Editor’s note: Headlight was acquired by Woven in March of 2019.
In late 2017, I started a company called Headlight with my friend and former coworker Wayne Gerard. We’re building a performance hiring platform that helps employers screen candidates for their ability, not their pedigree.
What is Performance Hiring?
We believe that the best way to understand someone’s fit for a role is to study how they respond to scenarios related to the job. This is not a new concept — athletes try out for teams and teachers do mock lessons when interviewing for a new school — and yet in the workplace, many companies have done little to capitalize on this wisdom.
We’ve only just begun a long journey of making performance hiring a standard practice and today our product offering falls into three major areas: take-homes, technology, and tournaments.
We‘ve built a small and growing library of work sample assessments, commonly known as “take-homes” that hiring managers can use to evaluate the technical ability of their candidates.
For instance, prospective engineers might be given an open-ended prompt and asked to develop a solution that meets key criteria — and explain the trade-offs they made along the way. Meanwhile, prospective product managers might be asked to build product plans and troubleshoot problems for a fictional but true-to-life consumer or B2B company.
Over time, we hope our take-home library becomes a trusted and continually refreshed resource for thoughtful, interesting, and well-developed challenges across a wide range of roles in tech and beyond.
We’ve built workflow tools that help hiring managers assign take-homes to candidates and evaluate their work in a fair and unbiased way.
By setting standardized time limits, explaining grading criteria upfront, and making evaluators blind to the name (and thus gender and ethnicity) of candidates, we’re helping companies get better signal and save time, and address many of the issues applicants have with take-homes as they exist today.
Today our customers are having far more productive onsite interviews (and fewer bad ones) and they’re saving 4–8 hours a month that they use to spend administering take-homes. There’s so much more we still want to do. For instance, grading assignments can be time-consuming—could we potentially evaluate take-homes on behalf of employers? We’ve started a pilot with one firm to see if this makes sense for us, the employer, and the candidate.
Finally, we are developing ways to help companies source fresh talent by running fun and competitive tournaments for specific roles and matching top finishers with interested employers.
We recently hosted the NYC Product Tournament, where 140 PMs registered to engage with a product challenge where they had to help a company with an innovative product get back on track after a failed pilot launch.
This was the premise:
Each competitor had three hours to come up with a product solution to fix the pilot and continue addressing the original market, or pursue a new opportunity.
We recruited a panel of design, engineering, product, and marketing judges, who reviewed each presentation and awarded prizes to top finishers and we’re currently introducing them to interested employers, while providing feedback for all participants so they can improve their skills.
We plan to bring these tournaments to other locations and other roles in the near future. This model can also be deployed inside a larger organization to help identify existing staff who have the potential to step into a new role.
Why this matters
Most leaders know that identifying and recruiting the right talent to their organizations is one of their toughest and most important responsibilities. And yet they know that the main tools we use today — resumes and unstructured interviews — offer weak, unreliable, and often biased signals to a candidate’s true abilities and potential.
But they continue to use these tools because they’re familiar and they create strong feelings of certainty (even if that certainty is misplaced). Michael Lewis wrote about dealing with this reality in Slate.
Ten years of grilling extremely tall people had reinforced in Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, the sense that he should resist the power of any face-to-face interaction with some other person to influence his judgment. Job interviews were magic shows. He needed to fight whatever he felt during them — especially if he and everyone else in the room felt charmed.
Most leaders are hungry to recruit high performers to their organization. And despite the effort and investment these leaders make in recruiting and interviewing talent, successful organizations miss out on people with incredible potential all the time, while expending resources on people they had to pass on.
My favorite story is of Brian Acton, a Stanford CS grad and long-time engineering manager at Yahoo who got rejected by both Twitter and Facebook in 2009 before cofounding WhatsApp, the mobile messaging platform that sold for $19 billion in 2014.
Like the VCs who passed on Stitch Fix or Airbnb, this was a big miss for the hiring managers who passed on Brian. Could it be that their process didn’t allow him to really showcase his abilities? Brian was a white man from a brand name tech firm and top-ranked university—imagine all the incredible but less credentialed people who never even got a chance to show what they could do.
Change is possible
We don’t have to just throw our hands up and accept things the way they are. History has shown how organizations can successfully implement new and better ways of identifying talent and potential.
- Google has been reducing their reliance on GPA and brain teasers to screen candidates since 2013 after former Chief People Officer Lazlo Bock acknowledged that they were poor predictors of who would succeed at the company.
- Orchestras found that using a screen to conceal candidate gender during auditions lead to 30% increase in selecting a female musician. These blind auditions are what helped orchestras go from 6 percent women in 1970 to 21 percent women in 1993.
- The analytics teams at the Oakland Athletics and the Houston Rockets have shown that a better, smarter model of human performance can be a decisive competitive advantage and sparking entire fields (i.e. Sabermetrics & APBRmetrics)
Better = more equitable
The systems and tools we’re developing not only help select the best candidates, but can help build more diverse and inclusive teams by removing some of the deeply ingrained biases we all carry.
For instance, research has shown that when Black and Asian-American job candidates “whitened” their resumes, they got 2x-2.5x more callbacks for an interview. Even for explicitly “pro-diversity” employers, the data found that changing their names to more American-sounding alternatives or removing ethnic information, candidates were more likely to be asked for an interview.
This is far from an academic exercise: both of us have parents who at one point used Anglicized versions of their name (Andyinstead of Anping and June instead of Junko) to seem less foreign and more approachable.
This sort of research led us to make evaluations on Headlight a name-blind process, removing one more variable that might unfairly impact a candidate’s chances. This is just one of the many ways, big and small, that we’re trying to improve the hiring process.
It’s not just business, it’s personal
In our own careers, we’ve seen how great hiring systems can lead to stronger teams, while careless or misguided ones can lead to discrimination, bad hires, and poor performance. We’ve also felt the sting of being passed over despite having the right abilities, because of a rigid and poorly developed process.
Look, we’re not trying to point fingers at anyone. Hiring great people is always going to be tough. We know most employers are trying to do the best they can with what they have—we just want to give them more.
Through Headlight, we hope to build a world that makes landing your next career opportunity a fascinating, rewarding, and equitable experience. A world where employers can more easily spot those diamonds in the rough, and where talented people are given an opportunity to truly shine.
If you want to partner with an organization to help you make more smarter and more deliberate hiring decisions — while reducing the time you spend managing the recruiting process, please get reach out. And if you want to help transform the way the world hires and finds meaningful employment, we’d love to work with you.
Jason Shen | Cultivating Resilience Newsletter
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