Recruiting superheros: Shopify's talent acquisition strategies

Courtney Symons
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Traditional hiring methods are stale, uncomfortable and focused on the wrong things.

Doug Tetzner is Shopify's head of talent acquisition.

That’s the view taken by Doug Tetzner, Shopify’s head of talent acquisition. Formerly a partner at executive search firm Odgers Berndtson, Mr. Tetzner was commissioned by Shopify to recruit a director of operations. He did so by creating a hand-drawn job description using pictures instead of words.

It was love at first hire and Shopify decided to bring him on board permanently.

Since joining the local company early last year, Mr. Tetzner has been helping Shopify rapidly expand its head count using unconventional strategies, including homemade videos and job application cocktail parties where candidates are given social challenges to complete.

Mr. Tetzner sat down with OBJ to talk about his hiring approach.


OBJ: What’s the first thing you look for in a candidate?

Tetzner: I want to see the real them, whatever that is. Companies have been known to make interviews interrogations. You’ve got this tension around interviews where everybody is not being themselves. I don’t want to see the mask or the “This is what you want me to be so I can get the job.” I just want the genuine them, because that’s the person we’re going to be hiring.


Is there anything people do or say that causes you to immediately write them off?

Tetzner: I’m bothered when people answer questions that haven’t been asked. They come in with an agenda. And it’s not totally their fault; it’s how interviewing has been done for years and years. (People think) you need to be on point and you need to let them know you’re strategic. So you’ll be like, “Where did you grow up?” and they’ll say, “Blah blah blah blah blah, I’m strategic!” You look up and you’re thinking, “How did we get here?” If people are unable to engage in a conversation, it’s just not good. It’s not necessarily an instant writeoff, but it definitely doesn’t bode well.


How much will you allow for nerves?

Tetzner: I’ll definitely allow for that. I’ve had a few interviews in my life, and you’re nervous. You’re not automatically going to be yourself in those moments. I will suspend judgment. It’s not about knowing within the first 30 seconds or the first five minutes, it’s about suspending judgment and learning something about them. I know people are going to be nervous, and I’ll try to help them open up. We’ll take a tour of the office; I’ll typically give them a preamble saying, “Look, this is not like a normal interview,” to try and get around that. But I know people are going to be nervous.


What are some key differences between the way you’re hiring and the way hiring is traditionally done?

Tetzner: I believe in instinct. I think this is a major downfall of current recruiting practices; there’s been this pendulum swing over to standardization of questions. Everyone’s got to be asked the same questions. It’s getting away from instinct and people’s intuition, where you say, “I’ve interviewed probably about 2,500 people, I’ve got an index, why am I not allowed to use that (knowledge)?” I think we need to get back to instinct and believing that it’s real. I’m not talking about snap decisions. Sometimes with instinct I need to think about it for three or four days.


Why is instinct so important?

Tetzner: Let’s get back to realizing that hiring is like dating. In dating, you don’t score answers (to questions like), “Where do you see yourself in 10 years?” The dating world is very much about instinct and feel. Sometimes, it doesn’t feel right. If (a colleague) spends an hour in an interview, and afterwards says to me, “Doug, I’m just not feeling it. It didn’t do it for me,” I say, “OK,” instead of saying, “Well, write a report and tell me why.” Everyone would do a better job of hiring if they acted on instinct.


Do you take notes during interviews?

Tetzner: I have a habit of taking absolutely no notes, except for compensation (expectations). If it’s a number, I’ll make a quick note on the iPad. For me, any time someone is making notes in a conversation, you’re like, “Why are they writing that? What are they writing down?” For other conversations in society, you don’t make notes. You don’t make notes when you’re at the bar meeting people. We have a no notes kind of rule here.


You’ve said standardization isn’t the way to go, but do you have a couple of go-to questions you always ask?

Tetzner: I have one canned question I’ll ask in that first interview. “So, where did you grow up?” Because I want to talk about their life story. I don’t want to talk about just after they graduated university because nothing else matters. I want to talk about the jobs you had in high school. It’s a great way to get to know someone. Why can’t we do the life story? The reality is, whatever the theme of that life story is, it’s not going to dramatically change when they start working for you. It’s going to carry on. I love hearing the theme. That all starts with that one question.


Have you noticed any differences in what Shopify is looking for versus other companies?

Tetzner: I would say here we’re hiring more on potential and passion versus (having) done it before. The default, it seems, in a lot of organizations is, “OK, we need someone to do this. What’s the least risk we can take? I know, get someone who has done it before, for five-plus years, and because they did it over there, they can come over here and do it again.” The problem is, once they’ve done it before, they’re like, “Really? I need to go over there and do it again? Can’t I do something else?” So essentially we’re looking for A-players, typically earlier in their career. We hire a lot of software developers and they don’t even need to know our software stack. It’s about being passionate about what they’re doing.


Where did the idea to draw a job description come from?

Tetzner:  I was on the treadmill one morning when the idea came to me. Typically, the recruiter approach is, “Here’s the job posting, roles and responsibilities.” It’s just so boring. What I wanted was something that people would share, even if they’re not looking for a job. Because at any given time, 80 per cent of the population is not actively looking. What I wanted to tap into is the individual that maybe it gets forwarded to because it’s funny and they say, “Oh, hang on a second, what is this?” To tap into the people that aren’t looking is the goal (of recruiters), but not many people do it well.


Do you think there will always be a place for the CV and cover letter?

Tetzner: I think the CV is becoming your LinkedIn profile, because really all I want from your CV is the chronology. The objective at the top (of a resumé saying), “I’m strategic,” I can’t even read that. It’s hideous. Nobody likes reading resumés. The resumé of the future is probably just a web page, and it’s just, “This is what I did from here to here,” and you click and see the corporate website. It essentially becomes a timeline. I hope the canned letter goes away, where they just find and replace the company name. “To whom it may concern” drives me crazy. I hope we move away from resumé spammers where success is applying for 50 jobs, and instead you do some research of where you want to go and why, and write them a nice resumé free of typos.



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Recent comments

  • Jane Smith
    November 09, 2016 - 16:28

    I agree with John Doe. Intuition is not right all the time, it's also a liability if one does not assess their own limitations of what intuition can't do and notice. Diversity means accepting different methods of doing things, different ways of thinking that an interviewer may not agree with. One thing I noticed. "Passionate," seems to be a cultural bias. What is passion? People show passion in different ways and one person might not display that trait in a way that a recruiter will expect. Do you write them off?

  • Teri Edney
    July 07, 2013 - 12:10

    Great article on stepping out of the box on being creative in recruiting. I do agree with mystery man, John Doe, though. Digging into someone's past on where they grew up can get you tagged with a disparate impact for a protected group... i.e. national orgin. Again, great ideas on creativity and looking at things differently!

  • John Doe
    July 03, 2013 - 15:18

    WRONG. You cannot rely purely on instinct, you need some structure in an interview and going too deep into peoples personal lives will lead to lawsuits!

  • Rob
    July 02, 2013 - 17:08

    Going by word count, it seems to me that "passionate" is the new "strategic". Sure, it means being really interested in your work, caring, wanting to do it better, wanting to learn. Those are good things, but "passionate" is becoming a buzzword to put in your resume. You have to show that what you are interested it, what you love doing, what you love about your present/previous job. Really, it doesn't matter if that is part of your role here, if you can be interested in what you are doing, that's what matters.

  • Mike Bossio
    July 02, 2013 - 14:34

    Great article, couldn't agree more! I have been in recruitment for over 30 years and have always done things a little different and base a lot of what I do on instinct and hard work. I don't just recruit for any company, I want to recruit for that company that excels by doing things differently. It is not what you have done and how long you have done it, it is about passion and level of intellectual capacity to wrap your head around complex problems/solutions to quickly provide a thorough high quality solution, Congrats to Doug and Shopify for being smart enough to attract that level of talent! Mike

    • Andy McNamara
      July 03, 2013 - 21:31

      I completely agree as well. Great article and right on point from where I stand. If a candidate can't be "real" in front of you while wearing their "best-foot-forward" hat, what will they be like down the road with your customers? Who you hire becomes your face and that of the business; skills can be taught and any of us in the 80% that are not looking for a job knows that; real passion can't be taught, nor can it be faked. I have almost always followed my gut on hiring for this reason and on the odd instance that I didn't, I got burned with time invested on a bad hire. People that are afraid of a lawsuit from speaking in a personal way to a potential candidate are missing the opportunity - it's an interview, not an AA meeting! Employees feel more comfortable in the workplace when they know they are connected to other people in some way; it builds chemistry and synergy. Happy employees do better work (and watch the clock less too). I would hate to enter an environment every day that I did not feel connect to in more than just an it-pays-the-bills way, yet so many others do it every day. I hope this ideology works it way past it's predictive index and behavioral based cousins on the interview front as I believe it is the best predictor of all. Good luck an happy hunting! Andy McNamara