Many articles on Medium are written to appeal to a broad readership group. “How to be successful!”, “5 ways to cross the road!”, “7 Things Jeff Bezos said to Elon yesterday, the 3rd one will surprise you!”. Today I felt like writing an article on a very specific topic. While I hope it does appeal to a few more people, this is not meant for mass consumption. I had a free afternoon and felt like writing.
For background purposes related to this article, I was a Director at Amazon until recently, having worked there for over 10 years. One of my strengths was filling headcount on my teams, and this served me well over the years.
How Amazon Runs Businesses
As a Director at Amazon, I owned part of Amazon’s business. What this generally means is that you are responsible for success for that part of Amazon’s business, you make most of the decisions for that part of the business, you get credit when that business does well, you need to explain yourself when that business does poorly, and so on.
At each level of management from SVPs down to line managers, every leader has an area of ownership they can stake a claim to. This might be “AWS” for Andy Jassy (not for long!), or “The add-to-cart button for purchasing t-shirts” for an entry level manager.
For the sake of being able to use concrete examples, lets pretend that I own the product called “Subscribe & Save”. If you’re not familiar with it, essentially you can re-order products regularly at a discount. A superb feature.
As the Director of Subscribe & Save, I would have the title of “General Manager” (GM) of the business. This means I own the technology teams, business teams, marketing teams, and any other teams specifically allocated to this business. As a side note, plenty of people do not own full businesses, they own a part of some business(s). Everything still works the same way, you just end up with some grey areas and slightly more confusion in your examples.
As the leader of this business (or part of a business), I would be allocated a certain number of people I could hire to run my business, aka headcount. This headcount is determined yearly via a complex process I can’t possibly explain in this article, but it involves a fantastic number of 6 page documents. These 6 page documents (which I would have owned writing, as the leader of this business), would outline both my headcount requests, as well as the goals I wished to take on. For example, I might ask for 120 headcount as an increase from my current 90, and say that I would (among other things), grow the Subscribe & Save business by 23% in 2021.
In general, this process would conclude with my leadership team agreeing with my fantastic plans. Except for the slight modification which would increase my goal to 27%, and lower my approved headcount to 100. I say this in jest, but it is not entirely inaccurate. Regardless, you don’t work at Amazon if you want an easy job.
How Business Leaders Deliver to their Plans
In my example, I now have headcount, and some goals to deliver on.
Within the Subscribe & Save world, I would have multiple teams. Each team would have a manager, and a clear-as-possible ownership boundary. To keep things simple, lets say I have a retail website team which owns what the customer can see on the website, I have a business team which is responsible for picking what products we should sell, and a purchasing team which needs to get those items in stock. I think this specific solution I just outlined is a poor way to organize the group, but I won’t try to fix my example right now. Good enough.
Each manager would have a portion of the current headcount, and ownership over all or part of several of our annual goals. In the new yearly plan for Subscribe & Save, I would portion out the headcount to the managers of each of those teams as needed to accomplish the goals they’re responsible for. These needs were all discussed during the yearly planning cycle, but now need to be adjusted based on our current goals and approved headcount.
As a quick note, for managers who have managers working for them, they would go through the same process, allocating a portion of their approved headcount to their own sub-managers, based on their need to accomplish all their goals, until all the headcount is accounted for.
In the end, I have now allocated 20 headcount to the “Retail Website team”, which we can pretend had 16 headcount before this process. They know about a set of goals they need to help deliver, they have some hiring to do, and they need to get to work.
How Team Leaders Deliver to their Plans
The retail website team now has 20 headcount and a bunch of work to accomplish in the next 9 (or likely fewer) months. This is because the goals are all going to be due long before the end of the year, the annual process doesn’t actually finish until the year is well underway, and in general we will be behind on projects before we start them. This means we need to move quickly.
To add yet another challenge, the leader of the retail website team may have started the year with an approved 16 headcount, and was granted an increase to 20 headcount, but it is entirely likely that they actually had only 14 people working on the team at the time. This is because of people leaving Amazon, people internally transferring to other groups, the team grew for other reasons during the year, or they may even have not hired all their headcount from the previous year. So they’re behind on their project schedule, and they’re starting from a deficit on their resourcing.
The punch line for leaders at Amazon is that you’re only as successful as your ability to hire people onto your team. If you can fill your headcount quickly every year, your team will deliver on many of your goals, and you’ll be successful. If you cannot fill your headcount, your team will repeatedly fail many of their goals, and you will not succeed. In the end, one of the most important skills for an Amazon leader is to figure out how to hire quickly.
9 Ways to Fill Your Headcount
(you won’t believe #7!)
I could not resist turning this into a list. Everyone loves lists.
- Never rely on the recruiting team.
As the leader of your group, you need to believe that you’re the only person responsible for hiring. The recruiting team is awesome, but you can’t hand the success of your job to someone else.
2. Be friends with the recruiting team.
You are also a foolish leader if you’re not great friends with your recruiting partners. I am terrible with names, but I knew the name of every recruiter, recruiting coordinator, and recruiting manager who had anything to do with my headcount. You need to have regular personal meetings with them. You need to ask them for ideas of how to hire. You need to ask them what you can do better. You need to ask if they have any recruiting trips coming up. You need to ask if they’ve heard of any horribly bored software engineers who want to transfer. The recruiting team spends every single day thinking about hiring, and you need them on your side.
3. Spend at least 30% of every week recruiting.
If open headcount can cause you to fail your goals, then you need a big personal investment in solving this problem. I like the rule of spending at least 30% of your time each week on recruiting activities. This means at least 3 hours every single day needs to be blocked for hiring related things. This is more important than your standup, this is more important than your project review meeting. You will absolutely 100% fail if you cannot hire for your team. Almost never do I see someone failing at hiring, and also see their calendar filled with recruiting activities.
4. Go to hiring events.
There are various types of hiring events. Volunteer for as many of them as is possible. Go on the Denver trip, fly to Purdue to interview college students, and volunteer to help with the Women in Technology recruiting drive. Even though these often do not explicitly get you a guaranteed hire out of an event, you are significantly more likely to fill spots if you know who did well in the interviews, who is hiring, who has their positions almost full, and be ready to grab extra hires which are not immediately allocated to a team.
5. Socially hang out with dozens of people.
It was very hard to get comfortable with the process, but you should be regularly getting coffee with people. In case you’re confused, I don’t literally mean coffee, because plenty of people don’t even like coffee. I mean the semi-secret polite way of trying to poach someone for your team without literally coming out and saying it. You could say tea, you could say “have a chat sometime”. Here is the sequence of things you say:
Hey skilled software engineer, I really liked working with you on that thing. Mind if I throw some time on our calendars to have a chat sometime?
Almost everyone says “Sure!”, and you promptly schedule for the next opening. Because you’re absolutely desperate to hire.
This tea is great. I like tea. Oh, by the way, I’m trying to hire some software engineers, because I have this super amazing cool project. Let me tell you about it briefly. So, if you know any software engineers looking for a job, please let me know?
At this point skilled software engineer knows you’re hiring, and that you want them on your team. If they say “tell me more about this project?”, you’re in good shape. Additionally, and importantly, they may give you a name or two of people they respect or think may be looking around. Great opportunity to reach out and continue the same process. Regardless, you don’t drop the ball, you need to follow up.
Hey skilled software engineer, that tea was fun. Mind if I schedule a regular tea with you? Perhaps quarterly?
Almost everyone says “Sure!”, and you promptly toss it onto your calendar for every 3 months. Because you’re not only desperate to hire now, but you will likely be desperate to hire forever. And once you respect someone, you want to keep in touch with them. Some of my best hires were people I’d had social coffee time with for years before they joined my team.
6. Ask other friendly managers.
After a few years on a team, people are often looking for an opportunity to try a new team. If you cultivate a social network of friendly managers, you can often help each other out. If you have someone thinking about leaving your team, you may gently nudge them towards a manager you trust. So if you have some hiring to do, certainly ask the managers you know for help. They may have the perfect person looking for their next opportunity.
7. Write a fantastic job description, and update it frequently.
You can fail or succeed based on your ability to hire, but so many managers copy/paste their job description from some other manager’s job description. What’s worse, that job description was likely copy/pasted from yet another manager. How would you expect your job to stand out if it looks like every other job?
Just like any other marketing copy (because job descriptions are absolutely marketing), you need to catch people’s attention within the first sentence. They will look at dozens of jobs. Which of these might make you read further?
“We are looking for strong engineers to solve many complex technical problems in this space.” — Taken from a real job description, apologies if you wrote this and are now offended
Instead, this one I found caught my eye:
The internet is too slow!
And this one isn’t bad:
Do you want to build a brand new service in the Cloud?
Once you have some type of phrase to capture people’s attention, how do you make this job look different from the dozens of other jobs they will look at? So many of the jobs out there look like every other job. “Looking for innovative blah blah”, “at high scale”, “design and build blah that customers love”.
Be specific, honest, and enthusiastic on behalf of the right candidate. If you don’t think this is a great opportunity for the right person, you’re in big trouble. So why is this great for someone? Talk to that person with specifics. Does your team offer special mentorship opportunities? Do you have an extremely interesting customer base? Perhaps your technology is attractive to the right engineer?
If you personally are not a great writer, find someone who is! There’s no shame in getting help with your job description to make it stand out in a crowd.
8. Make your team awesome and ask your team members to help hire.
The managers I’ve seen who are most successful at hiring have made their teams attractive places to work. Their team members are happy, they like their work, they like their co-workers, they like the atmosphere generated by how everyone interacts. They often want their friends to come work with them on this excellent team.
You should literally ask your team members to help hire. Do they know anyone at the company looking for a job? Do they have any friends who work in another group? Do they have any ideas of how to find more people to join the team?
When your own employees are beating the metaphorical streets looking for co-workers, you’ve got a much better shot at hiring folks. I’ve seen teams fill up year after year, with a literal waiting list of people who want to join the team as soon as they have an opening.
9. Contact past team members.
If this is not your first leadership position, you will have a steadily growing list of people who used to work for you. It is common knowledge that good managers can pull people with them as they move groups. If you are not a terrible manager, then the longer you spend at Amazon, the broader your reach will be for contacting past team members.
While you don’t want to burn bridges on your last team by poaching the entire team, it’s certainly worthwhile to contact your best team members and ask them politely to follow you. Over time, you will have dozens of people you can easily contact which help you fill positions quickly.
This is even true for new managers, as hopefully your past peers won’t mind working for you. It can be awkward to broach the subject at times, but it can feel pretty fantastic to have a past co-worker say that they’d enjoy working for you.
Conclusion and Moral of the Story
At the end of the day, your success as a leader at Amazon will often depend on your ability to hire. Too often leaders shrug and say the recruiting team failed them, or Seattle is hard to hire in these days, or any other excuse. At the same time, other leaders are filling their teams and beating their goals. I think it comes down to your ability to take ownership over hiring, spending the time necessary, and sometimes being a little creative.