/Blog: Learnings from our most recent hiring experience

Blog: Learnings from our most recent hiring experience


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Ah, the hiring process. Exciting, tiring, and fun. I thought I would share my experience of this round of hiring in the hopes that readers might get inspired or learn something. The process is very far from perfect, and I’d be curious to hear any thoughts or improvements in the comments section that might help readers as well. I’ll talk about what we did differently in hiring this time around, the selection process, biases, interviews, tests, responding to candidates, and tips for employees applying for jobs (if that’s the only thing that interests you, skip to the bottom!).

Let’s go.

We just went through the hiring process again, this time to hire a new community manager at Clever Endeavour Games, as Geneviève (our current one) is moving into a production and marketing manager role. She helped tremendously in this hiring process, and while she had a big part in the process, this post is meant to reflect my learnings throughout the process, not her learnings or the learnings of Clever Endeavour Games as a whole.

The job description was written to be as fair as possible and attract as many qualified people as possible, especially ones who are members of communities that are marginalized in the game development sphere. This is in line with our recent commitment to fighting for change in the industry, and it led to some changes compared to our last hiring round:

  • Writing a job description that was open to people who had volunteer experience and not only professional experience
  • Explicitly stating our intention: “We welcome applicants from a variety of backgrounds and levels of experience, and are ready to dedicate the necessary amount of time to onboarding as needed. We recognize that members of marginalized communities often face challenges when it comes to gaining experience in the gaming industry, and we want to make our hiring process as equitable as possible.”
  • Moving several things from “requirements” to “assets”—many of the things we thought were hard requirements initially could be learned fairly easily upon further inspection
  • Reiterating at the end of the “assets” section that candidates should “Please remember that a job description is a starting point and not the end of the line—even if you don’t tick off all the boxes above, we highly encourage you to apply”
  • Running the posting by a diversity consultant who helped us to refine our wording and make some of the above changes

The result? We had more applicants that were women and/or members of BIPOC communities than ever before. We were also really, really impressed with the applications that we received. But was that because of the nature of the job itself or because of the job description? Hard to say, but we’ll craft our job descriptions carefully going forward in hopes that the wording had some causal effect on the diversity of the applicant profiles we received.

Selection Process

Of the 65+ applications, only a small handful had no related experience or cover letter, and at least 25 passed a ‘first look’ round. My method for looking through these applications was to actually start ranking them as I read them. I put my notes about candidate A on a page, then the notes about the next application went either above or below that first person. I continued that process until I had my ordered list of 65+ applications, and after a second look there were very few changes to be made to that order. It would have been impossible to do them all and then try to sort through them afterwards!

Our hiring committee was made up of me, the current community manager, and another co-founder who handles some HR with me. It was important to have this committee to try to mitigate some of the biases which I’ll talk about in the next section. We discussed our top picks and narrowed it down to a top 14 list, and ended up choosing 7 people to interview and test. It’s worth noting that each of our top 10 lists were vastly different from one another, which is more proof that a hiring committee is a good idea.

Biases and potential questions to ask yourself as employer

In trying my best to not be biased, I became acutely aware of all of the biases that inevitably come up when reading through applications. I’ll talk through a couple of things that went through my mind, but I certainly won’t claim to have “solutions” to these. Hopefully sharing them here will help make people aware of biases they weren’t aware of, or give them inspiration to think about how to do better in their evaluations.

Years ago, I learned about research that suggests that “white” names receive more interview callbacks than other names (compared to African American and Asian names according to this study). A blind hiring process involves removing any information from candidates’ applications which are not essential to the job (including names). While we didn’t use this process (and admit that there could be bias that crept in because of it), a blind hiring process can help with this. There are some suggestions of tools or ways to do it in this article from GlassDoor, and we may consider a tool suggested there in the future. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t realize these tools were as accessible as they seem to be when we went through this hiring process.

Another bias I recognized was when I caught myself thinking about the tiny, seemingly insignificant icon next to people’s email account in Gmail. Did a picture help the candidate favourability, or harm them? Does an image of something non-human—say, a colourful abstract picture, help or hinder? I found myself liking to see the person’s face, even though the image is something like 20 pixels wide and can’t be seen any larger. I found that in cases where there was no picture at all, the person seemed mysterious to me, like they were hiding something. If they had an abstract picture or a picture of a character from a movie or show, I found it more personable. When someone had a cartoon picture of themselves, that gave an even closer feeling but still not as human as an actual picture.

But then that got me thinking, how much does physical attractiveness come into play? We’ve all heard studies about physical attractiveness leading to bias in hiring, but does this come into the equation in a place as inconspicuous as the tiny email icon? I like to think not, and I think learning that this bias exists and recognizing it is the first step toward fighting it. So then the question for job-seekers would be: is it better to put your face or not put your face in that picture?

On a similar note, pictures on resumes generally seem to be discouraged in 2021—many sources say that having one is a bad idea (JobScan blog, Workopolis blog, and others) and that some employers won’t even consider applicants with a picture on their CV. However, a study from the Society for Human Resource Management suggests that a lot of recruitment is done with the help of social media, and some job sites suggest that not having a photo or presence online can be a turnoff to employers. In our case, since the role we were looking for is social media, most applicants shared their social media profiles up front and encouraged us to look at them. This makes the idea of blind interviewing nearly impossible, even if it is the fairest method. In the future, for roles that are different from this one, we might try to employ a more blind process at least for the early stages.

We had applicants from a very wide range of educational backgrounds, possibly due to the nature of the job, possibly because of the wording of the job posting, and possibly due to chance. I started to wonder how much I value—or how much any employer values—different degrees, and where that value comes from. I believe that people have some sort of degree hierarchy in their minds, perhaps based on prestige, competitiveness of the programs, salary of jobs in that field of work, what their parents did for work, etc. And what about no university degree at all? There’s also individual bias related to particular interests—as someone who is more interested in music composition than history, maybe I’m more likely to think favourably about a music grad than a history grad. In this case, the university degrees were examined more closely if there was little or no job experience, or no samples of work. Generally, I used this as a guide to applicants’ secondary skills. In general, this degree bias is something that we all need to try to check at the door before walking into the room of applicants—again, a blind process can help with this, but so can consciously not ranking one candidate higher than the other based on their degree or where they got it.

<Skillset Img>

There is a positive side to seeing this great variety in degrees though, as it got me thinking about secondary skills that we might be lacking in the studio. We’re a very small studio (7 people, with this new hire), and if someone has a music background or a writing background or a graphic design background, this could be extremely valuable as it fills some skill holes in our team. That said, if the hire would actually rather develop their secondary skill, you may find them unhappy to be working in the job you actually hired them for. This discussion was brought up within the team and actually acted as a window into a larger question of whether the company should be aiming for more specialized employees or more jack-of-all-trades employees. I’ll spare you the details of that conversation, but there is no right answer to this, only preference!

Interviews

We finally whittled the list down to seven candidates who we wanted to interview and administer a test (that we referred to as a writing exercise to take some of the edge off).

To reduce bias and give everyone an equal chance at success, the questions were the same and were asked in the same order for every candidate. There’s plenty of data on why informal interviews aren’t ideal, so I won’t touch that here. We ran our interview questions by the diversity consultant to see if there were any improvements to be made. I’ll list some of the questions here which I had thoughts about, and share those thoughts in italics. If anyone is curious about the whole interview question list, let me know and I can share that too.

  • Introduce ourselves and what we do on the team, explain formality of interview and why

↑ This came about because our most recent hire had told us that the process seemed very formal while our every day interactions were very informal, and it was a bit jarring. We wanted to clarify that and explain why it’s important to give every candidate the same questions in the same order.

  • Describe the way we work—who does what, how often we talk, our meetings, etc.

↑ This was a bit odd to throw in right in the middle of the interview. The idea was that we wanted to explain how we’re quite democratic but we still have a structure where specific people make specific decisions, and see if there were culture questions that came up. In reality, this explanation was mostly met with silence or some comment of “oh that sounds great” (whether the candidates actually believed that or just said it to be polite and fill the space I’m not sure…).

  • Do you have a favorite content creator in games?

↑ This was a great question for a community manager who will be doing marketing and outreach work. It was clear to us who had a good handle on the streamer ecosystem and some candidates even gave examples of streamers / content creators that they liked because of their values and community, which tied in perfectly with the values we tried to put forward on the job posting itself.

  • Can you tell us more about yourself, any fun facts or interests that you want to share?

↑ This was one of my favourite questions because we finally got to see (for most candidates) how they speak and act when they’re no longer nervous about doing an interview. That said, this leads dangerously into the realm of informal interviews, which is both why it’s natural for me to like it but also why it’s an easy trap to fall into that we restricted to only the last few questions.

Of course, as in all things hiring, there are a plethora of biases that pop up in interviews. I’ll list a few here.

A candidate might share common interests with you—growing up in the same city, sports you both play, having the same favourite video games as a child, etc. and this might affect how much you connect with them. A hiring committee should help with this.

The order and scheduling of interviews may affect your judgment as well—are you more likely to pick the last candidate because their interview is freshest in your mind, or least likely because you’re tired of interviews already? Are you more likely to pick the first one because you’re constantly going back to them as the marker of what a candidate needs to beat to get through, and recalling the interview with them enough times that it becomes familiar? Or is the first one the least likely because it’s the farthest back in your memory? I don’t see any way around this, except to maybe make sure not to schedule all of your interviews back-to-back, which will surely tire you out by the time you reach the last few candidates.

How does the time of the interview affect your feeling about the candidate? While the study suggesting that judges give harsher sentences when hungry may have some correlation-implies-causation issues, there may still be something to the fact that we act and differently in the morning, in the afternoon, when hungry, when tired, etc.

How much does the composition or quality in video calls affect your judgment of the candidate (probably unconsciously)?

There was one mistake that we made in the first interview that I wanted to bring attention to in case it helps someone in the future: at the end of the first interview, we told people that there would be a writing exercise and then a second interview, but there was only a second interview for the candidate we actually selected! The “second interview” was more of an informal job offer and chat to get to know the person, so it was misleading for us to close the first interview by saying there would be a second one.

Tests

There was some back and forth within the studio about whether or not to have candidates do a test, and whether or not to pay for the tests. After speaking to other indie studio owners and some very successful (i.e. in high demand) freelancers, we decided to do a paid test for all candidates that were offered an interview.

<Test Img>

As I mentioned previously, we had hired a diversity consultant to look at the job posting and interview questions. Initially, she was quite adamantly against the testing process due to concern that the candidates with professional experience would almost surely score better on the test than ones with only informal or volunteer experience, and that we would need to develop a clear marking scheme before we receive the complete tests. We took her consideration into account and tried to design questions that allowed candidates with less professional experience to compensate with creativity, and we tried to avoid questions that would obviously be easier for those with professional experience. For example, we had drafted a question that asked: “if you had $10k to spend on a marketing campaign for Ultimate Chicken Horse, what would you do with it?” This was changed and, in hindsight, was quite obviously a question that would test someone’s ability and experience in working within a marketing budget, which is against what we were going for in the original job post.

On the other hand, one of the questions we kept was the following: “When you think of good online community management, is there any game, game studio, or non-game brand that comes to mind? Which one, and why?” This is the kind of question that, in my opinion, would allow anyone who has been in and around game communities to answer well, without giving advantage to people with professional experience.

Having applicants do a written test was definitely the right call—we found that the results from the writing exercise were very eye-opening, especially combined with the interview notes that we had. Some people who did extremely well in the interview were a bit underwhelming in their written test, and some who didn’t amaze us in the interview came out with an extremely impressive written test.

An additional argument for having help in the hiring process: there were details that came up in the writing exercise which I didn’t anticipate, but that Gen—my colleague who wrote this part of the test—did. For example, we asked candidates to make sample images for social media—this tested people’s ability to size images correctly for different social media platforms, using fonts or colour schemes similar to what we have on our website, using the right hashtags for the right social media platform, etc. These details helped to differentiate candidates in important ways.

Different analyses for different job posts

The analysis of the candidates for our previous hire—a Unity tech artist—was very different from the analysis of the candidates for this community management job.

For a (mostly) art position, content is the most important thing—what is their portfolio like? Is there a diversity of project types and styles? Can they show that they have a good understanding of the basics, like anatomy and perspective? A test might be less important but still necessary to see if they can match our style and work quickly. For a programmer position, I imagine that playable projects might be the most important thing, followed by a test (but I admit it’s been a few years since we hired a programmer).

For this job, it was much harder to define exactly what we were looking for. We were open to a candidate surprising us with a skill we didn’t know that we needed, and we were open to changing the way we do things to accommodate their skills. As the person who is ultimately responsible for culture at the studio, I was also focused on what kind of energy that person brings to the team and how that would change the team dynamic. On a team of 7 people, this is more significant than you might expect, and I would argue that it’s a valid part of the analysis. That said, this made the analysis very difficult, especially given the fact that people can be nervous in interviews and the fact that video calls are always less personable than in-person meetings. In the end, we had several candidates who would have been a wonderful fit for the position.

Telling candidates they didn’t get the job

Most candidates were emailed individually to let them know that they weren’t selected for the job. For the top candidates who weren’t picked—the 6 other interviewees—I wrote as much feedback as I possibly could about their application, interview, CV, and why they were not chosen. For the top 25 people who made it past the “first look” round, I also sent them individual emails. These emails had a copy pasted portion, and a sentence or two of specific feedback about why they weren’t selected for an interview. The remaining 25 or so applicants were sent a copy pasted email, though they were still individual emails (that is, I didn’t just put a bunch of them in BCC).

I realize that giving this amount of individual attention to each applicant isn’t always possible for a large company that receives a thousand applications for a job, but in my case this proved to be worth the effort. Here is why: “Thank you so much for getting back to me and providing genuine feedback regarding my application. I can’t express how much I appreciate not receiving a cookie cutter response.” And “I can honestly say I’ve never experienced this level of effort from an employer before. And based on this exchange alone I know that Clever Endeavour is a studio I’ll always keep my eye on for more opportunities going forward.” You can be sure those people will be good for our company image—it’s a small industry and respect goes a long way. I also reached out to some of our top applicants to send them a job posting that went up around the time we were hiring for another position they might fit. It was as simple as 3 minutes of sending emails, and based on their responses they found it both surprising and refreshing.

<Cookie Cutter Img>

If anyone is curious about what these emails looked like, feel free to reach out to me or comment on the blog and I will share (without names or identifying details of course).

Miscellaneous stuff for employers

I’d like to take some time to share some more miscellaneous learnings for employers, especially those who are relatively new to hiring.

  • It always takes longer than expected (this is true about everything in game development, but let’s stick to hiring for today heh). Going through applications takes longer than you think—even with only ~65 applications, that’s still 65 CVs and about 60 full pages of cover letters to read.
  • Setting up interviews can be drastically sped up by using a service like Calendly, as opposed to going back and forth a million times with all of the candidates. Still, getting all of your interviews done as close together as possible can be challenging, and extra time should be factored in for trying to juggle interviewees schedules.
  • It might be a good idea to quickly tell the lowest rated candidates that they were not chosen. I found that I was leaving a lot of people hanging as we reached out to our top candidates for an interview, sent a test, waited for tests to come in, and then reviewed those tests. We could have told the top 15 applicants that we need some more time, and told the bottom 50 that they weren’t chosen for interviews to save them some time and nerves about the job search.
  • Leave more time than you expect between the final interview and the expected start date. Even when you choose a candidate, there’s a contract to sign and there may be some back and forth about it.
  • A candidate may be already employed elsewhere, and will have to tell their current employer that they’re leaving. It might be more respectful for them to give a month’s notice to transition smoothly out of their position and allow the employer to find a good candidate to replace them, compared to an abrupt notice of departure in two weeks. Again, it’s a small industry. If your future employee tells their employer that their new job will allow them the time to transition out nicely, they will have more respect for you and your company and this could go a long way.
  • I can’t remember who said this, but I read somewhere that when thinking about the likelihood of success for a new hire, 80% of the process happens after they’re hired. What I gather from this is that with even a few good candidates, it’s hard to make a “wrong” pick, but it’s important that you onboard them well, set clear expectations, and help them grow into the position you’re hiring them for.

Tips and tricks for employees

Lastly, I’d like to share some tips and tricks for people applying for jobs. I wrote these down as I was going through applications, so they’re in a bit of a random order.

  • I’m reading over 60 applications, time is of the essence!

  • Make sure to link to relevant material. Every click is precious, and I’ve had to dig pretty deep to find some people’s work. If you’re including anything that exists on another site, like a Twitter account for example, hyperlink it. Some applicants said that they have a YouTube channel and associated community that they manage—but it took me a while to actually find it (Google to find their Twitter, try to guess which one is them, find the right Twitter, get their YouTube channel link, etc.) since their channel doesn’t have a massive following. Now imagine if there were 1000 applicants instead of 65. Every second counts!

  • Tell me why we should want you, not only why you want us. There’s an implied and undesirable power dynamic created the instant you say “your company is so great and amazing and I’d be honoured to be able to work there” without saying “this is why your company will be better off than it was before with my presence on the team”. I know it’s difficult to express this—many people worry about coming across as over-confident—but it needs to clear in an employer’s mind that it’s a win-win when we hire someone, not an act of charity to “let someone work for us”. And let’s be honest, no company is perfect enough to deserve that kind of worship anyway.

  • Formatting is important. It’s an unpleasant feeling to be on your 16th application of the day and open a 2000 word email and a cover letter that’s 2 full pages of size 9 font. Also, please don’t riddle your CV with a million different fonts. There are many great resources about combining fonts and creating appealing visual layouts, please use them! If you’re not good at this kind of thing, ask a friend who is.

  • My favourite email and CV format was as follows:

    Hey Rich (or Gen, but not “dear hiring manager”),

    One or two sentences that introduce themselves and explain why we should be interested in them—”I have experience in (insert topic)”, and explain why they’re interested in us—”I saw your job posting and find it interesting because…”

    • Bullet points listing the most relevant experience and skills
    • Bullet points listing the most relevant experience and skills
    • Bullet points listing the most relevant experience and skills

    Sentence with links to portfolio and work samples

    Attached CV and cover letter

    This format allowed me to pretty much copy paste their bullet notes into my own notes about all of the applicants, which means that this applicant basically determined what I was going to say about them to the hiring committee, and didn’t need to depend on my biased and potentially hurried judgment. Another top format pick that I liked was the same, but the whole cover letter was in the email itself after the links to portfolio and work samples.

  • Keep your interests on your CV! I know that in high school or university they tell you not to include interests because it looks unprofessional, and maybe this is a personal thing, but I would rather hire someone with diverse interests relative to the interests of people on the team than someone who has exactly the same interests. And, seeing as people tend to have pretty unique interests, it’s always better to see your interests to encourage the idea that there’s more to you than just your work experience. That said, the video games industry is a creative one, and I could imagine some people arguing that this isn’t “professional” enough if you were applying for a job as a lawyer or accountant. But even then…

  • I now understand why people tell you to write your address on your CV. When I was looking through and considering remote work for the duration of the covid pandemic, it was important to know who lived where.

  • Mention the languages that you speak—secondary or tertiary languages can be an asset even if you don’t think your knowledge of that language is useful, or even if you’re just a beginner.

  • Don’t send zip folders where possible—if files are large, send a Google Drive link so that we can view things online. While the zip is downloading, I might click to something else and either forget about it (again, imagine 1000 applicants and only a couple of days to look through them) or just be slowed down generally. If samples can be attached directly to the email, great, otherwise links to websites are great.

  • Make sure to keep the 30 minutes after your interview free, they often run longer than expected. Employers should respect your time, but if the interview is going great and runs long, you want to be able to get as much of yourself into that interview as possible.

Thank you for reading! I learned a lot through this process, and I hope I was able to share some of that learning with you in this article. As always, feel free to comment or to reach out to me directly if you have questions, thoughts, feedback or anything else.