May 8, 2019

Seeking feedback for a team culture/values product

Hi all!

I've recently started work on the following project and would really appreciate any feedback.

Let me start with one concrete problem that the product is designed to solve-

Recently my team made an offer to a fairly senior and experienced engineering candidate. They also have offers from a couple of other well-known firms in the Bay Area. Before making their decision, they requested a face-to-face meeting with each of the prospective teams that they would potentially join in each firm. Our recruiter and my team had no problem with this and we set up a half-hour long social session when the candidate can come by and meet all of us. But in the end, this candidate traveled up and down the SF peninsula (pretty time-consuming) in order to gather information about these teams that aren't available elsewhere- cultural values and attitudes that they'll encounter and work with every day. Ironically, this candidate worked at LinkedIn where they were building machine-learning models to classify the ability of LinkedIn users and make recommendations to other firms based on these latent abilities.

My goal is to develop a product that

  1. better informs candidates before they make the highly inelastic choice of joining a new team, or even before going for interviews.
  2. gives a platform to engineers who are excited to talk about their team in the public domain. and also encourages teams to think a bit deeper about their values.

Here are some static prototypes that I've made so far (front-end leaves a lot to be desired and also no final product name)-

sample team page- https://nocturnalme.com/team
homepage- https://nocturnalme.com/

The product right now is focused on engineering teams because it's a space I know well. But I would certainly like to extend to other spaces in the future.

I'm also looking for co-founders if anyone is similarly interested in further reducing transaction costs in the labor market! :)

-yang
https://www.linkedin.com/in/yang-wang-4a4821183/

#looking-for-cofounder #landing-page-feedback

  1. 2

    Hey Yang, thanks for posting this. I think that it is a very real and important problem to solve. And I love the perspective of focusing on the team rather than the larger firm. The team is what is going to matter anyway.

    1. I like the idea of sharing more objective things like proprietary vs open source, and prototyping vs mission critical. That seems like a great idea.

    2. It also seems like you're thinking along the lines of the team sharing more subjective things, about what the culture in that team is like. I think that there is some merit in that, but ultimately I'd be super worried about honesty. What incentive do they have to be honest? Why would a potential candidate trust them when they say something like "we have a good work-life balance"?

    Of course, it's a hard problem to solve. You could have reviews like Glassdoor, but these will inevitably be manipulated (https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=189694660). I've experienced it myself.

    There's also the issue of reviews coming from those who are really upset or really happy. They won't be a representative sample. Maybe this problem could be solve by simply paying people. That way you get reviews from the middle as well as the extremes.

    Maybe you could have a platform that connects team members and potential employees anonymously to talk in private. You could verify that the team member is who they say they are. And you could pay everyone a good deal of money to solve the polarization problem. That'd be an insanely valuable service that potential employees should be willing to pay handsomely for.

    (Just musing here. Not sure if this actually makes sense.)

    1. 1

      Thanks Adam very much for kind words!

      In my opinion, your second point exemplifies almost the entirety of the problem of hiring and recruiting- it's an adversarial construction where each side of the game has something to gain by withholding information. There are other analogous scenarios, for example, The Market for Lemons*.

      As long as it is adversarial (or close to it), there is no incentive for each side to be honest. And my goal is not to approach it that way, and the same choice should be made by other start-ups in the same space because it's hopeless (as far as I know).

      The goal is to reframe the game from adversarial to mutually beneficial by reframing the choices that both sides have. In this case, instead of giving questions that have degenerate responses and create perverse scenarios (whereby every team says they awesome), all questions MUST have answers that are ALL equally acceptable.

      One example is functional programming- there are teams in the company where I work at where they adhere very strongly to purity and referential transparency in Scala- they get a lot of joy practicing mastery in the art of functional programming. Whereas other teams are more agnostic, for example, my team practices mastery in other domains and we accept using an imperative style (though somewhat frowned upon :)) when necessary.

      The bet here is that being honest with this question will be mutually beneficial for both parties- the candidate will, of course, be more informed. The team will be potentially be matched with a more suitable candidate who is willing to practice their skills in a preferred domain. Engineers are also proud putting exactly what their teams are good at, whether it's functional programming or something else.

      None of these questions are set in stone. There can be a future when a programming style goes out of vogue and deemed "backwards", and so these questions will need to be thought out carefully and continuously re-evaluated.

      To be a bit more formal, the expected utility of answering a particular question needs to be monotonically better than not answering it for members of a team, with ALL of the choices valid (both sides of the spectrum in my case), otherwise it's a "bad" question and will create a perverse response. This utility function is a result of various market and cultural forces in the engineering world, and it's my job to come up with good priors and heuristics to approximate it (and thus come up with good questions!).

      I would LOVE to hear any and all thoughts on this! It's something I'm extremely interested in thinking about and of course my product hinges on these assumptions!

      *https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Market_for_Lemons

      1. 1

        That's a great example with The Market For Lemons! I came across it a while back and am somewhat familiar with it.

        The goal is to reframe the game from adversarial to mutually beneficial by reframing the choices that both sides have. In this case, instead of giving questions that have degenerate responses and create perverse scenarios (whereby every team says they awesome), all questions MUST have answers that are ALL equally acceptable.

        Gotcha. I understand now. That makes a lot of sense. That really has me starting to get excited about this idea.

        Some follow up questions and comments:

        1. Let's get more concrete about these questions that you would have. How many question are there that don't have perverse incentives? How useful are they to prospective employees?

        2. It seems like you'll have to solve the chicken-egg problem that all two-sided platforms face. As a firm, why do I start using the platform when prospective employees aren't on it yet? As a prospective employee, why do I start using the platform when there aren't a lot of firms there yet? My thoughts here are that it seems like it'd make sense to start with the firms. They don't really have anything to lose, so you could hustle and get a bunch of them to spend some time with you answering the questions and filling out the info. In addition to hustle, you could explore incentives for them. Maybe you pay them. Maybe you promise to feature them prominently when you get more users.

        3. Right now it seems like at least the early version would just have the Q&A we're talking about. But I see the future vision as more of a broader job listing site. Because, why not. If people are already coming to you to research companies their applying to, I feel like you have a strong seed for a more general job listing site.

        4. How do you envision monetizing? My thinking is that in the beginning it should be something that job applicants should be willing to pay for, cuz they're really getting a lot of value from it. I guess the same sorta applies to firms too. Later on if you become a more general job listing site, then you can definitely make money by charging firms to post.

        5. I do like the idea of questions without perverse incentives, but I also like the idea of trying to solve the harder problem of questions with perverse incentives, like about work-life balance. Because those sorts of questions are really valuable for prospective applicants to have answers to. It's definitely a very hard problem to solve, but it's still an attractive problem to me.

        1. 1

          Whew, really great questions. TBH I don't have good answers to all of them...

          1. I want to come up with as many as I can. The thing is, all of these will be optional, you don't have to answer a single one if you don't want to. Also, the attitudes towards these cultural questions will always be arbitrary. I try to draw on my own experiences. Having been on a few different teams with different styles, I know what questions I'm comfortable/want the public to know the answers to.

          2. So here I'm generalizing my personal experience-

          I'm currently on a pretty good team that I'm fairly happy about, doing pretty cool things. If there is a product out there that allows me to easily talk about my team in the public, with minimal writing and a good UI, I'll consider using it, because I'm proud of my team. If it's something I can share with friends and family to show them what I'm doing for work, all the better. If I can forward a link to my team's profile to a potentially strong candidate that makes them more likely to join my team, awesome.

          The bet is, if I can see myself using the product, hopefully there are thousands of other teams willing to try it out.

          1. Yea Q&A is a feature I have thought about. It's just a matter of time and what features are most important in the MVP. From my experience with LinkedIn, it's always a bunch of recruiters trying to poach you... :(

          I definitely want to add some sort of interactive abilities though...

          1. Monetizing is an area I haven't thought that much about... I've been entirely focused on UX right now. Rightly or wrongly, I feel like getting users is by far the hardest problem. Also, the revenue model can change depending on how widely your product is used, so thinking about it now feels a bit like premature optimization.

          2. So this a billion-dollar problem IMO:) You can always try to signal attributes like work-life balance tacitly. But the more accurate candidates can assess the "goodness" of a team universally, the faster the relationship becomes adversarial. But if you force the teams to choose which portion of the engineering pool to appeal to, there are fewer reasons to be dishonest.

          Finally, a lot of this is just pure theories and... there's no way to know for sure until I get some product out and try to get some users!

          1. 1

            In general, https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/NgtYDP3ZtLJaM248W/sotw-be-specific comes to mind as a post that you might like and find useful.

            I think that this is actually pretty important. I've found that ideas like this often make sense in theory, eg. "giving questions that don't have perverse incentives and that both sides benefit from". But when you actually try to make the theory concrete, when you actually try to come up with questions, often times you find that it's a lot harder than it seemed. So to me, coming up with this list of questions is a crucial next step.

            So, you can see yourself using this product even when the other side of the platform isn't seeded? When there aren't job applicants browsing the site, just because you enjoy filling it out? My impression is that there aren't too many people out there who would do that.

            And even if there were, there's the question of advertising and marketing. How do these people even know that you exist? I think that's an important question to think about. For the more hair-on-fire problems, "word of mouth" might be a sufficient answer, but for most products it probably isn't.

            You mention something in your response that I think is really promising - the idea that you can fill out your answers, and then send a link to prospective employees. If that's the vision, then you don't actually really face the chicken-egg problem of platforms. Companies would be using your site because it is easier than doing the work manually eg. on their hiring page. Then, perhaps, they start signing up for the platform part. Although now that I think about it, is using your website easier than just adding the stuff to their hiring page? Even if your site provides value by providing the useful questions, if you're a company, would you perhaps prefer to just add those questions and answers to your companies existing hiring page?

            http://platformed.info/ has some great info on platforms.

            Personally, I disagree with the idea of "figuring out pricing later". Eg. imagine the scenario where you work hard, find yourself with tens of thousands of users, but you find that neither side is really willing to pay you. So then you try to monetize with ads, but you realize how hard that is to do and how you actually need an insane amount of users for that to work.

            1. 1

              I'll answer the last question first:)

              So I guess I've been informed by Adam D'Angelo's answer regarding Quora quite a bit. See the revenue question here- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hp0_f0kG2Ks&feature=youtu.be&t=891

              And the transcript here- http://www.econtalk.org/adam-dangelo-on-knowledge-experimentation-and-quora/

              Search for "Russ: You don't appear to have any ads on the site..." And you can read the rest of the paragraph.

              The point is that Quora didn't really have a concrete revenue plan in 2011, and was exploring different options. And they're still just testing integrated ads on a small population in 2015...

              I feel like that's fine... As long as we are being transparent about what we're exploring and being honest that ads may be necessary in order to sustain the business, or whatever other revenue models. I think transparency is key here.

              But also right now the problem is that I don't know how the final product will look, so if I want a revenue model that deeply integrates with the product, I want to figure out a compelling product first.

              Your second point actually caught me off guard a bit... The product may not be appealing to teams as I first thought. I wonder if I should try to advertise to potentially a core group of users, it will be better. For example advertising on IH and Hackernews etc. where the audience may be more receptive first. My belief is that there is a product that I can make where it appeals to a certain group of engineers first (maybe there need to be social features, for example)... which brings me to your first point.

              I think you're absolutely right that the kind of questions I ask will make or break the product, these really need to be insightful and questions that make a team feel unique and a breeze to answer (I've come up with a few concrete ones, but definitely not satisfied). And same with the other features- they should make a team feel more purposeful, and not a slog to use. Do you have opinions on the diagram feature or the culture lead portions?? (I'm actually thinking about replacing the graph one, it feels too clunky.)

              Hmm, it's actually making me re-think the role of recruiting vs other purposes of using the product...

              Separately, I think a centralized place where everyone can search, filter, and browse for teams (based on distributions of cultural values, for example) will be more useful than going to individual companies' pages.

              -Yang

              1. 2

                Re: monetization - I agree that introducing ads in the future wouldn't be an issue if you were transparent with your users. My concern is with the assumption that you'll be able to monetize once you have users. (We can agree to disagree though.)

                Do you have opinions on the diagram feature or the culture lead portions?? (I'm actually thinking about replacing the graph one, it feels too clunky.)

                I actually don't understand the graphs. What is the y-axis supposed to be? To me, a scale from eg. 0-10 seems more appropriate.

                When I look at the questions that you currently have, as an engineer, I think that they seem nice, but they don't include a lot of the things that I would be most interested. Here are some that come to my mind:

                • Will I be able to work with smart people who will help me grow?

                • Is the atmosphere rushed, or will we have time to reflect and do things the right way?

                • Similarly, will we be allowed to refactor?

                • Will I be pressured to get a certain amount of tasks done per week? How many hours will I have to work?

                • Will I be involved in product and design? Business?

                • Will I get to be involved with the full programming stack, or will I be relegated to eg. front end work?

                • Will I be given interesting technical problems to work on, or will it be boring stuff?

                • Do I get to build things from scratch, or will it be legacy code? And if it is legacy code, how old and ugly is it?

                • Do I like the people I'm working with?

                • Do I like my boss? Will he micromanage?

                • Do I like upper management?

                • Do I feel like the company is doing something good for the world? Bad? Neutral?

                Those are the things that I would be truly interested in. The questions that you have seem like more nice-to-haves for me. I would certainly take the time to look in to it, but I don't know that I would pay for it if it were behind a paywall. Of course, the difficulty is that the questions I listed mostly suffer from the problems we discussed earlier about perverse incentives.

                Coming back to the monetization point, I think it would be a good idea to talk with other engineers to get a feel for whether they'd be willing to pay for this, and if not, if there's something similar that they would pay for. And same thing for companies - talk with them and get a feel for whether this is something they may be willing to pay for. Not necessarily this exact product, but different variations of it.

                I don't know much about monetizing via ads, but consider whether your target audience is big enough. I just googled it and there are 20M software developers in the world. Trying to ballpark how much that can be worth if you monetize them via ads, Quora has 200M monthly active users and is valued at about $2B. So since you're at 1/10 the users, maybe we could say that your peak is $200M. But that's if you capture the entire market of software developers/firms. Something like 20% seems more reasonable, so now we're at $40M. And then there's the fact that the 200M number for Quora is monthly active users. Your users would only be using your product when they are applying for jobs, so that's significantly less than being active every month. If we say that someone looks for a job every two years, or roughly every 25 months, the $40M becomes $1.6M. Factor in your costs, and advertising doesn't seem like it would be a good way to monetize for you. My impression is that people would have to be willing to pay for what you provide.

  2. 2

    I definitely like the idea of giving candidates more information and decision making power.

    When companies search for talent they have really powerful software to learn all about a candidate's history, cross check references and filter through thousands of qualified candidates.

    For candidates there isn't as much of the powerful search software to help them narrow it down.

    There are fewer companies than there are candidates.

    Only certain companies offer openings for a given skillset at a given time.

    Some companies are really bad at hiring, or don't prioritize it. Even if there's a match things fall through.

    Giving candidates more information about companies and teams would definitely be a win.

    1. 2

      Thanks for the reply and kind words!

      I feel like one way that I like to look at it is to completely forget about companies and firms at first.

      The cultural values and mission of the firm almost never reach the day to day operations of an engineering team* (most of the time values shared by the engineering org never trickles down to individual teams either). This is of course less true in very small companies.

      My experience of having been on weak engineering teams is, well, it sucks, and I don't even want to talk to potential candidates about joining my team. When candidates ask me what I like about working on the team, I have to lie, and a lot of us have experienced this. This sort of information asymmetry is very counter-productive for the engineering labor market.

      But when I'm on a really, really strong team, I can get excited about talking about my team in a public domain. Especially if I know that candidates can practice their mastery and will be given a lot of autonomy on the team.

      Strong engineering candidates can sometimes see this and discern this from in-person interviews and followup session (like my linkedin candidate example).

      But the transaction costs are too high (for my liking).

      So the goal here is to synthesize the desire of strong teams to talk about themselves and candidates' desire for more information into a good product. Because good engineers join teams, and not companies.

      At the end of the day, however, I believe being more honest and reducing hidden information benefits everyone, and this includes firms. Making better matches for their engineering teams, and making their best teams even more productive is a reason why firms should encourage their teams to use a product like this.

      *Nine Lies About Work by Goodall and Buckingham had a good chapter on this and is a good read in general.

      1. 2

        Love the focus on engineering teams, independent of firms!

        Go go go

  3. 2

    btw @lynnetye already had some great questions- in particular, what makes this different from range.co or cultureamp.

    So first of all, I'd like for this to be removed from the domain of firms. I think as engineers we understand that loyalty to our team is a lot more ingrained than loyalty to our firms (more true of course for bigger firms). In fact, we engineers have a lot resistance for products pushed on to us by our firms.

    Second, all of this is in the public domain, and as proud members of a strong engineering team, there is some incentive to brag and show off our teams in the public. I can see this product being appealing to strong engineering teams first.

    Third, IMHO, products like range and slack depend on their network effects for their utility, which starts low. For every team that uses it, the utility grows somewhat polynomially. A product like this has its utility tied linearly to every team that uses it. For every team that creates a profile, a job-seeking candidate will be incrementally better informed.