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Yan Lhert on why we should rethink how managers build engineering teams

Neal Kemp May 22, 2024

About Yan

Yan Lhert traces his tech journey back to the early days of web development, tinkering with GeoCities and HTML in the late ‘90s. Despite his initial foray into coding, Yan pursued economics in college, drawn by an interest in entrepreneurship and business.

Graduating in 2009 amidst the financial crisis, he navigated a difficult job market. Eventually, he stumbled into a software engineering job, which paved the way for a career defined by his resilience and self-taught expertise.

From his humble beginnings working on a comedy club’s website in England to co-founding his own startup, Zen99, and participating in Y Combinator’s summer 2014 batch, Yan’s ascent in the tech world wasn’t without its challenges.

Zen99 ultimately failed, and he went on to work at 10 to 15 different startups. After two decades, he’s enjoying his role as an engineering leader, balancing technical leadership with hands-on coding, which he continues to enjoy daily.

Yan’s current focus is on OYI Labs, an AI company specializing in voice cloning and licensing out voices for various purposes. With OYI Labs, Yan aims to democratize advertising for small to medium-sized businesses by allowing them to create sophisticated audio ads easily.

His trajectory reflects a blend of tenacity, adaptability, and a relentless passion for coding and people. Yan is motivated to build leading AI products. Even more important, though, Yan wants to reshape how engineering teams hire, something we’ll dive into in detail in the Q&A below. 

You're a self-taught web developer. How did you get to where you are today without formal training?

I recently started working on something. And then, once I got stuck, I would figure out what I didn’t know and then find the gaps in my knowledge organically.

I also learned to code in the simplest languages and tools. If you want to build things that have value, it doesn’t matter if they’re built with something flashy and new. It matters that you understand the tools you’re using extremely well.

Ultimately, people aren’t going to make a switch to your software unless you give them a 10x gain. And usually, you don’t have to introduce a new framework or programming language to get your code there.

I know you put a lot of thought into the best way to interview engineers. Why are you so passionate about hiring and recruiting?

As a leader in the space, hiring is the most important thing you’ll do. It’s the multiplier effect on your team and your company. If you hire wrong, you can never fix it with the perfect management process.

Conversely, if you hire the best team in the world, you could be terrible as a leader in every other way, but you have great people. Those people are going to get the job done and help you do your job as a leader.

On a personal level, I find it really important because I had many negative experiences in the formative, early parts of my career. I’m a self-taught developer without a technical degree, and at the time, I had a lot of imposter syndrome. It was only made worse by interview processes that felt more like hazing than anything.

Now, I’m vocal about how important it is to question some of the tactics used in technical interviews and get to the bottom of why they’re being used.

What should engineering hiring managers be thinking about throughout the hiring process?

Ultimately, I think it’s really important to be very mindful about the experience that someone else is going to have when they come to interview at your company. It means you have to be aware of the power you have as the interviewer.

If you’re mindful about that and focus on being a compassionate interviewer, you can get several benefits.

First, you’ll widen your pool of applicants to people who might be overlooked because they’re intimidated by a hazing-like interview process.

Second, you’ll start things off on a great foot with your new hire. You’ll make sure they’re not apprehensive and they feel a lot of kinship where they’ll want to reward you with great work.

Third, you’ll actually understand whether or not the person can do the job well. There’s a really common expectation nowadays in the interview processes where candidates need to grind on LeetCode for a while and make sure they can do these little challenges. But that can lead to candidates who are good at these gimmicks and away from strong engineers.

You also need to have a realistic understanding of what you’re selling as a company. There’s often a disconnect in understanding that employees on your team have different needs and desires than the founders do.

Take an honest and critical look at your startup and the space you’re operating in.

It’s unlikely that there’s going to be many people who are that excited about your mission. And that’s okay; it doesn’t mean they can’t be great employees. The draw to joining the company may not be the mission of the company. Maybe, the draw is that they just built a strong foundation in the hiring process and really just enjoy spending time with you.

Interview processes can take months. How can teams lead the process more effectively and concisely?

For most startups, it’s a competitive hiring environment to get the best employees, and you need to be able to move fast. You want to make sure that you’re getting the best bang for the buck. Do not waste this person’s time.

First of all, it’s morally hazardous.

Second, you’re going to miss out on a shot at the good ones.

To move quickly, it’s really important to be consistent. Make sure that you’re running the same interview process for all the candidates.

This is something that people do wrong in the early days all the time because they feel like they’re learning more about their process as they go. You need to decide on your process, stick to that, and explain it to the candidate at the beginning.

You mentioned you are also interested in developing tools and resources for tech hiring teams. What do you have in mind for the future? 

I document everything about our hiring process and keep it completely open source. Right now, we’ve only interviewed front-end engineers, but as time goes on, I’m going to build the library up.

I outline the script I read to the person when we book our first call. I won’t ask anything off-script. If your interview process is less rigorous or less difficult because your interviewee knows the questions that will be asked, it is a bad interview process, right?

So, the fact that I can tell you everything that’s going to happen and there are no surprises is doubly beneficial. It keeps me honest, it keeps the candidate informed, and it’s transparent, which establishes a level of trust. I won’t surprise you or have you walk into something scary.

The goal is that it will be fun and that we can both enjoy it.

About Strider

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