I am joining Personio

Before joining Personio, I wanted to make sure it's the right thing that I'm going to do. I took into consideration four thing that I think make sense to assess before making a decision:

  • The business: who are the users, what is the product, why do users use the product, what makes them keep using it and paying for it (the business model), and what guarantees that new users come on a regular basis (market).
  • The organization: who are the people, what alternatives they dismissed to work there, why do they stay and not go (motivation, character), and why they can keep at it on the long run.
  • The brand: how customers describe the product, how coworkers describe their employer, what qualities the local tech community highlights in employees and alumni, and why it's going to stay like that.
  • The technology: what is behind the product that makes the UI render in browser, the data flow through transformations, and the information stay secure within the boundaries.

The goals was to focus on the input, not output. I wanted to learn how—not how awesome—things evolve. Because I had plenty of time,1 I learned a lot. And I learned what really is valuable in an organization.

We talked about the market. The HR software market is saturated but is still challenged by many new startups that try to make the old players uncomfortable. Mainly because HR software is complex and complicated. Personio has begun as a response to a very particular set of problems, and luckily (and unluckily for the customers) these problems are same for all the companies. One particular thing that we discussed was the “Excel test2”: a quick-and-dirty solution of a problem of information management done in a quick-and-dirty manner. Personio has started as the second step after the Excel solution to a problem was found, and was a response to the pains caused by that solution. The next step was to prove that the market exists, that problems different potential customers have are same, and that they are looking for a suitable software but fail to find it. In the beginning, the founders went door to door to pitch the product to different companies, and it worked. This is such an inspiring story. “Engineer's mind” tells us that if we build an awesome enough product (or, lately, an awesome enough landing page), we're going to hit the bull's eye one day and bask in the glory. Or we can go outside, meet the people, tell the story, and make business with them.

We talked about the product. Personio is a software for businesses up to a thousand employees. The recruiting and HR, done right or wrong, don't immediately impact the business bank account. Unless maybe it's an agency and people are resources that convert into money from day one regardless of how long they stay in the company or how satisfied they are with what they are doing and what conditions they are given. More often, though, a company realizes that, okay, we need to make it work, we need a tool that would run the same bunch of business processes again and again for every candidate or hire, it would let us just tweak it a little bit, and it would execute the major part of recurring, mundane work automatically. But there are many products for that! How do we compete with other products? We can go full-on commodity and compete on feature level, just display that we have more features and henceforth expect more customers and more money flowing in. Well, it's software. Tomorrow our competitor releases one feature more than we have, makes an inch better product, and by that logic customers switch. This doesn't happen, of course, for better or worse. The product value is more than the sum of its features. But a product team alone can't predict or control that, and it would be a wrong thing to do. Instead, the product team focuses on inputs.

We talked about engineering. Developing a product is easy until it becomes hard overnight. What we can do here is be present in the moment: we have a codebase, it works but it fails to endure load twice as heavy as before, so what are we going to do now? Anger isn't helping. Thorough planning is paralyzing. I can't describe this, but somehow the most awesome teams figure out the solutions fast, maintain low error3 and focus on what can be done instead of dwelling on what can't be undone. We discussed the tools and programming languages. The language, when the product is mature enough that “let's rewrite everything” sounds like a good ol' joke and nothing more, both is important and doesn't matter at all. It is important because any language attracts certain kind of people; it's not important because higher-order engineering challenges like infrastructure and code review at scale4 climb the list of priorities faster.

We talked about the organization. Personio was about 70 people when we first started discussing the organization. The very first area of work that emerges out of nowhere as soon as the company hits roughly 30 employees is organization. Before, it was just a team of people who worked together; the right people pushed out the wrong people, everyone was at their peak productivity, pizza replaced ramen as the main source of nutrition. Clients were happy to pay for the product packed together with direct access to the CEO of the company at any time, any day. But now, it's becoming a complex system where goals transform and entwine, and the planning horizon is years ahead, and internal workload starts outweighing everything else. So whenever I hear someone asking, “Can't we just stay an awesome company we used to be?”, I'm with you, fellas, but the company is very likely to keep changing. Today, Personio has 150 employees, so it has graduated from being “above 30” into being “above 100”, and that's a completely different system again.

I do believe that putting critical thinking to work and having the exact questions to ask is the right attitude toward interviewing with a company: skip the output pragmatics and ignore how awesome things look like; instead, probe into the details of the habitual and routine to see the everyday reality, because that's what matters. If even the very prosaic feels awesome and harmonious, then it must be the right place.

  1. From the very first contact and to the day author stepped into the office space, it took longer than a year. So this might have contributed to the high quality of the process that led to the decision to join the company.

  2. The “Excel test” possesses many names. The idea is that if an information problem may be solved with sufficient amount of Excel spreadsheets, formulae and script magic, it can be turned into software that does the same but specializes on the problem and therefore does it in a more user-friendly, motion-efficient way. It's a product development version of Turing computability.

  3. Tactical decisions are relatively easy: just take a couple moves into consideration and pick the best alternative. However, on the long run, these decision may turn out to be completely at odds with the bigger picture. On the long run, we want to minimize the error: make it so that current state of things is right. At any moment, the error is a sum of all past decisions that either went wrong or went right but eliminated the possibility of a better next move.

  4. “How would it scale?”