This is How Coursera Competes Against Google and Facebook for the Best Talent
People & Culture

This is How Coursera Competes Against Google and Facebook for the Best Talent

As head of engineering at Coursera, John Ciancutti needs to bring on the best talent. Here's his sure-fire formula for making his company competitive.

When John Ciancutti joined Netflix in 1999, he joined a team of four engineers. A couple years later, he became an engineering manager — a role he had never done before that came with one big added responsibility: finding more amazing engineers to hire. It's hard to imagine now, but Netflix was a tiny, no-name company at the time. Ciancutti had to figure out how to attract world-class talent. By the time he left in 2012, then as VP of Product Engineering, he'd hired hundreds of engineers building a category-winning company.

Since then, he's refined his recruiting to a formula at Facebook and now Coursera, where he's Chief Product Officer. At Coursera, Ciancutti manages engineering, product management, design, analytics, and operations. At all three companies, he not only made hires, but taught dozens of engineering managers how to do the same. Today, he faces the same challenge he did at Netflix, going head-to-head with the likes of Google and Facebook to win the best hires. It's not easy competing with huge compensation packages and well-oiled recruiting machines. But in less than two years, Ciancutti has managed to grow Coursera's engineering arsenal from 25 to over 80.

Through this experience, he's developed a hiring playbook designed to give hiring managers at startups an edge. At First Round's recent CTO Summit, he shared the principles and four phases that define a successful recruiting process, including very specific tactics for closing the most aspirational of candidates.

Setting Up the Close

One critical thing before you start: You have to think about closing the deal from the very beginning and throughout your interaction with every candidate.

“As a hiring manager, you are the most important factor in the candidate's decision,” Ciancutti says. “If they don't think you're great and that you're going to be a great manager, partner and support system, it doesn't matter what they think of your company. They won't join you.” Treating every candidate as the candidate (until they aren't), will help you ensure a good experience.

Few people see it this way, but the hiring process should really be about relationship building. “Know that candidates are evaluating every interaction they have with you, with your team and with your company,” he says. “When you decide you want to hire someone, you want to have that feeling of, 'We definitely got him.'”

Only the hiring manager can set the relationship up for this moment. “You not only need to know you want to hire a person, you have to know exactly what their motivations are,” Ciancutti says. “Every candidate is looking for something different. Your job is not to sell. It's to be a matchmaker. You know what makes your company great and the type of people who thrive there. You have to really understand each candidate in the context of finding a great match. This will help you make better choices for sure. It also increases your chances of closing at the end.”

Every touchpoint in every phase of your process should drive toward that result.

PHASE 1: Sourcing

Even if your company has internal or external recruiters, they should be considered supplemental. Engineering managers should be sourcing candidates for roles on their team. “You have to own your recruiting process,” Ciancutti says. “Your network is never tapped out. Circumstances change for people. Someone who might not have been a good fit 6 or 12 months ago may be a great fit now. Plus every new hire you bring on board extends your network. This will be your best source of talent.”

When you do sit down to source, target the companies that make the most sense. The behemoths like Facebook cast a huge net when they source. As a startup, you need to be surgical about it. “Don't just say, 'Oh, Google has great engineers, I'm going to hire from Google.' Be more thoughtful about the role you're looking to fill. What skills does it require? What are the companies that exemplify those skills. Who's the best there? You'll probably end up with a very different list than you think.”

This is the top of the funnel, and it's admittedly really tough, Ciancutti says. “Most engineering managers are introverted by nature — that's true of me and most — you just have to embrace it. It's not about loving to have coffee with 20 people in two weeks. It's about that amazingly talented person that you're eventually going to work with.” The number one thing you can do is initiate as many conversations as you can. Send emails. Talk to people at events. Ask your friends to connect you with their friends. Just get the ball rolling. “Everyone you talk to teaches you more about what's exciting about your company.”

As you talk to people, you get a good sense of what's appealing about the role in question. You'll get asked hard, pointed questions and your answers will get better and better over time. But none of it is possible if you can't get people's attention.

That initial outreach should come from you.

“Don't have recruiters do it. That's one major way you can counter-position yourself against the big guys. You're reaching out personally. You're specific. You get to the point. You let them know what it is about them that interests you.”

If you're recruiting for a startup, you should assume people haven't heard of it. Instead, cite any shared connections you have with the individual. This can be something as simple as, “Hey Cindy, I see you did Teach for America before you went to Facebook. I'm at an education startup. You clearly have a passion for education.”

Maybe you also worked at Facebook before. Say that. Maybe you know some people on their current team. The key is to emphasize that you're a real person who is interested in them specifically, out of all the other people you could be speaking to. Briefly, tell them about you, your company, and why their background seems like a good fit. It's worth stretching to tie the role to something they clearly care about beyond their current job.

You want to create that type of connection with them right away, and you want to recommend concrete action: “This is the next step I want to take. Do you want to take that step?”

“Say something like, 'Let's talk. It can be a phone call or coffee,'” Ciancutti suggests. “No one chooses coffee first. It will always start with a phone call, and that's okay. The point is, it should be whatever works for them to let you know they're interested.”

Here's a sample of what that looks like:

Success is getting a response. Even if a candidate says no, you learn something, and they could extend your network. They may pass because they're happy where they are, but be willing to give you references. What you don't want is silence. You should closely track your response rate. It's worth making a spreadsheet. If you're not hearing back, you need to tune and tweak and try a different approach.

Let's say Cindy gets back to you. Now you're ready to screen. It's okay if you have doubts about a candidate at this point, but there should be something that gets you excited about them. Keep the stakes low here. Don't bring other people into the process. It should just be you having a chat.

“Your goal during a screen should be to understand their motives. Why are they taking time out to talk to you?” Ciancutti says. “Remember they're evaluating everything you do, so be prompt in your communication and willing to let them go if it's not a good fit.”

He generally starts these calls with a quick introduction: This is who I am, this is my company. You should have this pitch down. Above all, it should be brief.

After this, he dives into their background. Pay attention to how they introduce themselves, he says. “When you ask someone to generally tell you about themselves, you get to hear what they choose to share. What they gravitate toward. What are the pieces of information they care about? You can learn a lot about what they want.”

To get an even better sense of them, consider asking the following:

  • Why are you taking the time to chat with me?
  • What do you love about the company you're at now?
  • What's great about your specific role there?

“Don't just pay attention to the words they say. Listen to their voice, too,” Ciancutti says. “Are they enthusiastic? Excited? If they're unhappy where they are, that's a bad sign. They should be happy where they are.” They don't have to love everything about it, but how someone makes an important decision like where to work says a lot about them. “Where did they choose to go to school? To intern? Why? What did they like and dislike about those experiences?”

When you end a screening call, you should have answers to these questions:

  • What is the person currently working on and why are they excited about it?
  • What impact is it making for and within the company?
  • Why did they choose to work on that project?

The right candidate owns the content of their job. If they're talking about a current project, you should be able to ask them any question related to it and get an answer. If their response is, “Oh someone else works on that part,” or “That's not really my area,” that's a huge red flag, Ciancutti says. You want to hire people who are so passionate about their work that they know and understand everything about it. If you know someone is not a fit, end things right there on the phone.

When you're honest with someone upfront, and make yourself available to explain your reasoning, you don't have to follow-up and you save yourself some time and guilt.

Likewise, if the person is a fit, set up the next step in the same conversation. You have to be quick.

Quickness is another strong advantage you have over the big guys

"The big guys are slow because it's a giant process coordinating tons of people. In most cases, speed will be your most powerful weapon. If you have a good call, set up coffee the next day.”

PHASE 2: Coffee

“I always schedule a coffee meeting as the next step,” says Ciancutti. “I don't dive into an interview. Why? It creates a casual conversational environment. We get to know each other better.”

The things to keep in mind: Be prompt. Be there on time. Come prepared with other things that tie you to this person like shared hobbies, mutual friends, interests. You want them to like you.

Coffee is the perfect opportunity to go deeper on their personal motivations and past decisions. Respecting someone's judgment is critical. Is it clear that they are learning from each choice they've made? Are they making better choices? Do you think that their goals have been reasonable throughout their career? Have they been ambitious?

“You want answers to all these questions, but your other major goal should be stoking their excitement,” says Ciancutti. “Let's say you have coffee with someone and they choose not to move to the onsite interview — that's a really bad sign. There's something you did during that coffee that wasn't great. Maybe you didn't have good chemistry with the candidate, or the conversation went in the wrong direction. Do your best to pinpoint it. Moving from a coffee to an interview should be very easy.”

Again, if you're not enthusiastic, end the process immediately in person and explain why. When you do this, you're done, and you can invest your time in other candidates.

If you're still interested, just say it: “You know what, I've really enjoyed this conversation. Is there any chance you have a couple hours in the next few days to come in and meet a few people on the team?” Phrase it in a way that still keeps the stakes and risk low. People are much more likely to say yes to an interview when it isn't intimidating, and this will maintain your momentum.

PHASE 3: Interviewing

When someone comes onsite to interview, make sure you're the first one to meet with them. “Whoever the hiring manager is should have 50 minutes on the schedule. The candidate is probably nervous and they know you. You want to use this time to help them relax and talk about the plan: who they're going to be meeting, what those interviews will be about.” You want them to feel like you're on their side and that they're going in with a bit of an edge.

The structure and content of the interviews is the responsibility of the hiring manager. That said, here is a typical setup for Coursera.

The first interview after you should be a coding exercise to see how well they can code. At Coursera, they give candidates a coding problem and an environment and let them work on it alone for 90 minutes. Then the interviewer comes back in and walks through it with them to better understand their thinking.

Ciancutti recommends making the second interview about culture. “You want someone who is not you to assess how this person will fit into the team and company. You obviously have your thoughts on this based on your call and the coffee, but it's always good to have a gut check upfront.”

After this, Coursera gives candidates another technical interview, usually an algorithm or a task that fits into the area where they claim to have a lot of expertise. This time, someone more senior walks through their work with them, looking for mastery.

The last interview of the day should also be about fit, Ciancutti says. “Maybe you were looking for good judgment and personality before, but this time really focus in on leadership. I want people who are problem solvers that get stuff done. I want to hear about a problem that wasn't their responsibility but that they solved anyway. What is something that frustrates them and how do they handle it? Do they take responsibility for their decisions and projects? Do they act like an owner?”

How is the company you're working at different because you're there?

This session is also good for gauging intellectual curiosity. “You don't want people who are just heads down all the time executing on code. You want people who really want to understand your business. That's how you get someone who will grow to be capable of much more.”

In order to get the most out of this sequence of conversations, you need great interviewers. They should be the best people on your team. You already trust them, and they represent you well.

You can get their feedback in a few ways. Either hold one-on-one meetings with each of them at the end of the day (you don't want them to influence each other too much); or institute a system where people write down and submit what they think. What matters most is that everyone provides feedback the same day when it's still fresh in their minds. “This can be a big ask, but rightfully so,” Ciancutti says. “You have to set the expectation for your people that reinforces how important hiring is.”

Also a must: You need to track progress throughout the day. If it becomes clear the candidate is not right for the role — maybe they flunk that first coding exercise — cut things off. Don't think you have to finish out the schedule. “This is really awkward the first three times you do it, but you get comfortable with it,” he says. “Believe it or not, I've cut people off and maintained the relationship. People respect that you won't waste their time.”

If the person does make it to the end of the day, the hiring manager should meet with them again — not for an interview, but a friendly conversation. They're probably depleted. They may be nervous about how one of the interactions went. They're vulnerable. Use this time to relieve them and get them more comfortable with you. “Answer any questions they have and take your time. Don't have a hard stop. Make them feel like this is the only thing in the world you need to do,” Ciancutti says.

This time should also serve another purpose - to see where the candidate is in their thinking. Don't be shy about asking them who else they're interviewing with. If they say something like, “Another startup in San Francisco,” ask them who. It pays to be specific here. Ask them what interests them about their other opportunities. Ask them how they feel about your company. What are they most excited about? Most concerned about? Which interview that day was their favorite?

Always ask, 'What are the chances you're going to be at your current employer a year from today?'

This question is so open-ended, you tend to get a really authentic perspective on how they see their job right now that's different from what they said before. When it comes to your competition, consider asking which they would choose if all of the companies on the table gave them an identical offer. Why is that their choice?

The other critical point to hit is their current compensation and whether they're at the offer stage with anyone else. If so, what kind of packages are they looking at? “It may seem like most people wouldn't volunteer that information, but over 85% of the candidates we interview at Coursera wind up giving us those specifics,” says Ciancutti. “Young people in particular will have the natural reaction not to tell you, but you can talk them through it. Make it clear that this data helps you and the company better understand your market. People are naturally inclined to be helpful.”

This is also the best source of market data you could ask for — it's timely and comes directly from someone you know you want to hire. It's extremely valuable to have these numbers. You might as well give it a shot.

At the end of this wrap-up talk, let the candidate know what the next step is. Something like: “I'm going to talk to everyone you met with today, so let's circle back sometime tomorrow.” At this point you've probably already met with several of the interviewers and have a pretty good sense of what you're going to do.

To keep someone in the process, you should be even more excited about them at the end of the day. “This is someone who is in the upper quartile of the team you've got right now,” Ciancutti says. “You're very selective, but you have to act quickly. Even if you want to bring in other candidates, stay in close touch with this person. Let them know what's going on.”

Once you've synced up with everyone who met with the candidate, it's time to pull the trigger. There are a lot of different theories about how to do this, but Ciancutti is a big believer in hiring managers making the final decision.

This is not an area where consensus should rule.

Let the hiring manager make the call, and hold them accountable for being right almost all the time.

Beyond that, if you're collecting hiring data as rigorously as you should, you should be able to see the following for each of the people on your hiring loop:

  • How many people they liked that actually turned out to be great?
  • How long their hires stayed with the company.
  • How productive these people were.
  • Whether they were good culture fits or not.

You can build a track record for all of these individuals and use that to advise your own decision making. Looking ahead, you can also see where people on your team need training before they become hiring managers themselves.

PHASE 4: The Close

If you have conviction about a candidate at the end of interview day, you spend the next day closing. You do it — not the recruiter, not your boss. “If you can, do it the day after the interview,” Ciancutti advises. “Be detailed about why you want them and why you think it's a great fit. Explain the relationship between the role and the mission of the company. Speak to their motivations. You know why they want to make a move.”

In some cases, you may be speaking to an incredible candidate, and then they say something that makes it clear they belong somewhere else. Don't be afraid to adjust your opinion. The worst case scenario is ending up with a mismatch. “It's happened where I'll find myself saying, 'You know what, based on what you said, I actually think you should go to Snapchat. Based on everything I know, I think that's the right choice. It's too bad for us, but let's stay in touch.'”

When you truly believe your company is the best choice, don't hold back.

“One of the best things you can do is talk about why you are where you are and why you're passionate about the company,” says Ciancutti. “Let them hear that in your voice. Building this type of connection is really important at this stage.”

No matter what, you're going to have competitors. Don't dismiss them. Instead, candidly lay out the differences between your company and theirs. You want to highlight what it is about your startup and this role that is distinct and special. You want to be a resource for the candidate. They will be eager to have more data points, and it helps you to be forthcoming with them.

One of these factors is certain to be compensation. The tendency here is to be vague. Don't. Before you speak with the person, get them a spreadsheet breaking down your offer, and be accurate. Show what percentage equity they can expect to get in the company. Show them your current valuation. Lay out the case for whatever your expected multiple is. If you think the company will 20x from $50 million in the next four years, don't just leave it at that, say why.

On the same spreadsheet, include information you have on the other companies they are considering. If they're looking at Dropbox or Snapchat or whatever it is, put the expected upside right next to yours. Build formulas into the spreadsheet so the candidate can play around with them and calculate for themselves what they think will happen at each place.

“Engineers often don't want to talk compensation on the spot. This is a data driven way for them to look at it, and it's a way for you to tease out what their assumptions are about their choices,” says Ciancutti. “Use the data you've gleaned from other people you've interviewed who have volunteered the numbers they're looking at at these other places.” This demonstrates that you've done a lot of legwork for them and that you want them to make the best decision for them, not you.

After you've shown your hand, there are several other things you can do to tip the scales in your favor. Have everyone the candidate met reach out over email. Encourage them to have one-on-one coffees or to grab lunch with the person. They should all make themselves available for follow-up conversations, but don't let the process drag on. Time-bound it to a few days or at most a week. By then, you will have won or not.

If you fail to close a candidate, your primary goal should be to understand the root cause.

Don't try to talk them out of it. Be mature. And don't forget to establish the desire to keep in touch. They may know people who would be great for the role. They may be interested in your company again in a year or 18 months. “It might be that Snapchat wasn't the best place for Cindy after all, and she'll reach back out if you end on a good note.”

Reflect on Your Results

It's okay to be wrong about a hire, Ciancutti says. “In my experience, great hiring managers can be wrong 30% of the time. That's fine as long as you identify where the error occurred and fix it quickly.”

After all, you have several factors you have to balance. You could potentially be right about who will join and who won't 100% of the time if you’re extremely conservative. But that will make you too slow. Set the bar very high, but be willing to take a risk here and there on a candidate you think is great, but where there wasn’t universal enthusiasm among the interviewers. “Sometimes you'll hire the wrong person. Sometimes you'll let the right person get away. Don't beat yourself up if you succeed in learning from both situations.”

In order to squeeze as much data out of their recruitment pipeline as possible, Ciancutti's team at Coursera meets weekly to discuss candidates and track their process. “We get everyone together — all the hiring managers and recruiters involved — and we talk about where people dropped out or where we cut things off. We always look at why so we can make changes for the future, change the type of person we're looking for, etc.”

You know things are going well if this meeting focuses on general brainstorming (i.e. the best companies to find someone for a specific role). You know something is wrong if a hiring manager surfaces three candidates that made it through the process and couldn't be closed. That's where you want to double-click and find out what happened in each case. What is the hiring manager trying, what could be going wrong, what can they try instead?

“You've got a healthy process if people are sharing recruiting emails with each other, and organically talking about what worked and what didn't amongst each other. If you're capturing the data you need to help future candidates choose you,” Ciancutti says. “In the end, the overarching goal is to get better and better at hiring as a team as you grow.”