For several years I’ve debated the merits of creating a blog. That debate may be worthy of its own post someday, but for now I’ll attend to the issue that finally pushed me over the edge in favor of creating a blog, namely, Toptal’s screening process.
Toptal seeks to differentiate itself from traditional placement firms by claiming to be the matchmaker for “the top 3% of freelance talent.” From what I’ve seen so far of Toptal’s screening process, they are making an effort to deliver on that positioning.
Toptal automates the front-end (onboarding) of prospective freelancers, presenting candidates with a structured, online application process (resume, contact information, sample code upload, brief skills statement and the like). Within a few hours of submitting my application on a Saturday, Toptal sent an email to set up an initial screening interview. The email took me to a Toptal page offering a series of appointment times. Within minutes of selecting a time I had received a personalized – though possibly automated – email from the Toptal employee with whom the screening interview had been scheduled. So, as far as this freelancer’s “out of the box” experience has gone thus far, Toptal has demonstrated a decent level of automation and efficiency.
But let’s consider whether the process has done anything to trim the field of candidate freelancer’s to “the top 3%”. The honest answer is “not so far”. However, let me speak as someone who has reviewed hundreds of resumes (maybe thousands?), interviewed at least a hundred engineers and from that group personally hired several dozen. By automating the application process, Toptal effectively “normalizes” the front-end data collection from the pool of candidates without consuming any Toptal employee’s time. At the same time, the automated application process, without being onerous, is probably filtering a small number of obviously under-qualified candidates. Both factors should enable Toptal’s staff to spend a higher percentage of its time asking candidates “the right questions” in order to ferret out the desired top 3%.
What kind of questions would those be? Certainly any hiring manager – myself included – should have a strategy for identifying candidates who meet (or lack) requisite job skills. That strategy should also seek to determine whether or not each candidate is a good fit for an organization in terms of temperament, communication, and other “soft” skills. This is where we come to a unique element of Toptal’s application process: after submitting the application the candidate is strongly encouraged to provide a link to a personal blog post in which the candidate addresses Toptal’s question, “why you are committed to joining Toptal” and more specifically to “indicate your specific interest in joining the [Toptal’s] Web Engineering Group.” Toptal notes that candidates who make this effort will be considered ahead of candidates who do not.
Toptal goes on to provide a philosophical underpinning for the blog post: “Good writing requires an organized, concise mind, something that is essential for great developers to have.” Taken at face value, one cannot argue with the statement. In my personal experience, top engineers nearly always speak and write in measured tones and qualify their observations and analysis by what is known, what is believed, and what is unknown. And while there are many jokes about how engineers have lousy social skills, it is also my personal experience that the best engineers are nonetheless excellent communicators.
But, it occurs to me that Toptal may have more subtle, ulterior motives in asking candidates to provide a link to a personal blog entry as part of the application process. Certainly there could be a statistical correlation between superior engineers and blogging – though based on many of the blogs I’ve read I suspect the correlation is weak. However, the personal blog does give us some clues about the candidate beyond the obligatory post for Toptal. Do blog posts show the candidate is enthusiastic about engineering? Does the candidate’s interest in technology go beyond merely “making a buck?” These are certainly themes I’ve explored when interviewing engineering candidates.
Going further, does Toptal use the blog to provide clues about the candidate’s technical (i.e., web development) proficiency? Does Toptal notice when a blog is self-hosted on a privately owned domain? When considering a UI designer (which I am not), does Toptal consider the theme and layout selected by the candidate? Does Toptal notice when the formerly non-blogging candidate respects Toptal’s process enough to create a self-hosted WordPress blog on a Digital Ocean VPS running Ubuntu, a LAMP stack, Passenger (for RoR), and a few other goodies just to complete the darned application process?
We’ll see what Toptal does next.