to make the “six-star” candidate experience, there will still be things that go wrong: The interviewer is sick, there was a mix-up with the room, lunch didn’t arrive at the office, etc. An empowered recruiting team can transform these negative moments into opportunities to show care, creativity and resourcefulness that speak to the company culture as a whole. 

One of the key positions we invested in early at Airbnb was the recruiting coordinator, a role that can become vital to acquiring top talent. The role’s responsibilities entail everything from posting open positions to job boards, coordinating candidate travel, scheduling interviews across departments, being a point of contact during the onsite interviews, creating offer letters, conducting background checks and making sure onboarding is prepared. 

The success of any recruitment process hinges largely on its planning and coordination, and this is where recruiting coordinators shine. As simple as it sounds, a check-in with the candidate to see if they need the restroom or want a glass of water can go a long way, and great RCs are constantly thinking about ways to ensure each candidate is comfortable to perform their best.

You’ll want to have RCs on your team who can remain poised when handling intricate schedules and unexpected changes. And you should develop a process for collecting feedback on candidates from your coordinators. I can’t tell you how many times we avoided bad hires due to the poor way someone treated an RC.

Ensure you are excellent at the fundamentals

Get immediate feedback from the hiring team 

The hardest part of the interview process is typically not the interviews but waiting for feedback! That’s why we committed to same-day debriefs, allowing us to inform candidates about our decision and move forward with the best ones. We also tracked and measured how long candidates were spending in each part of our process, allowing us to triage which elements were taking longer than they should have. 

Reject gracefully 

If a candidate wasn’t a fit, we never just said “no” and “good luck.” We shared feedback to ensure the candidate felt like the decision was fair. Was everyone happy with the rejection? Nope. But as long as we felt we were being fair and straightforward, we were OK with that. We received lots of referrals from previously rejected candidates because of this.

Set clear expectations 

The goal of the interview shouldn’t be to trick the candidate with a difficult question. In fact, you really want to create the best environment for someone to shine because hopefully that is what you will be doing when they are hired. At Airbnb, our goal was transparency. We provided ample preparation materials and guidance, including prep calls, before the interview, and on the onsite day, we made sure everyone had a packet that included the day’s schedule. This may not scale for every org, but we offered a call with the hiring manager or interviewer if there was any confusion about what was being evaluated.

Do not burn out your engineering interviewers

You’ll also be bringing in your existing engineers for your tech hires, and you’re going to want to avoid burnout. Interview capacity is a finite resource and can be the main bottleneck to achieving the hiring needs of the business. 

Load-balance interviews across the team 

There are naturally going to be interview “superstars” among the engineers that become favorites for recruiting and therefore take on a disproportionate amount of interviews. But everyone has their limits and since burnout can creep up on all of us, be mindful of how you’re assigning interviews. We sometimes found this out the hard way when we had interviewers who went from being top interviewers by volume to completely pausing on interviewing altogether because of burnout. Take action before it gets to that point, and consider tools like Greenhouse Software and Lever to track interview load distribution data.

Cross-train across interview types 

Only have one person that can do interviews for mobile engineering hires? Not only are you setting your team up to burn out that colleague, you’re giving yourself a single point of failure for filling a type of role. Identify who can interview on all the dimensions you care about most and then make sure you have a good amount of overlap by cross-training interviewers on two or three interview types through a shadowing program (utilizing shadow and reverse-shadow).

Recognize your engineers’ participation in the process 

When you’re growing rapidly, there is an expectation that all the engineers on your team are subject to helping out with the interviewing process, and it’s important that everyone sees interviewing as a core part of the job. But because of the sheer volume of engineering hiring at certain times, you risk making hiring a second job for engineers, raising the question of trading coding time for interviewing time. At Airbnb, we were thoughtful about recognizing in all-hands meetings the ways specific engineers helped us fill roles, but also consider distributing a report on interviewing activity to help managers recognize those who are putting in this extra work.

Invest in the right tools through alignment 

When you’re on a recruiting team, it’s easy to decide on an interviewing tool and roll it out, but this is a recipe for disaster. At least one engineer should be part of every step of the process from the start. Evaluating CoderPad vs. HackerRank? Get eng interviewers in there to evaluate them with you.

Front-load screening on the typical “knock-out” skills 

Why wait till the last stage to test critical skills? By frontloading our process with questions on ”knock-out” skills, we saved time for both the candidates and our team.

Do some things that aren’t scaled, but personalized

We’ve been exploring tactics that will translate to scale — we want to implement systems, technology and best practices that can improve volume, speed and efficiency — but some of the best experiences are bespoke to a candidate. And while by definition you can’t scale personalization, those magic touches you make beyond the practices you can identically repeat 100 times daily will leave a lasting impact.

Consider how Airbnb took this out of the box thinking to its conference room design at its San Francisco headquarters. Each room is designed to represent an actual listing from around the world. A volunteer team of employees meticulously curates each space, sourcing even the smallest details from the real listing,  from specific tiles to unique stuffed animals.

Was this the most efficient way to design the office? Heck no. But I regularly heard from candidates that their onsite experience was the reason they accepted. Here are some ways you can take that lens to the interviewing process — and note that these can be applied to any kind of hiring, not just for technical roles.

Surprise your candidates 

The magic often lies in the little things. Small gestures like a handwritten note, a personalized gift card or a local recommendation can really make candidates feel valued.

Ever heard of the “Giraffe Stand” at Airbnb? The giraffe became a symbol for going the extra mile to surprise and delight for the whole company (and recognize those who did that). Some examples of things we did: A personalized note with local recommendations for out-of-towners, a video of the team congratulating the candidate on getting an offer. And this wasn’t about being extravagant, the best Giraffes were either free or under $15. 

Accommodate during the interview process 

One of the things I’m most proud of at Airbnb is that we took a very proactive approach to making sure our interview practices had flexibility for accommodations for those who needed them due to disability or medical conditions. Candidates were able to submit accommodation needs as we got the interview process started so that we could make sure to adjust and make tweaks to how we conducted the screening. Some of these included creating a customized coding environment that allowed for larger font size for those with visual impairments or a specific configuration of the seating setup for those with hearing impairment. 

Tailor the closing process 

Rushing through interviews or screenings can make candidates feel like just another number. Sometimes a candidate may need an extra conversation with the hiring manager or a colleague — all good!

These are just a few areas out of many that we could delve into when it comes to candidate experience. Feel free to reach out to me for more insights!

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