Hiring The Best People – Lessons For Series A/B Founders From Google & Skype

Last year I wrote a post on Medium decrying the often less-than-smart approach to hiring taken by startups in Europe, and talking about how this was often impacting their ability to scale as a result.

We held an event in July on hiring advice for Series A and B founders (video embedded below) – ahead of that, I thought it might be useful to revisit the topic and share some more of my thinking with you.

You can read my original post here, but let me summarise my arguments for you again in case you’re feeling a little TL;DR:

(oh, and while I have you here, if you’re interested in this sort of thing you really ought to sign up to the Atomico Newsletter – The Operators’ Manual):

  • There are 1.7 million engineers across Europe. There are 1.1 million engineers in the US
  • At the graduate level we have 2 x as many STEM students here than in the US
    • My point here is not that we are better / worse off but we have the talent locally
  • 57% of CEOs, founders and investors in technology businesses believe there is a good or very good supply of engineering talent in Europe. Founders are the most positive, with 60% believing there is a good pool of talent.
  • It’s not that the talent doesn’t exist in large enough numbers, it’s that the process of finding, engaging and hiring that talent in Europe is broken
  • The hiring process is often inadequately prioritised and equally often outsourced to external recruiters who are juggling multiple clients (i.e yours is not the priority and Goog, FB etc are paying more fee wise and are, to be honest, an easier sell)
    • Great external recruiters are hard to find. It’s better to spend the time searching for fewer partners that you can partner with better rather than farming out roles to everyone’
  • Random testing of candidates often bears no relation to the skills they’d actually need in their day-to-day jobs
  • Founders, CEOs and CTO’s constantly underestimate how time-consuming and difficult it is to hire an amazing team
  • Diversity and inclusion is vital  


I sketched out a few bullets suggesting potential solutions, or at least quick fixes:

  • invest in building an experienced and capable  in-house talent team
  • from the outset build a diverse and inclusive company and hold your leadership team to account with metrics
  • make your culture a talent magnet, and be transparent with candidates on your interview process
  • train your interviewers to understand what “great” looks like at your company so everybody is calibrated
  • use structured interviewing techniques with a scoring system (helps calibrate interviewers)
  • give constructive feedback to those you say no to
  • move candidates through the recruitment cycle quickly, keep them updated frequently and pay fairly
  • Gather feedback at each stage from candidates / new hires on the process, and don’t forget to create an onboarding process that ‘Wows’ them

Working every day with founders and leadership teams, I have come to realise that perhaps there are some more practical tips I could share from my past roles heading up staffing at Skype and Google – and now more recently working with the teams at Supercell, GoEuro, Lilium, Truecaller and Gympass – and so here they are. Hopefully you’ll find them useful, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on anything you think I’ve missed, or anything you’ve learned in your personal journey.

Hiring The Best People: Lessons For Series A/B Founders From Google & Skype from Atomico on Vimeo.


Lessons from Google

Eye roll please for that inevitable starting phrase… ”When I was at Google”, our internal mantra when it came to People Operations was “Find them, grow them and keep them” – we saw these as the three core areas which would enable us to grow sustainably from a People Operations point of view (all supported by data, of course!).


Hiring (Finding) was considered to be a strategic advantage to Google – a significant % of the company’s headcount was in Recruiting (not HR) and not to mention the amount of time required for hiring committees (see below). A significant investment both resource and time wise.


Google applied a rigid and pretty inflexible approach to hiring – yes, this had some drawbacks, but served to create a working culture full of smart, ambitious and motivated people, and it also ensured that we were building a machine which was focused and growth-led. However, it transpired that this approach eventually meant that career progression for Googlers became limited and problematic – so Google created Project Oxygen, and then, along with Lucero Tagle, Dyana Nadji, Mindie Odai and Becky Cotton combined / built the Career Development Teams for Global Sales to help increase our internal fill rate, build a slate of Advisors, Mentors and Coaches and create a pool of talent for our leadership roles – but that is a different story.

So back to Finding…

The interview process was formalised, and detailed interview notes were reviewed as part of assessment by multiple levels of interviewer, who were not allowed to take part in the process until they in turn had been ‘trained’ in the art of reviewing from a Recruitment perspective called “Shadow Interviewing”.


Score tracking against a candidate’s performance over time helped us find really calibrated interviewers and learn more about what they did; by contrast, poorly calibrated interviews were flagged for more training, and poorly-written feedback would be rejected. Lots of tools and questions were made available to help interviewers fulfil this vital role to the best of their abilities.


The process looked like this:

  • Interviewers were allocated a focus area around Google’s 4 competencies: role related expertise, general cognitive ability, leadership and Googliness – and 4 (6) interviews max (I had 19 interviews when i joined in 2005!)
  • Every hire was reviewed by several Hiring Committees – no exceptions
  • A “Packet” was reviewed by Pre EMG (VP level) every Friday am If approved then reviewed by EMG (SVP level) every Friday am PST time
  • If approved then reviewed by Larry Page every Monday pm
  • Then comp’d on Tuesday based on interview scores, experience and academics
  • Offer made. Limited flexibility on compensation.


This worked really well for us, and when I left our EMEA headcount was around 8,500 in 2010.


Lessons from Skype

So a move to Skype beckoned to run Global Talent. We had just separated from eBay and our new owners were Silverlake, Andressen and Atomico and all had high expectations around growth and an exit.


  • The recruitment machine needed work,  both in terms of its function and its perception internally
  • The company had too many “non engineers”, and as such we had a reduction in force (lay-offs) to rebalance and invest that headcount back into Development, which in turn impacted morale and our employment brand both internally and externally
  • External competition was hot our local competitors for talent were always the formidable trio of Google, pre-IPO Facebook and Spotify


Our recruitment task was to scale up 6 development centres more or less simultaneously (Tallinn, Stockholm, Prague, Palo Alto, Moscow and New York), whilst at the same time building out two non-engineering centres in London and Luxembourg.


So what did we do?

  • We defined our core hiring competencies across the company, we moved our employee value proposition to one of “Product and Engineering led”
  • And we rebuilt our careers portal by city – ensuring that we were only showing Engineer and Product profiles in each territory to focus recruitment on those areas we really needed to address
  • We instituted a hiring committee approach
  • We beefed up the Staffing team, building on the great team in place with those who had direct experience of hiring software engineers; we implemented a Sourcing / Recruiter / co-ordinator model; (so teams dedicated to that particular function with weekly KPI’s), we set up a system of weekly reviews of pipeline, interviews and hires by Staffing Lead & Business Unit Vice Presidents, alongside a weekly review of the above with the CTO and myself called Recco


Recco consisted of:

  • Approval process to open a new requisition. (Stopped the Staffing team from  working on roles that were not approved or likely ever to be)
  • Approval process to change a requisition (Stopped sneaky hiring managers work around the above )
  • Approval process to fill a requisition (Kept the bar high, ensured a calibrated interview panel had been involved in the hiring process and we had compensation equity plus consistent job titling and levelling)

Recco / hiring rationale:

We requested a single paragraph of hiring rationale with compensation ratio, technical scores, names of interviewers, level and role they would be doing. This was done via Google sheets and in my opinion worked very well. I would audit it every Friday before sitting with the CTO.

Our process was a min of 4 interviews, 1 x trusted and 1 x cross functional interview so we wanted to ensure they had interviewed with the right people for every role, every time.

If there was no score or feedback at Recco then the candidate was held. If you had 3 scores then OK but we wanted the 4th interview scheduled that week which made sure we did not miss anybody by being too rigid process wise.

It took a few weeks to communicate this process then bed it in but eventually we got a really good rhythm going of up to 30 offers a week in our heyday.

When it came to scaling Skype’s development centres, each centre had dedicated Recruiters and Sourcers to work with the teams with shared OKRs. We set up each centre with its own dedicated marketing plan and budget to ensure tailored, territory-appropriate communications and messaging. We sent our best engineers and product people to tech talks in the region to promote Skype and its culture.

For those going into meltdown re bureaucracy and admin right about now, from a practical perspective the meeting was about 1 hour in total and if each recruiter was presenting two candidates per week then about 20 mins prep work.


Building our Employment Brand

We also focused on enhancing the Skype ‘Employee Value Proposition’ – what were the factors that would help us not only recruit but then subsequently retain our talent in the face of the aforementioned competition from other attractive players in tech?


We were focused on engaging the right people in the right location at the right time, and on drilling down into the following key points to help prove to candidates that we were the right employer for them:

  • What does Skype look and feel like as a potential employer?
  • What are the big technical challenges we are solving?
  • Who works here and what are they working on?
  • What makes us different from Facebook, Google, Twitter, Spotify, King etc? (it was a few years ago!!)


Once we’d determined answers to the above questions, and formulated them in such a way that they resonated with our target audience, we went out and targeted publications and events, highlighting the qualities of the newly independent Skype. This activity ran the full gamut from the big ticket events in Palo Alto and Europe, to sponsoring events, to targeting smaller barbecues and informal gatherings to get the Skype story across to the people with the talent to take the business to the next level.  QR codes on the inside of pizza lids was a favourite and ads in toilet cubicles worked well too (we stole that from Google).


If you’re limited in terms of sponsorship budgets, another way forward is to target speaking opportunities at the events and send teams of your best company evangelists to the community events to engage with your target audience at a grass roots level – monitor your career analytics and see if this an impact on traffic and hiring.


We also built out an engaging careers portal, complete with proactive job alerts, ensuring that ‘[email protected]’ was linked to social networking sites with a common look, feel consistent branding and engaging job descriptions. Finally, we ensured that we were leveraging the data at our disposal to the best of our ability – how many hits were we getting, when and from where? Finding out where site visitors came from, and then targeting them with advertising is the sort of marketing which is regularly applied to sales but all too rarely is re-purposed for recruitment. It’s a very cost-effective way of hitting the people you want to talk to.

So what were the steps we took overall? The following should give you a pretty good overview of how we made it all work, and achieve the sort of change you see in the steps below:


We revamped the employee value proposition – all job descriptions were revamped to sell Skype’s long-term future, explain its technical challenges, and demonstrate how candidates would be able to make an impact.


We streamlined the recruitment process

  • Stage 1: Pre screen with a Sourcer – they were the hunters in our Recruiting Team
  • Stage 2: Skype call with a Recruiter to assess culture fit, some technical fit, explain what that particular team was working on, fellow team members and compensation expectations
  • Stage 3: Phone screen with an Engineer. Recommendation for areas to probe for panel
  • Stage 4: Onsites. 3 x 1 hour interviews.  Predetermined interviewing questions based on role
  • Stage 5: Onsite with Eng Leadership if required
  • Stage 6: RECCO (short paragraph with hiring rationale)
  • Stage 7: Offer. The Recruiter did this
  • Stage 8: Close
  • Stage 9: On-boarding. Keep in contact and structured 3 month onboarding plan

We rebuilt the team – we put together a core team of permanent and part-time Staffing professionals, based across key locations of Palo Alto, Stockholm, Prague, London, Moscow and Tallinn. London was our main Sourcing hub which supported the European sites.


We implemented Applicant Tracking System– sadly it was Taleo which was bought before I joined =(

Nightmare…at that time Taleo only worked with Internet Explorer when most of Skype was on Safari and Chrome (we ran the data to show the powers that be, but it was too late) – self assessment of 0.1 for that OKR =(


We asked for Branding & Marketing budget, and delivered (above) – creating consistent identity across all touchpoints for potential hires created a more coherent offer; coupled with use of targeted advertising and social media profiles, this drove interest and we could see and track the hits on our careers portal week on week and adjust / test as we went.


We rebooted the Employee Referral Programme – 1,000 euros per hire, which was not massive amounts of money (and that was not the point) but it was more about the spirit of the programme which helped us drive the referral rates to 40%. Our external agency use was 6% by 2013, which was mainly taken up by Finance hires.

Impact and Outcomes:

From a Staffing perspective all of the steps outlined above added up to one big impact – we helped rebuild an amazing company with lots of amazing people.

From an Investment perspective we went from a $2.5B to $8.5B exit in just 2 years – not bad!

From an ecosystem perspective – this is one of my favourite outcomes in terms of the strength of our brand amongst the brightest technical minds in Europe and beyond! The Sykpe Alumni from 2003 onwards have gone on to build / run / manage some amazing companies from Transferwise, Pipedrive, Space Ape Games, Starship Technologies, Teleport, Improbable, King, Symphony, Kano, Chilango and many more. To me, this is the ultimate proof that we were able to attract and develop some of the best talent and something I’m most proud of. The impact that the Skype team continues to have on the European start-up ecosystem continues to be felt today.

A final reminder that if you’d like more content like this in your inbox each month, you should sign up for the Atomico newsletter

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