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What Michigan Wolverines Basketball Taught Me About Hiring at Buffer

I’ve been a college basketball fan for as long as I can remember.

Sports teams are like any other organization: They strive to organize individuals to accomplish shared challenges and goals. 

As a Michigan Wolverines fan, I’m continually inspired by how Michigan’s coach, John Beilein, accomplishes these goals. Beilein is the only active collegiate coach to have achieved 20-win seasons at four different levels, as well as one of only 6 active Division I coaches with 700 or more career wins.

What’s unique about Beilein is his recruiting—his typical recruits are not highly sought after by other schools. In fact, 5 of Beilein’s recent recruits weren’t expected to make the NBA at all when they first joined Beilein’s team. They have since gone on to be top NBA draft picks.

John Beilein, the head coach at the University of Michigan is known for taking risks by recruiting for potential to develop within the team instead of pure talent. All three here (Nik Stauskas, Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr.) were not recruited heavily among top colleges when they were in high school. Yet after a few years of hard work, the trio led the team to the national championship in 2013. They exceeded all expectations by becoming top NBA draft picks Melanie Maxwell |
All three players here (Nik Stauskas, Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr.) were not recruited heavily among top colleges when they were in high school. Yet the trio led the team to the national championship in 2013 and exceeded all expectations by becoming top NBA draft picks. Melanie Maxwell |

What is Beilein’s secret, and how can all organizations learn from it? I believe it’s that Beilein is prioritizing potential to develop within the team over pure talent.

The success he has had in building teams is an inspiration to me. I believe there are parallels between the way college coaches build great teams and the methods that startups and growing companies can use to build their own teams.

The core of Buffer’s hiring philosophy is a lot like John Beilein’s: We prioritize our values well over technical talent and expertise. We look for those who we feel will grow along with us.

college basketball

How I started hiring the wrong way

When I started building the engineering team at Buffer, I thought I needed to hire the best, most experienced engineers I could find. I only looked for people who went to the “best” schools and had computer science degrees, or tons of experience working at top companies.

I struggled to find candidates who fit this criteria and also felt aligned with our cultural values.

In interviews, I would ask the standard technical questions. Often, the candidates who would thrive in that portion didn’t feel like a good fit with the team, and those whom I thought would fit well sometimes struggled with the technical questions—though I knew they were capable of understanding them given the right opportunities.

There’s great talent everywhere

Through reflecting on my own journey, I began to evolve my thinking.

I remember I bombed my interviews during my first startup experience. Yet I was lucky enough to have an awesome and experienced manager who took the risk to hire me for whatever potential he saw in me.

I had very low confidence in my development ability and felt out of place among my incredibly smart coworkers with years (and decades) of past experience . I’ve had that imposter syndrome feeling for as long as I can remember—but I’m grateful for it because I feel it’s motivated me.

I was so eager to do whatever I could to contribute to the team. With some great support, I hit my stride and finally reached a point where I felt on par with my co-workers.

The personal and professional development I went through during that time was invaluable for both me and my company .

This realization led me to believe that there’s great talent everywhere. With the right environment, opportunity, and mentorship, good team members can develop the expertise needed to thrive on a team.

My ‘aha’ moment: No more technical interviews

With the internet and the right motivation, we believe anyone can become an expert in anything.

Tough technical interview questions, school degrees, and specific past work environments haven’t been an accurate indicator of the potential to succeed on our team.

My ‘aha’ moment happened when I stopped asking technical questions and instead focused on gauging a candidate’s potential to learn and develop within our team.

When I tried out this new approach, I was able to notice two candidates I might not have otherwise: Dan and Niel, neither of whom had taken a formal computer science course or worked at popular tech companies.

Dan worked as a civil engineer in construction before learning how to code on his own, and Niel studied linguistics and was teaching English to students in Taipei. Niel was coding for fun on the side when he joined our team.

Both were incredibly passionate about the product and culture, and it was clear early on that they wanted to do whatever it took to be great engineers at Buffer. After working closely with both of them for multiple years now, I can’t imagine where we’d be without them. Niel recently reflected on his unique journey in our Hipchat “Gratitude” channel:

Niel reflection


Great players are made from great teams

After watching coaching inspirations like John Beilein be successful over the years, I’ve come to realize that building a good team or organization is all about continual learning, development, and growth as a group and much less about individual contribution and expertise.

Coaches like John Beilein are completely invested in his players. It’s a culture built around continuous improvement, and this type of support gives players confidence and creates success.

We try to have a similarly supportive culture for new team members at Buffer. With our unique values and approach to management, I’ve felt more like a coach (or a senior-year teammate) than a ‘manager.’

When someone is hired at Buffer, there’s a contract period called the Buffer bootcamp—I see this approach as being very similar to a football or basketball training camp.

Continuous two-way feedback and positive mentorship from the whole team is critical during this early time to achieve mutual success.

If there’s something a team member feels would help the new hire succeed during the bootcamp, they’d give that advice immediately. For us, one of the awesome effects of focusing on culture and the Buffer values has been to establish this type of supportive team environment.

I’m grateful for the strong and connected team we have at Buffer (even as we’re spread out across 11 timezones).
After watching great sports teams develop and seeing our culture-first team building approach at Buffer, I truly believe the best teams are the ones that focus on continual improvement rather than recruiting/hiring the most experienced people from the start.

I was lucky enough to meet Coach Beilein for a brief moment in 2009. The inspiration of him and other great coaches reaches far beyond just sports.

Sunil and John

Over to you!

Does this philosophy resonate with you? How have you approached hiring and interviewing, on either side of the desk? I’d love to hear all your thoughts—about basketball or Buffer—in the comments.

  • Mitchell Kline

    Hi Sunil, I’m curious to know what kinds of questions you ask in order to gauge a candidate’s potential to learn and develop within our team

    • sunils34

      Great question Mitchell!

      Here’s a little bit around how I interview :).
      Typically what I do is first just ask them about their personal journey. I learn so much from those 10 mins of understanding where they come from and the experiences they’ve had. How they viewed learning and growing, what they think about themselves, how they view the opportunities life has afforded them all typically comes out here. I also love love hearing about side projects (of any kind) and the motivation behind those side projects. When candidates talk about a failure, maybe in a startup or side project they’ve built, that’s a huge opportunity to gauge how they view those moments. The best ones I’ve seen, view those moments as hugely beneficial and focus on what they’ve learned when talking about that.

      I’ll next ask: If you were to join Buffer, describe to me what you envision would be the best role and environment for you. I learn so much from that question. I’d tend to like ‘I want to work on something new to learn’ over something like: ‘I want to use my experience and help lead this area’.

      I then go through a code walkthrough where they show me snippet of code they’ve written that they’re proud of. The candidate talks me through understanding it. This tells me a lot about their coding style, communication. Most importantly, it also tells me what they’re proud of. The best candidates I’ve come across often show something new or unique and their reason for showing me was because they learned something new in that process. They have an opportunity to show something safe that they’ve written many times or perfected, but if they’re proud of some snippet they’ve written in which they’ve taken a risk to show me, that tells me a lot. Usually I’ve learned something new from the best candidates during the code walk through :).

      I also often find myself saying things like ‘describe me your motivation for…’, ‘walk me through what you were thinking when this happened’. I’ve found this to be a really great way to see through their eyes.

      None of these questions are at all silver bullets. I definitely find that an hour long chat is not nearly enough time to get to know someone fully. So I think what’s truly key for us is the 45 contract period where we work closely together.

      Hope this is helpful! :)

  • Jae Sung

    Love everything about this post. If you looked at my own background, there’s no way I should be where I am. It’s only b/c of some amazing people who took a chance on me and my desire to never let them down.

    My takeaway: focus not on perfection but on continuous perfecting.

  • Sara Oberg

    I love this, and yet again you guys are ahead of the curve! As a hiring manager at a small business I had to find ways to filter out people who were looking for ego titles or ways to slip into the folds of corporate slack. It’s rare to find those looking to make a difference in the company culture. Bravo!

  • Beilein is also a system coach. He finds players who will thrive in his system, not just the “best” players. Culture functions the same way for a company.

  • Jenn Piorkowski

    I LOVE your message and company culture! It is truly inspiring. Seeing the best in people, that would be a wonderful world to live in. Absolutely refreshing!

  • Sunil, great update. You’ve seemed to capture and resolve the catch 22 that is very prevalent in hiring, and not just in the tech sector. That catch 22 is that you want someone who’s proficient at the job but that proficiency only comes from doing the job. Therefore, someone who doesn’t have that experience is automatically disqualified because, well, they don’t have that experience.

    While I think your aha moment is great, I think we should strive not to sit on either side of the fence. That’s because when we only want the great candidate who has worked the job before we lose out on other great candidates who have potential. But then when we solely look for potential, we run the risk of subjectively picking who we like because there’s something about that candidate that resonates with us (or rather, that candidate has passed one of the many biases we have).

    I think there has to be a balance. Your history doesn’t dictate your future but does shed light to why you are where you are today and where you could potentially go tomorrow. The sad truth is that I don’t think anyone has quite figured out the balance, but I think Buffer is moving in the right direction.

  • Paul Tucker

    Beautifully communicated, Sunil! So challenging and inspiring!

  • Hi Sunil, thank you so much for this post! I really enjoyed reading your reflection on the hiring process and felt that the analogy with recruiting in basketball was very apt :)

    Having learned from being on both sides of the hiring experience, I completely agree that the willingness to learn and ability to develop within the team is a better gauge of whether a candidate is likely to succeed in and help build/sustain a great team than a focus on expertise. Besides the points you’ve shared, I also feel that it establishes a different kind of relationship between the team and the new members — one that is more deeply rooted in improvement, exploration, autonomy, and dialogue, in contrast to a working relationship that began around a conversation that tends to be more transactional. The hiring paradigm you refer to — if I may call it that — is way more conducive to personal development and people tend to give so much more (and have much more to give) when their personal growth is taken care of and encouraged :)

  • Go Blue!

    That’s all I have to say. :)

  • Anastasia Alpaticova

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this, Sunil! This analogy can be extended to many other groups like divers, adventure travelers, culinary aficionados, etc. as it takes certain characteristics to fit in a certain culture, or tribe, using Seth Godin’s terms. Having hired for a startup I quickly realized that technical skills can be acquired, however to fit in with a culture you need to be a type of person that resonates with the cultural values of the group. In our hiring process in the first stage I usually probed for the culture fit, then the candidate would have interview with the team member in whose team they were going to work.

  • Gus Jullien

    Great Post Sunil. I’m a basketball junky myself. I really like your answers to Mitchell’s questions.

  • My dad has always said a teachable spirit and the ability to learn is the best quality to have. With it, you can learn anything. Without it, you can teach nothing. Great post, Sunil!

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