Hiring for Cultural Compatibility as Critical as Tech Skills, CEO Says

Don Tennant
Slide Show

Survey Says IT Worker Stress Way Down, Pride Up

According to one tech CEO, hiring the right people is a process that goes far beyond determining whether a person has the required technical skills. Equally important is ensuring that the candidate is a good cultural fit with the company.

That CEO is Tara Kelly of Splice Software, a provider of automated voice customer contact software in Calgary. Kelly, an open source proponent who serves on the board of directors for Technology Alberta, the publication of the Association of Science & Engineering Technology Professionals of Alberta, has set a high hard-skills bar for her employees. But in a recent interview, she said she learned the hard way about four years ago that the cultural-fit bar needs to be set equally high. To that end, Splice always conducts “cultural interviews” alongside conventional interviews during the hiring process.

In discussing all of this with Kelly, I wanted to get a sense of what sorts of questions they ask in these cultural interviews. She said one question they like to ask is, “What are you most proud of, and what you least proud of from your work history?” Interestingly, Kelly said candidates’ responses to that question provide insight into their risk aversion.


“How they speak to that will tell you a lot,” she said. “Culturally at Splice, one of the things that’s really important to us is that you’re comfortable with risk, or ‘safe failure,’ if you will. Believing something can be better is one of our core values, and if you believe it can be better, then you believe it can change. With change comes risk. So if you hear risk aversion or a fear of change from an individual, he or she can be a phenomenal worker, but maybe not our worker.”

Kelly said another question she really likes is, “If you could build your dream team, how would you do it?”

“Not what you would do or who you would hire, but how you would do it,” she said. “That one is a dead giveaway on whether the person is a team player.” A lot of people will be excited to have the opportunity to talk about it, because they have something in their mind that explains their approach to teaming, Kelly explained. “It’s really obvious.”

Splice is based in Calgary, and in addition to offices there and in Toronto, the company has an office in Chicago. Kelly is looking to expand in the United States, so I asked her if there are differences in Canadian and U.S. culture that apply to culture interviews in the workplace. She said a few things stand out.

“One of the biggest ones is I think Canadians are a little faster to trust—that’s sort of in our nature,” Kelly said. “And we’re also a little bit faster to be willing to share personal stories. That’s not true of a lot of Americans, but I think it really depends on the city.”

That said, Kelly noted that she’s found that the differences between the East Coast and the West Coast are more pronounced than any differences between the two countries. In fact, she said, the biggest cultural difference she sees is that between Calgary and Toronto.

“Calgary just has a lot more of a ‘spit and a handshake’ approach to sales and business—there’s a lot more shooting-from-the-hip communication. And you see a different style in Toronto,” she said. “Sometimes a level of professionalism, or a desire to impress, can come across in different ways. You want to make sure you get a sense of how the person is under pressure, not just when he’s had a chance to get polished up and practiced.”

“I think Chicago and Calgary are so similar, it’s crazy,” Kelly added. “I find them very similar as far as the personalities you see in people. I’ve found Toronto to be the most different.”

I asked Kelly if she thinks the culture of a company tends to differ at all depending on whether the CEO is male or female. She said she was “going out on a limb” with this one.

“I think it does. Women take a different approach to the concept of teams,” she said. “One of the biggest things we focus on at Splice is trust. Teams can be about competitiveness, teams can be about pushing each other, and we all want those things. I think men and women are probably looking for the same things, but just on different levels. I think women are more likely to build a feeling of trusted family.”

Leadership

Kelly said another strength females bring to the table has to do with communication.

“I think women are going to be faster to jump on a HipChat or other chat tool with the staff, than a lot of men would be,” she said. “Women are definitely connectors. So I think CEOs who are female are maybe slightly more prone to increasing communication,” she said, which is where trust comes in. “When you’re communicating in somebody’s preferred style, you actually have a faster, easier time gaining their trust, so they’re already comfortable with the medium. Whether they’re email people or online chat people or pick-up-the-phone people, knowing your staff, and making sure you’re communicating in the best channel, helps to make sure everybody’s totally engaged.”

Kelly is a self-described “open source activist,” so I brought up my recent interview with Jim Whitehurst, the CEO of Red Hat Software. I noted that Whitehurst had written a book titled, “The Open Organization,” in which he draws a parallel between open source software and Red Hat as an organization, in that it’s less hierarchical and has more inclusive decision-making compared to traditional organizations. I asked Kelly if she could draw any parallel between open source and the culture at Splice, and she said she definitely could.

“I talk about it a little bit differently, but it is from the same belief that we’re better together,” Kelly said. “Open source is about moving forward together, with lots of contribution—it’s about a lot of things, but that’s certainly part of it.”

Kelly said at Splice, her philosophy is not that every coin has two sides. It’s a Rubik’s Cube.

“There are six sides, maybe more,” she said. “But they can be moved in different ways, and you can see a totally different picture. So the goal is really to hire staff that if I’m staring at the blue or green side, they’re staring at the orange side, and they see the world from that perspective. They’re the people who can show you that other side. So we’re looking for a diversity of perspective, but a diversity of perspective wouldn’t matter if you weren’t willing to listen and share.”

Kelly went on to explain Splice’s development style. She said it’s not just about having agile developers, but about having everybody cross-trained and cross-supported.

“So when they’re building things out, they really understand the impact on others,” she said. “A lot of times, people will say that’s a more costly way to get the job done. But I think in the end, you’ve got a much stronger product, and much happier people, because they understand how they interconnect with each other.”

Kelly said that forms a sense of community, with a common goal.

“The less you segregate your teams,” she said, “the more powerful you really are.”

A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.



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