The worst part of hiring

We ask a lot of job applicants at Basecamp. First, they have to make it through a long, detailed description of the opening. Then we request a dedicated cover letter that’s unique to Basecamp. And then there’s the polishing of a CV. It can easily take hours to apply to a job at Basecamp.

It used to be even worse too! For programmers, for example, we’d ask everyone upfront to submit code samples as part of their first application. Finding a good piece of code, either through open source, learning apps, or whatever, takes time. (Thankfully we don’t do that any more. You have to make it to the second round for us to talk code.)

So it’s not an unreasonable expectation to hope for some detailed feedback if the application isn’t successful. It’s entirely human to wish for feedback on “why didn’t I progress in process?”, “what could I have done better?”, “what else were y’all looking for?”.

And yet the math simply makes that impossible for us. A recent opening for a senior programmer drew over 400 applications (for customer support, we’ve seen over 1,000 applications per opening!). For that programmer role, someone spending just 20 minutes giving diligent feedback per application would keep them busy for almost 7 weeks, if they worked on that for 4 hours per day, 5 days a week!

That really sucks! It’s easily the worst part of hiring to reject hundreds of applicants who’ve put in a lot of their time with a generic “thank you for applying, but unfortunately we’ve moved forward with other candidates!”. Ugh.

So the least we can do is to be honest that this is the process. And, evidenced by the feedback from several applicants in the last hiring thaw, we clearly failed at that. So apologies to everyone who had reasonable expectations of some actionable feedback, and were left cold with a generic rejection.

Next time we’ll spell it out in the post. And applicants can make a more informed decision as to whether it’s worth their time given the risk that the sum of a response might well boil down to “thank you so much, but sorry!”.

Hiring is hard.

It’s high time to rewrite the hiring script

The disconnect between how many companies claim that they only hire the best and how they try to actually do that is perverse. A depressing number of job postings are barely more than a list of technology or process requirements paired with an arbitrary desire for years of irrelevance. That’s then fluffed up by a bunch of trite rah-rah bullshit about the supposed glory of hiring company. Ugh.

It really doesn’t have to be like this, but it’ll continue to be like that until companies drastically change their hiring script.

Let’s start with how the process is driven. Far too often, hiring is made someone else’s job. Not the responsibility of the team leader nor subject to input from future coworkers. Instead, the job posting is written by someone in HR or the executive who’s too far removed from the domain or the specifics to do a good job.

Second, the matter is rushed because “we need someone yesterday” and “how hard can it be”. No wonder most job ads look like they’ve been cut from the same template because they probably have! Writing a good job posting is hard because it requires you to actually think about what the position entails and how to realistically portray the organization it’s within. This takes time.

At Basecamp, we have no illusions that we’re going to hire “the best”. In fact, even thinking about candidates in such absolute terms is nonsense. The world is full of people who are stuck doing mediocre work in a shitty environment or blessed to do stellar work by virtue of an elevating one. Most people are well capable of doing both! The only thing that makes sense is to hire the best – defined as most complementary to the organization – person out of the candidates who apply.

Which is why taking the time to describe the role, the work, and the organization with clarity and honesty matters so much. The vast majority of potential candidates in this world are not going to apply to your position in any case. The aim of a great job posting is to expand the pool in awareness of that fact. To entice those complementary candidates to apply who might otherwise wouldn’t have. Dropping this “the best” nonsense is a start.

So that’s what we’ve tried to do with renewed vigor over the past few months here. We’ve been in an uncommon hiring spree with five open positions recently. Every single one of those involved a prolonged, careful process of crafting the best job posting we knew how. Yes, some of the framing is similar between the posts, but each one was written for that particular position. Then subjected to critique, review, and editing by a broad cross-section of future coworkers. I think it shows.

It’s a banal statement that hiring is some of the most important work that an organization does. But that doesn’t make it any less true. Although perhaps the endless repetition of that thought has dulled most people to its wisdom, and they’ve failed to act as though they believe it.

Next time your company is hiring, try to get involved. If you like the way we write job postings at Basecamp, feel free to be inspired, but do the authentic work to make them yours. Your next hire will thank you!

Not too proud to ask

I hear from people all the time who’ve been following this blog, read our books, been loving Rails, become impressed by a job post, or been inspired by a conference talk we’ve given. It’s intensely gratifying to hear how something you put into this world has had a chance to affect someone. Especially when the impact was large enough to open up a novel perspective or prompt real change. It warms.

But it also disappoints when I ask whether the person has tried Basecamp and the answer is “oh, I haven’t, we use [some assortment of big tech / valley combination] – hadn’t even thought about it”. Though the disappointment is not so much in the person as in ourselves. We’ve failed to do the work; failed to draw the connection.

Part of it is the lazy assumption that since you’ve been around for a long time, then of course people who like your philosophy or perspective would know what you make, and would have given it a try. We’ve been making Basecamp for over 15 years, so that erroneous assumption has had a long time to fester.

But that’s not how it works. If you want people to give your product a chance, you gotta ask them. Most companies do this via marketing budgets. They ask a bunch of strangers to try their product that they’ve targeted through the mechanisms of surveillance capitalism. We’ve historically been pretty hands off on ad spend, and remain staunchly opposed to invasive ad targeting.

What we’ve done instead is rely on the goodwill and word of mouth that making, sharing, and teaching affords. And it’s worked well, but it isn’t automatic. You have to activate that goodwill, if you want it to translate into sales that sustain all that making, sharing, and teaching. I don’t think we’ve done a great job at that lately. We’ve taken it for granted.

But how do you ask people who might not be your friends, but don’t feel like strangers either, if they’d try your product? Not just once five years ago, but regularly, without coming off as an annoying, self-promoting shill? I think that’s still largely an open question, but I’m really interested in trying to find the answers.

While we search, though, I thought I’d just remind myself to keep it simple and to keep it direct. So I’m not too proud to ask: Have you given Basecamp a try recently? If you like how we think about work, culture, and people, I think you’re going to like how we make software too. We’ve poured all of us into Basecamp. It would mean a lot if you’d give it a try ❤️

Scrutiny is the prize of success

There’s an unfortunate pattern amongst the Silicon Valley set whenever a startup heralding from their midst is subjected to even mild scrutiny. It’s perhaps best illustrated in its archetype by this tweet from Paul Graham:

(Screenshot provided for legion of Twitter users blocked by @paulg 😄)

In 2008, Facebook had a mere 100 million users. In 2018, they had over 2 BILLION users. The scope of a startup’s impact and influence is correlated to the amount of scrutiny it receives. This is a feature, not a bug!

And while Facebook is almost too easy of an example of this pattern, it’s far from the only one. Just yesterday, Mike Davidson wrote about the appalling and abusive read receipts feature in a new email client called Superhuman. The general response from Valley boosters was predictably disappointing (peruse @mikeindustries for countless examples), but I want to pull out one subtweet that struck me as another example in Graham’s spirit:

Do you see a thread here? It’s like the thinking goes that success does not attract scrutiny because of the broader impact it affords, but simply because conspiracy theorists are trying to hold down the makers! Yeah, the current Valley darling for email that’s received tens of millions in venture funding and is valued at a quarter of a billion already is the scruffy underdog. And just received a glowing puff piece in the NYT that didn’t address the privacy angle much. Ehhh…

I get it. Tribalism is in our DNA, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with rooting for the (spiritual or geographical) home team. But when that affection becomes a set of blinders or an apologist shield, you can’t be surprised when the broader community raises an eyebrow and is encouraged to dig deeper.

The reason this matters is that what may seem like small decisions early on become the basis for many more decisions down the road. These decisions affect your ethical trajectory as a company.

Mike Davidson

Davidson’s point about the ethical trajectory of a company is spot on. But it goes even further than the single company. There’s an ethical trajectory of a whole ecosystem, and the one in Silicon Valley is in need of some serious recalibration. Springing to the defense of appalling privacy abuses with excuses like “well, everyone else does it” only reveals just how dire the need is for that recalibration. A process that has to start with one company at a time.

But even if Silicon Valley was a beacon of ethical behavior, you’d still want successful startups on a strong trajectory to have their business model and practices subjected to scrutiny in proportion to their success. The more people are using something, the greater the potential for harm (and good). This isn’t rocket science.

Successful startups (and their boosters) should celebrate the scrutiny when it arrives by listening and making changes in actions and culture. The earlier you catch yourself drifting off course, the easier it is to get back on track. Not just of your goals for SUCCESS, but for being an ethical, responsive, and responsible company that even people outside the Valley can cheer for.

When did work-life balance become such a bad thing?

The term work-life balance has taken a beating lately. It seems to be a favorite punching bag for grandstanding about what you really need is integration or that balance is a mirage anyway. Wat?

Balance simple means that each portion of the system has a sustainable weight which keeps the composition in harmony. Going down a pedantic, semantic rabbit hole of “well, actually, work is part of life, ergo seeking balance is wrong” is some perfidy circular logic.

It’s possible to enjoy, like, or even love work, and yet also appreciate life away from work. Appreciate the breaks and the distance from work that rewards us with perspective. Scheduling such regular breaks by limiting the hours spent working during a normal week, and taking plenty of vacation away from it entirely, is not some exotic, impossible arrangement. It’s the pursuit of just that balance.

So let’s take a break from worksplaining the concept of work-life balance into a negation. Balance is neither bad nor impossible. It’s the cornerstone of a healthy, productive, and sustainable state of being.

Fuck hard work

If I have to listen to one more banal ode to “hard work”, I’m going to puke. It’s such a trite tribute that keeps getting heaped on anyone who’s ever become even mildly successful, as though it was somehow this unique aspect of their achievement.

The first rebuke to this reflexive compliment should always be to point out the survivorship bias. The world is full of people who work very hard, in that literal, long-hours sort of way, and yet only a tiny minority of those end up with fawning fans celebrating that oh-so-hard work.

But, I think, more interesting is that the world is also full of successful people who don’t work very hard at all, again, in that literal, long-hours, no-vacations, self-flagellation sort of way everyone is so eager to cheer for (at least in the US).

Yet even most of those, who might commonly “just” log 40 hours a week – putting in quality hours to make quality work – seem commonly obligated to celebrate “hard work”. You know what? Fuck hard work.

Effort is not accomplishment. If you repeat the same lesson a hundred times over, you’ll be left behind on the path to insight by the person who advances through a hundred different lessons.

This obsession with “hard work” is founded in a pessimistic view of natural state of humanity being lazy loafers. That unless we constantly reinforce the virtue of “hard work”, we’re all just going to slouch on the couch. Nonsense. The drive for creativity and creation is innate.

The virtuous label of “hard work” is only necessary when you seek to cajole people into doing a lot of what they intrinsically do not want to do. Like exploiting others, hoarding endlessly, growing aimlessly. Chasing alienating goals in service of someone else.

So please, for fuck’s sake, the next time you reach for that tired “hard work” compliment, just stop and think: Why am I celebrating mere effort? Celebrate creativity, insights, breakthroughs, rebellions, anything but mere effort. Effort has gotten enough praise to last a century or two without another serving.

Don’t buy the hiring lottery

It’s never easy looking for a job. Trotting through shitty, vague, unrealistic openings that are frequently been written by people thrice removed from those you’ll eventually be working with. Then hoping to hear back from the black hole that is the application process at many companies. Ugh. No wonder many applicants end up jaded, if stuck in that process for too long.

But sitting on the other side of the process can certainly also make you jaded. Reading through hundreds of applications from people who aren’t even trying. Trying to understand the role or trying to express why they’d be a good hire.

I think part of the problem is the idea that “if you don’t apply, you can’t get it!”, which sorta sounds like a “if you don’t play, you can’t win” slogan for a lottery. That’s a perfectly reasonable conclusion from someone who has gone through one too many black-hole application processes, but it’s also wrong.

Sure, you can’t hit if you don’t swing, but it doesn’t matter how many times I swing, I’m not going to hit a homerun against a Yankees pitcher. Not one in a hundred, not one in a thousand. Yes, step one of being in the game is showing up. But unless step two is being somewhat qualified for that game, you’re still going to lose.

This doesn’t invalidate the idea that there are perfectly qualified candidates who hold themselves back from applying due to imposter syndrome or anxiety or other reasons stemming from a lack of confidence. Boosting that confidence amongst the qualified with encouragement is ace. Let’s keep doing that.

But let’s stop pretending that the hiring process is a lottery. That sending out the most resumes is how you win it. That you should apply to positions no matter how remote of a stretch it is, because, hey, they gotta hire someone, and that might as well be you!

Applying for a job is hard. Every time you don’t hear back, you can lose a tiny little something of yourself. You thus might try just that little bit less next time. So if you keep applying for unlikely-to-get jobs, you might eventually water yourself down, and dilute your application, until it’s a very thin cup of tea indeed.

Don’t do that. Apply when you have a real shot. Stretch a little, but not too much. Save yourself and your ego from the lottery trap.

Minimum pay at Basecamp is now $70,000

We pay at the top 10% of San Francisco market rates for salary + bonus (but not stock options) at Basecamp. Those rates apply to everyone here, regardless of the role or where they actually live. We don’t even employ anyone who live in San Francisco!

We picked San Francisco as our benchmark because it’s the highest in the world for technology, and because we could afford it, after carefully growing a profitable software business for 15 years.

For programmers, designers, operations, administration, and the vast majority of other roles at Basecamp, simply following the top of the market rates is a pretty sweet deal: High salaries, benchmarked against the top market, yet most people live in places with far lower cost of living, which means we’re even more competitive in local markets.

(While we might be top 10% for San Francisco, I’m pretty sure we’re in the top 1% for, say, Fenwick, Ontario or Spokane, Washington or Madrid, Spain.)

But where this doesn’t work as well is when the San Francisco market rates reflect how technology hasn’t really raised all boats. While the rates there for programmers and designers are far higher than many other places, this is a lot less true for, say, customer support or other roles that hasn’t seen the same market competition.

Keep reading “Minimum pay at Basecamp is now $70,000”

We’re hiring a Director of Operations

Basecamp is hiring a director of operations to run the team responsible for all our technical infrastructure. Our suite of applications is served from a mix of our own servers in leased data-center space and cloud setups in Google Cloud and AWS. The job is to ensure that everything runs smoothly, the lights stay on, and we’ve prepared for bad luck with good planning.

This is a role for someone with experience running a team at least as big as ours and a multi-million dollar budget. You’ll be managing a team of seven and report to the CTO.

Basecamp is a remote-work company, but you’ll need at least 4 hours of overlap with Chicago time in your normal work-day routine.

We strongly encourage candidates of all different backgrounds and identities to apply. Each new hire is an opportunity for us to bring in a different perspective, and we are always eager to further diversify our company. Basecamp is committed to building an inclusive, supportive place for you to do the best and most rewarding work of your career.

Keep reading “We’re hiring a Director of Operations”