194: Gender balance through data-driven, objective hiring at Acquia

At a recent Acquia all-company meeting, I was glad to hear that half of the current group of Acquia U students and 7 out of 12 of the latest "BDR" hires in Sales were women. Acquia's CEO, Tom Erickson added that this was the result of some "objective, data-driven" hiring practices. I had to know more. I got Acquia Senior Manager of Business Development and Sales, Chris Hemberger on the line to talk about all of this.

"BDR" stands for "Business Development Representative"; this is an entry-level position in Acquia and other companies' Sales departments. These are the young people who are going to advance and shape companies' successes in years to come. Chris explained that tech companies' sales departments, even Acquia's in the past, are quite male dominated. The good news is that things have really changed at Acquia in this regard. If more objective hiring processes lead to more balanced hiring, I'm more hopeful for the future of our industry, too.

Data-driven hiring drives balance and business success

Acquia is succeeding as a business and doing so while objectively hiring as diverse teams as it can manage. I feel this is great news for others wanting to follow similar practices. Chris compares our success to other places he has worked: "If you look at how the team is composed overall now, we're very close to a 50/50 split if we're talking about gender diversity. I would say this is vastly different from other tech business development teams that I have been a part of. We're pretty happy about that. The best we can do is get as close to objective and as close to hiring the best for every seat on our team as possible. We think we've gotten close to that by being a little bit more data-driven; by giving different exercises and different things to do throughout their interview process."

"I know that some other similar organizations that have similar processes that are data-driven--not just focused on the 1:1 interviews--have wound up with much more of an even gender split on their teams. Their net results are also close to a 50/50 gender split. I do think that if you put a really objective process in place, that the world of tech sales comes closer to a 50/50 gender split than what we actually see happening in the market."

More diversity gives more perspectives

Chris describes a common state of affairs in the tech industry, "You see some pretty consistent trends on the tech and sales sides of the building in tech companies. I've definitely seen that. At [Chris's previous company], my team was 100% male. Most of the sales teams I've been a part of here at Acquia have been 100% male. That does seem to permeate even companies like Acquia that have awesome cultures to be a part of. It's an issue and worth combatting, worth talking about."

I brought up the fact that I think that most work in technology is about solving hard problems, making the world a better place in some way ... at least most of us would like to think so. I contend that the more different backgrounds you have in a team--orientations, range of ages--as well as an even gender split, varied geographic and cultural origins, and so on, the better. The richer the mix, the more perspectives you have and the better the solutions will be that your team will come up with. When asked about what the negative effects of too little diversity can be, Chris preferred to highlight the positive, agreeing with me that, "Diversity, in every way that you define the word, help breed diverse perspectives and allows people to collaborate at a deeper level."

"If you have ten people on the sales team and they all come from the same place and think the same way, then you have ten people but one perspective. If you have ten people from different backgrounds, that have different thoughts about how things work, you end up having a much richer collaboration and I think you can come to ideas and thoughts that you would not have been able to come to otherwise. Having been a part of teams that really had no diversity to speak of and seeing the way they think, and then being part of teams that have been diverse and seeing the ways that they think, I definitely prefer the latter. I think there are really concrete, tangible benefits from having teams of diverse people, however you define the word."

Who and what is Acquia looking for in a BDR?

Chris says Acquia looks for certain characteristics typical for sales roles like written and oral communication skills, "a certain amount of competitiveness and drive", but highlights the following three:

  • "Intelligence is a key factor that we look for."
  • "We look for folks who are coachable; they're excited to take or apply feedback ... and then they're excited for more feedback on the other side of that."
  • "We look for people who are really good team players. They want to be part of a team and they want to collaborate and if they did something really well, they want to share that with those around them."

This last point got me excited because I see a strong parallel to the "show and tell" culture we have in the Drupal community. Chris added, "I think it's really important and it comes back to the culture of our organization as a whole which is built on open source, built on giving back. If we hire people that are not practicing what they preach then they're not going to do their job well. That's an important component for our hiring profile for anyone who's going to be talking to clients."

How Acquia Sales hires as objectively as possible

Digging into how Acquia hires people for the BDR role, I found out the process aims to be both as objective as possible (keeping in mind we're all human) and goes beyond just 1:1 interviews to assess candidates in a variety of skills and situations. In a nutshell, I was impressed! And the results it is producing--just about 50/50 gender balance in hiring--seem to validate the concept.

1. Collect data: Compare candidates to those who have succeeded at the job in the past. "We took 10-15 qualities that we thought we important to being a good business development rep. and we put that all into a spreadsheet and we scored the existing team 1-10 by each of those qualities. We had 4-5 people doing the scoring, so subjective? Yes. But hopefully the averages made it somewhat more objective. We looked at how the scores shook out and tried to correlate qualities to quota attainment, to people hitting their goals, their targets. It was really interesting to find the qualities that were most correlated to success here. They weren't necessarily things that we were expecting. So we built out the same score sheet for new hires and weighted those different qualities based on what was most correlated to success." Following individual- and panel-interviews, candidates were rated based on the same system that assessed success on the job and the result flowed into the ultimate hiring decision. "That's a big part of what we do to make our process a little bit more data-driven."

2. Assess written communication. "We also give people a written exercise. We ask a couple of very open ended questions, one that they can do a little bit of research on, one that they can't do research on. We get to see how they write, how they think when they have a little bit more time to breathe, a little bit of time to actually write things down. I find that sales and business development interviews heavily favor the people who are good at interviewing, which aren't necessarily always the skills that are going to be applicable when you're actually doing the job."

3. Assess presentation skills. Giving a presentation requires candidates "to do some thinking and research beforehand" and demonstrate an other different set of communication skills to those needed in interviews and the written exercises.

4. Gender balanced interviews. This is still a very important part of the overall process, but there are a couple of key points I see in how Acquia sets up this part of the hiring process: interviewers are evenly split on gender lines and part of what they are doing is assessing the candidates on the success metrics described above. "We made sure we had a decent amount of diversity balance on the interview panel. People don't mean to be biased; they don't mean to skew in a certain direction, but people have natural biases that they might not even know about. I think it's important for us to have an even gender split and as diverse an interview panel as possible when we're talking with new people who are going to be part of the team. If diversity is something that we want, we need to make sure we're giving them a fair shot. I think the best way of doing that is making sure that our panel of people for interviewing candidates is also diverse."

Interview video