Try Before You Hire

How Linear achieved a 96% working retention rate with work trials.

Hey — It’s Nico.

Welcome to another round of Behind Tactics 🧠, where we dig into how startups conquer their markets.

Today, I will be talking about hiring. 

Most specifically, I will focus on why companies like Linear (along with many other startups) have shifted away from the traditional hiring process in favor of work trials

We will analyze the pros and cons of this strategy and try to understand how it has helped Linear maintain a worker retention rate of over 96%.

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The Strategy

Tryout Season

Every founder and CEO loves to say that hiring the right people is the most important thing.

Nevertheless, in practice, finding the ideal candidate can be an arduous and uncertain process. Screening resumes, conducting initial interviews, arranging technical assessments, extending offers, handling rejections, and negotiating terms—these are all integral parts of the intricate dance of recruitment. 

Yet, even with meticulous planning and execution, there's always an element of unpredictability, as the perfect fit isn't always immediately evident in the interviews.

This is why the project management platform Linear has decided to add work trials as a final stage in their recruitment process. During these trials, candidates are compensated and spend 2-5 days working alongside their teammates on actual projects.

This period enables both the team and hiring managers to assess if the candidate is a good fit for the company. Additionally, it offers the candidate an opportunity to understand the company culture and the responsibilities of the job they would undertake.

An Example

Let’s look at this example of an engineer who did a work trial in Linear.

All work trials begin with a kickoff call in which the candidate meets with the team and is presented with a project to work on. Candidates are given all the necessary resources: access to Slack and Github, documentation, and any other tool they might need.

The remaining days are allocated for the candidate to focus on their project, with scheduled calls arranged with various team members so they can get to know each other.

Here is the schedule for one engineer:

When the trial period ends, the candidate is expected to do a presentation showcasing their project and explaining how they would continue developing if they had more time.

The Decision

After the trial ends, every member of the project team must vote on the candidate. These evaluations are tough: everything other than a strong yes is a no. 

This guarantees Linear that they hire only candidates who are a great fit for the company and the team.

On the other hand, this also means that they do work trials for many candidates whom they end up rejecting. According to Linear CEO Karri Saarinen, the rate of rejection after the work trial is less than 50%.

Should I?

Why This Works

  • Real-World Assessment: Work trials provide an opportunity for employers to assess candidates in real-world scenarios, allowing them to see how candidates perform in the actual work environment.

  • Ownership and Initiative: Work trials encourage candidates to take ownership of projects, make decisions, and take initiative, which are essential qualities for success in startups like Linear.

  • Communication Skills: Candidates participating in work trials have the chance to demonstrate their communication skills by interacting with team members as necessary, showcasing their ability to effectively convey progress and collaborate.

  • Identifying Builders: Work trials help identify individuals who possess the qualities of a "builder" — those who can shape the direction of projects, exercise good judgment, and approach problems productively, traits crucial for success in startup environments.

  • Fit with Startup Culture: Startups operate differently from mature companies, often requiring employees to adapt quickly to changing environments and undefined roles. Work trials allow employers to assess whether candidates are a good fit for the dynamic and fast-paced nature of startup culture.

  • Mutual Evaluation: Work trials offer a dual benefit, enabling the company to assess the candidate's fit while also giving the candidate valuable insights into the company culture and work environment.

How to Apply It

  1. Assemble a team: Gather a team of 3-5 teammates closely related to the role being filled.

  2. Define the project: Find a project with a limited scope that is as close as possible to a real project.

  3. Handle the Logistics: Schedule all meetings, grant access to all the necessary tools, prepare all the documentation, and secure an NDA with the candidate.

  4. Work Trial: Once the work trial period begins, all of the selected teammates should be available to help the candidate. Use this opportunity to get everyone on the team to know the candidate so they can make an informed opinion.

  5. Feedback and Evaluation: Gather all feedback from every teammate and make your final decision. In Linear, the hiring manager makes the final decision, but they try to have a unanimous decision if possible.

Yes, But

  • Work Trials might not be super scalable. Each candidate requires a great amount of time and commitment from the team, and each position takes longer to fill. Having said that, Automattic (WordPress) has kept work trials while hiring 2,500+ people.

  • It narrows your pool of candidates. Work trials demand a significant time investment, excluding many job seekers from the recruitment process. Some have pointed out that this excludes people who are currently employed full-time or who are participating in several recruiting processes at the same time.

  • Some people really hate work trials. Look, for instance, at this Reddit post from someone who participated in the Automattic work trials. After dedicating over nine weeks to the process, they were ultimately rejected. Receiving a rejection after investing more than 40 hours in a company is particularly tough.

  • It is expensive. Work trials demand more time from your team, making them ultimately more expensive than interviews. However, some argue that many interview processes with multiple rounds end up consuming comparable amounts of time but are less effective.

Keep Learning

Others Playing It

Automattic, the company behind WordPress, also has work trials. As a matter of fact, they have been employing this strategy for over a decade, and have recruited over 2500 employees in this way.

Unlike Linear trials, Automattic assigns candidates a specific project, typically requiring around 40 hours to complete. Candidates can spread out this work over several weeks or months, making it convenient for those with full-time jobs as it doesn't demand consecutive days for the trial.

This trial pays approximately $25 per hour, noticeably below the market average for developers, which has prompted a lot of criticism.

Gumroad is another company that implements work trials. During their paid trial period, which lasts a few weeks, candidates engage in work closely resembling actual job tasks.

Other companies that use work trials are Auth0, 37Signals, and PostHog.

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