DuckDuckGo’s Gabriel Weinberg talks about ‘Inbound Hiring’

Last week, I contacted Gabriel Weinberg, the founder and CEO of the search company DuckDuckGo. I had heard about the company’s ‘inbound hiring’ model — where they basically hire almost exclusively from their community of open source contributors — and wanted to learn more about it.

Stowe Boyd: I read that DuckDuckGo is unusual in hiring approach — and perhaps sort of inspirational — in what you  call ‘inbound hiring’. I’d like you to summarize what that is, and how that became DuckDuckGo’s pattern.

Gabriel Weinberg: Sure. It really came about organically because the company started a bit unusually. I started DuckDuckGo myself, and ran it alone for several years. That’s unusual because people usually hire people right away or certainly within that time frame. With the kind of traction we had in that period of years, I had a bunch of people come in to me asking to help with the product, just out of interest in it. So, naturally, when I went to hire instead of going the traditional way and using a recruiter or posting a job online,  I already had these people in front of me that were super interested in our mission.  And they had already demonstrated that they were producing good output. It was pretty much a no brainer for the first few people for me to hire them right out of our community. That was so successful that we thought if we need to hire some more people in the next 6 months or so why don’t we try and replicate what worked really well. Thats where it crystallized into a process…

SB: it became institutionalized, in a sense…

GW: Right, exactly. That we are going to try and do this and see how far we can go with this.  That also combined really well with our [open source] DuckDuckHack platform. That is a natural place to send people who are interested over there to start working there. That made a natural kind of pipeline for new hires. Not everyone came that way. We had some very specific needs — like system administration, front-end, and javascript work — that was not related to that platform. So we let it be known in the community that we had some needs, and people outsid of the community showed up, and said they were interested in helping. And that led to part time work, which led to full time work.

SB: The idea that there were some roles that didn’t organically flow through inbound hiring begs the obvious question: what about companies that aren’t developing software with a community of software developers? How would that kind of inbound hiring work? Is it possible that another company — one not building software –could still use this model? Building a community as way to pull people into what the mission of the company? Even if that mission isn’t demonstrated clearly or as clearly if you were in a community generating source code?

GW: I think so. So, early on we had two non-tech hires,  and they both came early to this process.  It worked well for them as well. It wasn’t as a natural place for them to play, but we had a need. Again, we sent the message out to our community, and people would stand up and say I’m interested in doing that.  And we would give them a trial piece in their own section. Assuming that went well, we’d go to a part time arrangement for a while. And so I think that’s probably the answer: this mixture of a search in our community — if people are following you say on twitter or on other places reading your messages or your newsletter they’re going to be aware of our needs — they will say ‘Oh, I want to participate in that’.

SB: Right, fascinating . So, does that mean that companies have to build communities if they want to try inbound hiring? You’ve said elsewhere that being slow to hire means low attrition, ultimately, right?

GW: Yes, I think that the community — and the mission which generates a community — almost by necessity is essential for this. Because then you have no one to draw on otherwise. If you consider job hiring as a type of funnel, the funnel becomes your whole community.

SB: Right. Meanwhile we are seeing a great deal of fall out about unpaid internships in many industries.  It has gotten so bad that it’s kind of like indentured servitude. People start as an intern while they are in school, then continue with two or three unpaid internships later on. Businesses go along with the pattern, taking advantage of the situation. But now there seems to be an ideological shift taking place, where the practice is falling out of style, and media companies that have used interns for generations are switching to paid internships, or they don’t have internships at all. In this case, you are not exploiting people, you are attracting members of the community, and they get involved in the community for their own reasons, and then perhaps they work for you on a part time basis to see if it all works. A shake down cruise to see if everything is going to work. Have you had an instance where it didn’t work?

GW: We have had interns and they have all been paid. I have a strong belief in paid internships. We’re not trying to get free work from people. It follows in the open source style. Open source means people are contributing their time because they are interested in the mission.  And we’re not giving people any directed tasks — they are picking what to work on. The second we give people directed tasks that should be paid for, that’s work. Once they aren’t doing what’s fun for them they are no longer volunteering. That piece where they’re doing what they want might be a really short period of time, but it’s used as a filter for us.  A lot of people write in and say ‘Hey, I’m interested at DuckDuckGo’, and we say ‘Go do something that interests you over there’. And then we never hear from them again. So, it’s a filter for us because otherwise we don’t have enough time. By the time we take people on part time, it’s very likely they are a good candidate.

SB: Because they have gone down some kind of evaluation path?

GW: It’s funny, because even if they have worked only four or five hours on the open source code — most people won’t even work that 4 hours — it can quickly get to part time pay. But the part time paid work, we do for an extended period of time. I suppose another company who wanted to adopt inbound hiring would have to make it a very defined: you have to work for a week or two part time and see what happens. The way we adopted it has been for a longer time frame than that.

SB: Do you have any other science fiction business practices or is this the only one?

GW: I don’t know. We probably do. We are kind of a weird company. But I’m not sure totally what’s normal or not. The one thing that comes to mind is that we are mainly remote. We have a headquarters here in Pennsylvania, but there are only about five of us here. There are about 20 scattered around the world. It relates to the hiring thing. They can come from anywhere. Of the people who are here in Pennsylvania only two of them were from the state. So the majority of people working at our headquarters have moved here from elsewhere. That ends up being weirder, but I think it’s becoming more normal that people have remote work for their business.

SB: It’s less uncommon, surely. But if you look at the stats in American business it’s still relatively low.

GW: And its not 75% where we are. It may be about 20% or lower.

SB: Or people work at home one day a week, and the rest of the time is spent in the office. So its really like telework. It’s not remote so to speak. In a lot of tech startups I’ve talked to recently there are different ways of organizing work. In the development groups at Yammer and Asana, for example, they have a very different notion of how work is assigned. It isn’t assigned by managers to ‘subordinates’ — they are self selected teams and they break off the work in chunks that they define. And then they divide it amongst themselves and  collaborate amongst themselves: they really develop their own work patterns.

GW: Like Holacracy?

SB: Holacracy is a very elaborate way to fully distribute and decentralize management, even in these companies they have senior people setting strategy. But the way work is being done by the development team  dribbles out and influences the entire company.

GW: We’re kind of along those lines. There was a First Round Capital article about Asana, about their diffusion of responsibility (see Asana’s Justin Rosenstein on the One Quality Every Startup Needs to Survive). We were doing something like that. We already had adopted the Apple notion of Directly Responsible Individual, the DRI. Asana has a nice little tweak on it. They have what they call areas of responsibility. That’s how we do it. We’ve taken Asana’s ‘big list’ to heart as well. We have a big list in all the areas of the company, and someone is responsible for each area, and they are the decision maker on a day to day basis on what to do in that area. There’s oversight, but the idea is that they make decisions, so we aren’t bottlenecked by a small group making all the decisions.

SB: No one wants to go back to a spoke and wheel model, where every decision goes to the guy at the top.

GW: So, I don’t know how normal or not that is, but the concept is working really well for us. And I like it. Just theoretically, someone coming onboard, we know we can give them ownership of an area.

SB: I was talking to a friend of mine — Will McInnes —  about how his consulting firm works. The company is extremely transparent, so everyone knows how much people got paid, for example. I asked him what does it feel like working there? He said strangely enough everyone is much more responsible: they feel responsible. It becomes more serious when its clear who’s responsible for what. That’s kind of a sobering thought because its not exactly the first thing I would have thought of. The more empowered they are, the happier they are, yes. But it’s not a direct connection, but, yes, you are ultimately happier in that environment. In the end, I’m responsible for the stuff that I’ve been tasked or undertaken.

GW: That’s actually really interesting. I would say that we are a really serious place, and I wonder if its related.

SB: I think it is. Sort of a necessary outcome if you make these decisions then the others have to follow. I think this is one of the primary reasons that organizations like yours and Will’s the attrition rate goes way down.

GW: Yeah, because people feel empowered. That’s understandable.

SB: Thanks for your time.

GW: You’re welcome.

There are some important lessons here, for any company who wants an engaged workforce. There are many schools of thought regarding hiring. But one thing has become clear in recent years, now that companies are beginning to look at hiring dispassionately: companies are historically bad at hiring. I recently wrote about Google’s change of heart about hiring (see Lazlo Bock talks about hiring at Google, and why the GPA is irrelevant), and how they threw away almost all the norms that they had been using, like GPA and prestigious colleges.

DuckDuckGo’s community-based inbound hiring model is an alternative for any mission-driven company, and one that sidesteps the same pitfalls that Google avoids, but from a different tack. DuckDuckGo’s inbound part-timers demonstrate their coding chops in as short a time as a few hours, but demonstrating that they understand how to interact with the community and co-workers can take weeks or longer as part-time DDGers.

The biggest takeaway for me is that a slow path to hiring leads to much higher retention, and when people do come on-board, they can immediately become responsible for some area of focus since they have been working for the firm for weeks or months already.