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Showcasing startup passion in remote interviews, with Scale AI's Richard Ni

Showcasing startup passion in remote interviews, with Scale AI's Richard Ni
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Scale AI's Head of People, Richard Ni, talks about how his company has approached interviewing engineers during the COVID crisis.



Tech companies of all shapes and sizes are tweaking their hiring practices in light of the COVID crisis. To see what this means for current (and maybe even future) jobseeking software engineers, Triplebyte is interviewing tech execs and recruiters to learn more about what specific changes their companies making.

Below is an excerpt from a live-streamed conversation between Triplebyte VP of Product Aaron Cannon and Scale AI Head of People Richard Ni. In it, Ni explains, among other things, how his company has taken measures to bring to remote interviewing the same kind of person-to-person connection and company passion that candidates would get a taste of in onsite interviews. Check out the entire Zoom conversation here.

Aaron Cannon, VP of Product at Triplebyte: To start, I want to zoom out and have you tell us what scale AI is.

Richard Ni, Head of People at Scale AI: Yeah, absolutely. So at Scale AI, our mission is to accelerate the development of AI. So we believe that AI has the potential to radically transform and improve so many different industries. I think you're seeing that with transportation and self driving cars. It’s also radically improved things like search recommendations, healthcare — so much potential. The biggest bottleneck to development in AI thus far has been a lack of high-quality data. So in order for machine learning models to understand the difference between, like, a pedestrian versus a car versus a lamppost or whatever else down the road, it needs to be trained on tons and tons of examples, and it’s important to have a very diverse set of examples that's well labeled. So Scale labels data. Right now, we’re focusing on labeling data that companies send us using a combination of our own machine learning and a large operational labeling force. And over time, we want to continue developing more and more products that help companies develop AI.

AC: Let’s get into hiring. Do you want to just actually talk about the types of engineers Scale generally looks for?

RN: Yeah. So I think Scale, like a lot of startups, is the type of company that I think is going to continually be developing new products. That means we’re less like, “Hey, we have a core product and we're just selling that product over and over again.” Because of that, I think we're going to continually need really scrappy engineers who are able to iterate quickly, who have strong products sense in themselves, and who also have an operational mindset. I’ll also say that there are companies who probably have deeper infrastructure needs, and so they may be looking for that engineer with 15 years of database experience, but that’s less relevant for us.So those are some of the differences in how we think about our profile engineer.

AC: So in these times, how does Scale AI go about hiring for this type of engineer profile? How has your interviewing and recruiting changed?

RN: Some of the things are what I’m sure a lot of companies already have, like using something like CoderPad or some online coding collaboration tool. There are also whiteboarding tools that enable you to share your screen and allow someone to remotely do system design questions and actually write code. So those are the couple things you need to make the interviews functional. Even with that, certainly there’s also some revisiting of the interview questions, figuring out what you can do remotely versus what you need to actually draw on a whiteboard. But I think the functional part is not super tricky.

I think the other part is the cultural part. Normally, you have the ability to have a candidate see your office and decor, see how your team is welcoming and friendly, you know, how they collaborate at their desks together and whatnot. And so one thing we did is we took a video of our office and our teams working together before we all went remote. Another thing is we’re making sure to be more accurate with communications. We always do this, but I think it’s salient now. Offer candidates to have conversations with others in the company for follow-up questions. And we of course have our interview panel reach out.

AC: Do you think this is a better form, specifically for hiring engineers? Is this how we should be interviewing in the future?

RN: Well, I think there are pros and cons. I think I can probably get most of the same signal, but there are some you lose out on. You know, typically when someone interviews in person, maybe you grab lunch with them and you get to see them interact with a more diverse set of people. And so maybe you'll be able to catch that 1% or 2% of people who are really rude to like members of other teams or different backgrounds. You can still catch that remotely sometimes, but you are slightly less likely to catch that. That's one downside. One of the upsides, I guess, is you're spending less money flying people out. But you want to be competitive with the market, and if other companies or flying people out and demonstrating that they care enough to do so, then I don't think it'd be smart to not offer the same. You know, hiring is expensive, attrition is expensive, and spending a lot of time interviewing people and not closing them is expensive. So I do think it's worth it to keep up with the market there.

AC: Yeah, it's certainly cheaper. And I think, especially with engineers, a lot of evaluations can be done remotely. So it’s less work for both sides. Would you consider continuing hiring this way long-term, or are you pretty excited to get back to having the candidates come into the office?

RN: I would consider continuing it. I do think a lot of companies are going to go back to bringing candidates into the office to see people and develop that emotional connection. And I don't want that to be the reason why we lose out on great candidates. It can come down to the fact that people make decisions on feelings, and if they didn't feel like they connected with us as well because it was remote and they were able to go to the bar together with engineers from the other company, then I think it's worth the cost to fly them out.

AC: That is interesting. So it's kind of coming from a competitive angle. It's actually like, you don't want to be the only one doing it remotely.

RN: Yeah, exactly. I mean, unless we decide that we're gonna be a remote, but that's not on the table right now. I do think one of the competitive edges of a startup is people really collaborate more closely. They're more passionate, they care about their work, and in fact work is more than just work. It's more than just a job to them. In that case, I do think it is important to have that close interaction. But, you know, we'll see how this all plays out.

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