Hiring at Symbiont

By Evan Wagner


Introduction


Technical recruiting at Symbiont got off to a rocky start. Developing a repeatable process for hiring top-tier engineers in such a competitive job market was daunting to the point of seeming unachievable. Today, we have nearly 100 employees and we’ve stayed true to our initial objective: invest in engineering talent rather than building out a bulky sales function. In fact, our team has more than tripled in size in the last two years alone. This blog post explains in part how we got here, describing Symbiont’s recruiting philosophy and the process that implements it, as well as various lessons we learned along the way.

The Difficulties of Recruiting in “Blockchain”


Building an engineering team from scratch is always challenging, but in our industry it is especially tricky. First, the entire “blockchain” space revels in its esotericism and obfuscation. The blockchain technology space is still so new, and so different from everything that came before it, that it is steeped in unfamiliar terminology and  unconventional development practices. More than a decade after the term “blockchain” itself was coined, we’re still inundated with meandering debates as to what a blockchain even is! This kind of ambiguity can make it difficult not only to communicate to potential hires what it is we are building, but additionally to distinguish our own technical vision from that of radically different engineering approaches that nominally fall under the same “blockchain” label.


The other major challenge has been the justifiably mixed reputation that the industry has among engineers in general. More than in many other industries, what falls under the umbrella of “blockchain”–whether it be the rampant charlatanism, get-rich-quick schemes, illegal securities offerings, etc.–has undeniably had a negative impact on how engineers outside of the space view the potential for companies in it to operate in an ethical fashion. We’ve had to work hard to distance ourselves from these bad actors, and prove that, on the contrary, we have a valuable mission and a product that is already making positive, impactful changes. Doing this was a critical precondition to attracting the full range of engineers we needed to realize our vision in building the engineering team we have today.

Recruiting Philosophy and Corporate Culture


But it’s not enough to know how to attract engineers to join your team and commit themselves to your mission. We also needed to create a recruiting strategy that would allow us to actualize the corporate culture that we had set out and worked to foster from day one among the founders. That culture is centered on the importance and impact of the individual, and emphasizes personal autonomy and empowerment. We believe that when a company embraces these values it can thrive without byzantine reporting structures and give every team member a greater sense of purpose and significance, making them even greater assets to the organization. We acknowledge that this puts great responsibility on everyone who joins us, and that anyone on the team who does not thrive in an environment like ours imperils not only themselves, but the broader organization. For this reason, we would always rather not hire someone than hire the wrong person. 

The Process


With all of the above considerations in mind, we had to come up with a pragmatic system for communicating to recruits who Symbiont is in order to slowly build up a team of highly talented engineers that would fit well in our corporate culture. Two additional constraints stood out:


  1. A balance must be struck between brevity and thoroughness. In technical recruiting especially, it is foolhardy to think a candidate will stay in limbo to complete an unduly lengthy process, instead of accepting one of the several offers they usually have at hand.

  2. Hiring cannot easily be automated and therefore does not scale well. Naively, recruiting scales in the amount of time one dedicates to it. But the process’s resistance to automation poses the question whether and how it can be optimized.


How any organization reacts to these conditions must motivate its entire recruiting strategy, for together they parameterize whom and how it hires. With regards to (1), when forced to choose between thoroughness and brevity, Symbiont has taken the principled stance of risking losing candidates in exchange for greater certainty in the hires we do make. In respect to (2), Symbiont quickly came to the conclusion that attempting to optimize recruiting by borrowing principles from software engineering is something of a category error. Instead of process automation, therefore, we focus on improving the precision of our job descriptions and making sure each step in our recruiting process is a meaningful gate.


In general, we eschew abstraction in our recruiting process in order to maximize the quality of hires at the cost of hiring velocity. The nature of our technology is that it is extremely complicated, nuanced and challenging to develop; the nature of our market, institutional finance, is that the sales cycle is naturally long; our product often touches the back- and middle-office and, contrary to recent trends, is self-hosted, not SaaS. All of this means that security and correctness–and not velocity–are paramount.


To that end, we had to accomplish two independent goals:


  1. Filter candidates out of our recruiting pipeline that we thought would not succeed at Symbiont

  2. Get candidates excited about our mission and our approach!


We quickly discovered that, unfortunately, these objectives are often at odds with one another. Any company, but above all one that is understaffed and early stage, is inclined to ignore signs that a candidate is not a good fit, and to say or to do whatever it takes to get them onboard. But recruiting is not transactional; getting someone to join is the first in an unending series of negotiations in order to ensure that they remain productive members of the team. We are not exempt from this temptation, and so, as an interview process comes to its conclusion, we do our best preemptively to surface what we see as potential points of friction; either between a candidate’s expectations and their stated role in the company, or the way we operate more generally. 


The picture thus communicated strays meaningfully from how startups often represent themselves. For example, though far from spartan, we do not offer those perks which, in our opinion, in their extravagance contribute to the prevalent, yet cartoonish depiction of what it is like to work in tech. We make clear that as an early-stage company trying to solve some of the most intractable problems in institutional finance, we need to use what resources we have to achieve our business purposes.


When pitching Symbiont to any candidate, we always emphasize the aspects of the company that will make as clear as possible whether they are excited and motivated by what we believe are our most salient qualities. Our greatest asset in recruiting is, therefore, by far, the existing team, among whom are experts across a wide range of disciplines and industries. Those who want to join Symbiont tend to find the prospect of being the smartest person in the room much less exciting than being surrounded by others from whom they can learn. A corollary to this is that those who are motivated by upward mobility self-select out during the process. This, in part, is how Symbiont has been able to avoid having any middle management even as our headcount nears one hundred; our recruiting process clearly separates off those who are unaligned with our flat structure, which allows us to preserve and strengthen the latter.

Conclusion


Symbiont has always been an ambitious enterprise. Our objective is the replacement of core infrastructure for institutional financial markets, infrastructure that has often been in place for decades. To make that happen, we have needed to use some of the most innovative technologies around, and we’ve had to execute to the highest standards of quality, security and robustness. None of that would have been possible without hiring great engineers, and rallying everyone on our team around a shared culture and mission. Our philosophy for how we approach the challenges of growing a team, and our particular hiring process that has grown out of that philosophy, have served us well so far. We hope that in sharing our experiences we can help other companies avoid the trial-and-error we had to go through in order to build such a great team.

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