EP56: Howdy.com - A ‘Developer-First’ Approach in Tech Recruitment (With Frank Licea)

August 23, 2023
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All-In Recruitment is a podcast by Manatal focusing on all things related to the recruitment industry’s missions and trends. Join us in our weekly conversations with leaders in the recruitment space and learn their best practices to transform the way you hire.

Transcript

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Lydia: Welcome to the All-In Recruitment podcast by Manatal where we explore best practices, learnings, and trends with leaders in the recruitment space. If you like our content, please subscribe to our channels on YouTube and Spotify to stay tuned for our weekly episodes.

I am your host, Lydia. And this week, we have Frank Licea of Howdy.com joining us.

Welcome, Frank, thank you for making the time here.

Frank: Yes howdy. Thank you for having me.

Howdy! The Journey Begins

Lydia: Yes, I like that plug right there. So what's the mission behind Howdy.com, Frank? Can you tell us a little bit about your role as CTO and founder?

Frank: So, we started Howdy about four years ago. The problem that my co-founder and I were trying to solve was that we were based in Austin, Texas, and over the past four or five years, it became harder and harder to hire good software developers and product developers here in our small city. For us, it was a big necessity to find talented people all over the world. That was a big problem for us. We didn’t have a good experience with traditional freelancing platforms or traditional outsourcing platforms or outsourcing companies.

We thought we had an opinion about how to attract some of that product talent that we really wanted to work with. Because we couldn’t find anything exactly like it, we decided to start our own. We actually bootstrapped it first, then we took some seed funding from Y Combinator, which is an important investment firm. Recently, we closed a Series A to continue our growth. I’m the CTO. So my day-to-day has to do with managing the product itself. For example, if people went to howdy.com and actually interacted with the product, that’s me and my team. I also deal with engineering management, managing the careers and mentorship for all the software developers that work within the Howdy network.

Challenges in Traditional Recruitment

Lydia: You spoke about some challenges in traditional recruitment that you’ve seen. So, what are those challenges and what is your perspective on them?

Frank: One of the challenges we had when trying to recruit software developers was that it depended on where you are. I’m in the United States, and my perspective on recruiting software developers anywhere in the world, but in my case, in Latin America, was a little bit restricted to major channels that already existed.

It could be a very US-centric perspective because I didn’t really appreciate the reputation that these major easy channels had in Latin American countries. What is that platform’s reputation? I mean, it’s first in that country. So that was one of the big challenges we had. Before we started the company, we really only had the view of the world that these pre-existing channels had. The way we ended up breaking through that was by actually traveling down to the places where we were trying to recruit, speaking to people and communities, and learning what our target audience’s pain points were.

Lydia: And I noticed on the website that the motto says that there’s a developer-first approach taken at Howdy, right? Can you elaborate on what this means?

Frank: Absolutely. So, this is part of what we learned when we were trying to recruit our target audience. What it means for us is that, yes, it’s important to provide the sort of table stakes that people expect, things like perks and benefits and health insurance and so on. But the other thing that we recognized was that it really benefited us to be choosy with the clients that we work for.

What was really attractive to the audience, and what really helped people personally, was recruiting for teams that have long-term career paths. So, we limited ourselves to companies that were product-oriented and were looking to provide people all over the world with the same career paths.

Whether you were in New York or in Bogota, Colombia, you had the same responsibilities and scope. Howdy.com helps to normalize the benefits so that everybody has similar benefits, health insurance, equipment, and things like that. So that’s what we mean by putting our developers first: we will regularly turn down a customer, respectfully, if we don’t feel like valuing talent in this way for the long term, for career growth, and so on, suits them.

Perhaps they’re not at that stage yet. Perhaps they’re small. Perhaps they really just need four hours of adjustment on a website. And this kind of solution isn’t suitable for that kind of team.

Lydia: So, what might be some steps that you take to identify there is such a long-term career prospect for a candidate?

Frank: There is definitely a discovery process for us. In our discovery process, what we typically tend to do is ask about the company’s or department’s product development philosophy. For example, if a customer is talking about needing four hours to add a particular feature, or if they’re speaking in terms of hourly work, project-based work, three-month work, six-month work, maybe scoping projects and getting bids and estimates, then Howdy.com doesn’t tend to work best for those kinds of teams.

However, if the conversation is instead about the developers’ career paths within the organization and what’s important for any developer, then Howdy.com can help. What do you do about salary adjustments? What do you do about bonuses and inflation adjustments? Here is the standard benefits package that our platform provides.

Are you interested in providing any additional benefits above and beyond the standard ones, even above the ones in their country, in order to help attract and retain talented people? You can see that it’s much more of an HR conversation about growth, development, and the HR experience that people have.

That’s really where we help teams stand out when they’re trying to recruit talent, as opposed to just asking how much they’re going to charge for a website and when it will be done.

Advantages of Hiring Tech Talent in Latin America

Lydia: And why did you choose to focus on hiring tech talent specifically in Latin America? What advantages does the region have?

Frank: I think the most obvious advantage is the overlap in US time zones. This is really important for certain teams. My favorite example is when you have a software developer or a team of software developers and a bug comes up. Sometimes the fastest way, rather than chatting back and forth in email or Slack, is to do what you and I are doing and brainstorm solutions. It’s a much higher bandwidth to explore ideas.

That kind of real-time collaboration can be important for building software, but it can also be very important for resolving customer issues during business hours in the United States. The other big advantage that I think is a little less known unless you’ve worked with teams in both North America and South America is the overlap in popular culture.

I think that also makes teams gel very quickly. If you’re working on a software development team, whether you’re working with someone in South America or North America, there was a lot of overlap during very formative years in video games, music, and movies. That makes things gel much faster, especially if you’re all working on different sides of the earth. And then finally, the work ethic, especially in Latin America, really matches the way that companies tend to work in Silicon Valley, where there’s a big emphasis on work-life balance but also nobody’s going to get grumpy if occasionally people are working extra to hit a deadline, so long as it really is occasionally and not all the time. There’s really that team buy-in. And those are some of my favorite aspects of working with teammates in Latin America.

Lydia: So, what are some strategies or techniques that you have found to be effective in identifying and attracting the most suitable talent in this particular region?

Frank: Yeah, so the big one, I think, is not to overlook or undervalue the power of meeting people in person. That is one of the strategies that has really worked for us. What we do is provide space and sponsor and host these technical communities. If you’re a software developer, you’re regularly getting together with other software developers to learn about the latest techniques, architectures, tools, and advancements in AI and so on.

We like to try and give back to those kinds of communities by offering them premium spaces, food, dinner, and drinks because often these are after work. Being there on the ground, actually valuing people, and providing that kind of value makes it so that you can find just one good software developer. I think that’s a challenge people can accomplish: just find one good one. And what that unlocks is, once you have that one good one, who does that person respect and admire? Now that you all have a space to invite them to, that one great developer or teammate can turn into two or three.

In fact, for us, we did the statistics and for every one teammate that we hire, on average, we have 1.2 referrals to us. So, it’s a very viral kind of effect. We manage that viral effect by first providing value to these communities and actually participating face-to-face in these places on the ground. So, not only through LinkedIn messages and emails but actually doing the hard work of showing up where we want to meet people.

Breaking Through The Noise in Hiring Tech Talent in Latin America

Lydia: What are some unique challenges that you've encountered when you look for talent in Latin America?

Frank: One of the unique challenges was breaking through the noise. It’s sort of two sides of the same coin. If I’m in the US, then the obvious channels for me to access people are going to be the major platforms and companies and so on. The flip side is, if you’re a talented person in Latin America, you are being bombarded constantly with noise from those platforms also, right? “Hey, do you want to join our company? Do we have a project for you?” and so on.

So that goes back to a simple way to break through that noise: actually participate and be present in these communities and so on. Also, it was about building trust because if we’re one among a million different entities or companies trying to hire software developers, there’s no reason to trust one over all the other ones, right?

How do you break through the noise? How do you access that inaccessible talent? There are really talented people who are not interested in hourly gig work that you really want to work with. How do you get access to those people if not through the major channels? And then finally, how do you build trust because you’re just one among a million people asking for their time and attention?

Lydia: Could you share some insights into your approach for evaluating a candidate’s cultural fit or cultural add within a client’s company values or work environment?

Frank: So, we recruit for so many different companies. For me, it really just comes down to very close collaboration on a numbers game. What we do naturally is our recruiters and our company, our clients’ recruiters, have to be 100% in sync and have to build that pipeline together.

We build up the early pipelines where we have quick vetting problems. This is where if a hiring manager loves this particular vetting problem that we can ask in two minutes and evaluate in three minutes, we’ll put the very basic ones up there. So, that’s hand-in-hand with both recruiting teams.

Then there’s also a second level, which is hand-in-hand collaboration with the hiring managers on both sides. So we do some things that not a lot of companies do, I don’t think they do. We hire engineering managers. So we’re not a software development company. We don’t ship products. We don’t do projects for people. But we hire engineering managers nonetheless. The reason we do that is because that way, the engineering manager or the hiring manager in the United States can have a peer in Latin America, where we’re trying to recruit, where they can collaborate on the second stage of that pipeline to get on the same page about what good communication skills mean and what a senior developer means and so on.

And then, of course, there’s just the logistical coordination for handling all the handoffs from interviewers, feedback gathering, and all that. We assign that to our recruiters to keep that whole flow going. So that’s our approach. There’s no silver bullet for us. It’s just been hand-in-hand at two levels: the initial recruiting level, the vetting/screening level, but also the deep-dive level where people evaluate communication skills, cultural fit, and so on. Making sure that both hiring managers - the ones that work for me and the ones that work for our clients in the US - have designed a common pipeline and a common evaluation framework together that we can then hold them accountable to. That’s how we approach that problem.

Lydia: How long does it take to hire someone in tech, regardless of the region? And what is the approach towards assessment in the hiring process?

Frank: So I think the first one is, how long does it take? It tends to be that we move faster than our clients do.

We move as fast as they do. So, if we have agreed on screening criteria, then we’re recruiting en masse across continents, and we have candidates every day. And if they quickly tell us, “Yes, I want to meet this candidate,” or “No,” then the whole process moves much faster because it’s a pipeline.

And if you’re delaying one step of the pipeline by one or two days, times 1000 people, everything gets delayed like crazy. So, we put a big emphasis on holding our partners accountable for. [For example] If we send a profile, we need to know: do you want to meet this person? Do you want to chat with them for 15 minutes or not? Those gaps in communication really add up.

If we facilitate an interview, we have to know whether that’s a yes or no. So the top priority is always speed, speed, speed. And that’s very much a cultural thing. I think it also means that we have to be willing to have awkward conversations with our clients and with our engineering managers and remind them, show them the statistics: “This hiring manager, in the same time that you hired one person, has hired four people that did well in all their interviews.”

So, I think there’s room for improvement here, whatever it is. Those are the kinds of conversations that we have.

As far as best practices to share, we do put that emphasis on speed but also on the technical bar. At least for our philosophy, it can be mitigated very much because these are technical tests and there’s very often a pass or fail.

And there are a billion different technical test evaluation platforms like HackerRank and so on. So yes, that’s important, but for us, we put more emphasis on communication and transparency. So for example, is this the kind of person who can explain how the internet works to a non-technical audience and so on? So, we do put that kind of emphasis on communication as part of our process.

Lydia: So, when you look for talent in Latin America to serve American companies, are you also looking at not just remote but also candidates who are willing to relocate?

Frank: So in general, the companies that we work with are not necessarily looking to go through the whole visa process, which can be costly and requires going through a whole process. It has happened generally when companies are working with us; however, what they’re looking to do is start up their own office. And that’s what we help them do, right? They can set up their own development center, offices, equipment, benefits, and so on.

We help find the people and run the HR, benefits, payroll, taxes, and all those things. So, often when we explain that, it lessens the need to actually bring the whole team over and sponsor visas in the United States if they have their own blank canvas and logistical support to extend their engineering department or product team in three different cities or countries.

So, not generally, but it has happened. And we certainly facilitate that. We do whatever is best for our developers. If they have that opportunity, we’re thrilled for them.

Risks and Challenges in a Remote Work Environment

Lydia: So, on top of communication skills, for example, what are some traits that you look out for when you search for top talent?

Frank: What we really advise people to look out for is, number one, people with courage. It might sound a little cliche, but courage in a remote environment is very important. If there are risks to a deadline, if the person is uncomfortable because they feel they’re not being paid enough, or for whatever reason, we find that in a remote environment, it’s much easier to just put in notice all of a sudden and disappear.

All of a sudden, we have this valuable teammate who one day seems to want to quit. In those cases, when we caught them, we did a little bit of assertiveness training. It’s like asking what they are trying to get out of their career or the situation. We have guided our teammates to broach that topic with their colleagues in the United States rather than just quitting and leaving the game entirely.

Lydia: So, there’s also recruitment technology that I imagine would play into this. What might be the impact of recruitment technology in your experience? And what might be some of the benefits that you’ve seen?

Frank: I think the biggest tools that are out there, like the Applicant Tracking System and the referral system, are all table stakes. Now, I have learned a few.

We have really taken advantage of ad hoc customized processes that historically, you may have needed a software developer or an API integration for. And so the low code [or] no code tools such as Airtable or similar tools, Retool, are another one. These are tools that let people actually build their own data flows or let non-technical people build their own data flows.

That has had one of the biggest impacts above and beyond the standard tooling because it has allowed us to collaborate with partners on a specific communication exercise. It would be very difficult to do that in a customized way. But with some of these low-code tools, it’s very easy for us to pull together, merge a bunch of spreadsheets together, and grab data from here and there, all with just a few clicks.

And then build something that, historically, you might have needed a software developer for and then all of a sudden it’s got forums and everything. So, I would say that allows us to think bigger about processes. For example, these houses are managed and run, and we collect information and names and everything. We do that in our Airtable systems, which feed into analytics systems and marketing systems, and so on. I think that’s one of the biggest impacts that these technologies have had.

Lydia: So, what advice would you give someone starting out in the recruitment scene today?

Frank: I think it is important to value the power of face-to-face interactions, especially after COVID. And I think it’s not being utilized as much as it should be.

We’ve kind of defaulted to remote-first, but face-to-face is, I think, super important. Teams are always going to be distributed, but people will always be social. And I think that’s really powerful when we value time and people in that way. Understanding the communities on the ground is important.

So if we’re recruiting software developers, for example, because they self-organize in groups, give talks and so on, it’s really important to be a regular. It’s very important to be there in those conversations, to be a known entity and develop that trust. And then finally, remember the power of referrals. How do you find great teammates? You find one great teammate, value that teammate, and then ask, “Who do you respect? Who do you like to work with?” And now all of a sudden, maybe they’re not ready to switch jobs right away, but you have built your database of names and put yourself in that person’s mind for the future.

And then I think the easiest thing, it might be a bit of a cheat code, is to just be sure that we’re selling what people want. So, it’s much harder if you’re trying to sell a company that you know in your heart isn’t the best culture or the best product and so on. You might want to make the best decision, the harder decision to move on and sell something else, something that people really get excited about. I think those three things would probably be my advice to somebody getting started.

Lydia: Thank you very much for your time and insights. I think these have been valuable because they come from the point of view of really understanding what motivates a developer and what a developer looks for in a career. Companies ought to look forward to attracting talent in the tech space. So, let us know your contact details, Frank. I’m sure the audience would like to connect with you here.

Frank: Yes, absolutely. Everyone can contact me at my email address, which is f@howdy.com. You can also visit our website, Howdy.com. That’s the best way to get a hold of me.

Lydia: Thank you for joining us. And we have been in conversation with Frank Licea of Howdy.com. Remember to stay tuned for more weekly episodes of All-In Recruitment.

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