When Jason Allen was serving in the army, one of the key leadership mantras he lived by was “mission first, people always.”
Fast-forward to today, and Allen leans on that same philosophy to manage his team of engineers at Yello, a Chicago-based recruitment software company, where he stands as CTO.
During his tenure, he’s seen the company through sizable Series A and Series B rounds and steered the eight-year-old company through a successful rebrand. Through it all, he’s maintained a keen focus on developing the strongest team possible.
“My highest priority is to always move the business forward, but at the end of the day that can’t happen without the support of a stellar team … I joke sometimes that Yello isn't a job — it's a lifestyle,” Allen said. “We spend almost as much time together outside of work as we do at the office, and in many cases we think of each other more as friends than colleagues.”
Here’s a quick look at the tech Yello has up its sleeve this year — and how Allen thinks Gen Z could change the game.
What technologies power your business?
For the most part, we're using the usual cast of characters: Ruby on Rails, Elastic Search, Postgres, iOS, Android, AWS, and a bit of Java sprinkled in for good measure. I also believe it’s important to experiment with new tools to ensure we’re always one step ahead of our competition. I can’t share too much, but our R&D team has some very interesting projects lined up for 2016.
What are the biggest technology challenges you've faced in the past?
Luckily we have a large number of extremely talented engineers that enjoy solving those challenges on the team so we don’t run into many technical roadblocks. That said, building native mobile and web applications for enterprise clients isn’t without challenges. Our clients expect vendor software to conform to their business processes and not vice versa, so all of our applications have to be extremely customizable. This flexibility often necessitates fairly complex data models, and it takes new developers a while to wrap their head around things. An additional challenge is maintaining consistent performance regardless of how much data or traffic our clients throw at the system. The days of waiting 30 seconds for a web page to load are over. We spend a lot of time optimizing SQL queries, tuning network libraries, and tweaking our AWS infrastructure.
What are lessons you've learned about working in Chicago that other local entrepreneurs can learn from?
The number one thing I’ve learned in my four years at Yello is that in order for your company to be successful, you have to hire the right people, and that’s incredibly difficult. Occasionally, when we’re under tight development deadlines and needed the help, we’ve been tempted to extend an offer to a person that was just okay. But, we decided against making those offers by deferring back to a quote by Ben Horowitz: “Hire on strengths and not on lack of weakness.” No matter what, we always make a point to hire only the best engineers. We can’t afford to settle.
How will Chicago specifically continue to strengthen its tech community in 2016?
I would love to see the Chicago tech community spend more resources actively recruiting from midwest universities. At Yello, we’re strong believers in eating our own dog food, so last fall our recruiting team field tested some of our new applications at several career fairs in Illinois and Michigan. Over the course of two months we met with approximately 500 students (tracked easily via Yello Apps). As a result, dozens of the best and brightest graduates will join Yello as full time employees this summer. I’m also pleased to mention that Yello was also selected to sponsor a CS capstone project at Michigan State University.
Chicago is known for having a large talent pool of thirsty, young workers. What are the top characteristics you look for in a potential hire?
When meeting with candidates, above all, I look for positive energy and an eagerness to learn. The idea of continuous improvement is incredibly important at our company’s stage of growth and we need individuals who can adapt well to rapidly changing environments. Obviously technical aptitude is paramount, but for us it doesn’t trump cultural fit. We’re always excited about people who come from diverse backgrounds because, in my experience, heterogeneous teams tend to better at solving problems.
What trends do you see happening in your industry over the next three years?
In terms of HR technology space I believe we’re going to see a couple of things:
Generational shift: Millennials are now moving into leadership roles and Baby Boomers are retiring, so Gen Z is the newest group companies need to adjust to hiring. Gen Z is the first generation that grew up with the Internet, so employers will start shifting how they are reaching these potential candidates. Recruiters might target them via Instagram and Snapchat instead of LinkedIn and old school job boards. Furthermore, we know that Gen Z is also looking for more than a paycheck. The want opportunities for professional growth and environment that emphasize contributing to society in a positive way.
Hyper-personalized recruitment: Recruiters will focus on the individual attributes of candidates rather than classifying them into generalized buckets like “Ruby Engineer.” A customized interview process focusing on collaborative exercises, faster response times, self-scheduling tools and video interviewing will go a long way with attracting top talent efficiently and at scale.
How is Yello anticipating those trends and working towards them?
We’re fortunate in two respects: our founders, Jason Weingarten and Dan Bartfield, have an incredible appetite to change the world and believe that nothing is impossible. They have a vision of what recruitment could, should and will be like and have the passion to make it happen.
In addition, our client roster is second to none. We have many of the largest and most-respected employers using the software we’ve built, and they are always eager to give us their thoughts and listen to ours.
What else do you want the Chicago startup community to know about Yello?
Yello is incredibly proud to represent Chicago to the biggest brands around the world. Our annual user conference hosted downtown draws hundreds of executives that impact millions of global jobs. If you are looking to be part of a team that has already cracked the code AND you can make an immediate impact ... we're hiring!
Photo via Yello. Answers have been edited for length and/or clarity.
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