Founder Notes on Building a Culture-First Hiring Process: An Exchange with CodeSee's Shanea Leven


From the outset, some models/frameworks inform (or get embedded) in a founder’s way of seeing and approaching challenges. Some invented. Some borrowed from the industry and deftly recalibrated to fit a startup’s unique contexts. All hired for particularly perplexing situations and jobs to be done.

This Relay interview series is a vehicle to document some of those very perplexing moments, the promising models that followed and the change they brought about. A documentation, we hope, would help fellow founders probe some of their own early-stage obstacles more methodically.

In this exchange, CodeSee’s founder and CEO, Shanea Leven, writes with great verve about a hiring process that has served as a compass for "building culture from the ground up."


The strikingly impactful framework:

I’d love to share insight into our hiring process at CodeSee. It’s a process that’s been intentionally built and maintained alongside my co-founder, Josh Leven, and it’s based on the approach outlined in the book, “Who: The A Method of Hiring,” by Geoff Smart and Randy Street.

The book is full of helpful guidance for those making hiring decisions — guidance developed working with the most comprehensive body of research on interviewing, to date — but the suggestion we took away from it that’s been most impactful at CodeSee was to hire for a selection of personal and interpersonal qualities.

At CodeSee, we hire individuals who demonstrate the ability to communicate effectively, those who are self aware and self reflective, capable of humility, and people who are able to see and understand the perspectives of others — they’re empathetic.

Approaching hiring with a human focus has allowed us to build a ground-up culture. This foundational view of culture is a meaningful driver for us. We want to ensure culture is not an afterthought, but instead, a part of the growth and personality of CodeSee as a whole. Today, you can feel and see the results of this intentionality throughout our team.

The preceding (exacting) situation:

There was no single triggering moment for Josh nor myself, but really a career of experiences that shaped our perspectives. We’ve always been really aware of the organizational issues associated with Silicon Valley startups — the challenges people face in the culture of the Valley — and we’ve had varied experiences. Josh has known a company culture and environment that was predominantly positive, so we were able to draw from that to define things and CodeSee, and I’ve known a lot of the opposite.

I’ve worked at companies that didn’t have the culture and environment I’d believed was possible; situations where the company would state one thing in terms of its standard for a positive culture, but we were all living in a totally different reality. That cognitive dissonance is ultimately really difficult for many employees to overcome. It was for me.

The 0-1 of adopting the framework:

Again, at CodeSee we hire individuals who are able to demonstrate a series of important qualities. We’re seeking those who communicate effectively, are self aware and demonstrate the ability to be reflective, and have empathy and humility. We want to build a team with people who are able to see and understand the perspectives of others.

So, the first step for us was identifying these characteristics; defining the qualities we’d like to see embodied across the people who make up CodeSee. Start there.

Then we had to create a process that enabled us to quickly identify these qualities in interviewees. Our hiring process helps us get to know a person deeply, at a human level, even within the limited timespan of an interview. We know that every human has strengths and weaknesses. In an interview, we’re trying to understand what those are for a candidate so we can thoughtfully assess if we can meet them where they are. We do this in a 45-minute screening interview, followed by two lengthier, technical interviews.

Throughout our interviews, we’re trying to determine if an individual has the sort of characteristics we’d like to see at CodeSee. We do this in part through questions that help us define a person’s strengths and weaknesses — and perhaps more importantly, to demonstrate their ability to outline and understand their own strengths and weaknesses.

We’ve developed a series of questions we routinely use that have proven to be especially helpful in gauging an interviewee’s ability to be self aware and reflective. The set focuses on one’s current and past managers, with prompts like, “If we spoke with your current manager, how do you think they would rate you on a scale from 1-10?”

Believe it or not, this simple question acts as an excellent filter — many individuals respond poorly, even aggressively to the question. Naturally, we are not seeking to spark contention, but have found that those who are able to pause and consider the potential in the question ultimately take hold, using it as an opportunity to demonstrate their ability to see personal room for improvement.

The questionnaire 2

(From — Who: The A Method of Hiring by Geoff Smart and Randy Street)

Again, ultimately we’re seeking to understand, are they truly self aware and capable of reflecting on their opportunities to grow? With this information, Josh and I can then ask ourselves, “Do we as a company have the resources to support a person’s strengths and weaknesses at the time of hiring?”

To close our formal interview process, we do a deep-dive interview called a “top grade.” The goal of the top grade interview is to really dig into a person’s responses and understand them. We recognize a lot of job situations are complex, and want to ensure that each candidate has enough time to truly talk through their responses with us; time to offer fuller answers with context.

It’s important to know that this takes time. I’ve held this interview hundreds of times, and Josh has done it thousands. It’s important to set the right expectations for yourself as a founder — know you will make mistakes, and that’s okay.

One way you can mitigate mistakes in the hiring process is to use a scorecard, as advised by Geoff Smart and Randy Street in, “Who: The A Method of Hiring.” They explain of the tool, “[a scorecard is] not a job description, but rather a set of outcomes and competencies [both job-focussed and cultural] that define a job done well.” Author Geoff Smart offers the recruitment tool for download at his website.

Finally, let’s focus on onboarding; a well-defined onboarding process is key to the hiring process, providing new employees the resources they require to excel in their first few weeks. One of the best things you can do is document your process and deliver that documentation to each new hire as they join the company. Having a clear, well-defined onboarding process supported by documentation is key to supporting new hires.

At CodeSee, each new hire has a day-one meeting with either Josh or myself, and in that conversation we work together to outline some really important details. We talk through things like personal communication best practices and preferences, and try to understand through clear, open discussion how we can ideally collaborate and see each employee’s personal goals come to life.


(From — Who: The A Method of Hiring by Geoff Smart and Randy Street)

Unanticipated constraints and challenges:

Fortunately, we’ve not encountered a lot of challenges in implementing this approach, likely in part because we’re so intentional in hiring individuals who appreciate our commitment to cross-team communication and connection!

Still, one thing that has come up is maintaining our standards for awareness and shared clarity even as we hire for departments in which we’ve limited personal expertise. While we’ve both got a ton of experience in engineering and product, we’ve little experience in marketing and sales, for example. Thankfully, this has not presented an insurmountable challenge, given again, we hire for culture; we are building a team of people capable and comfortable in expressing themselves, in an environment intentionally designed to make that self expression safe.

Another challenge that comes to mind in regard to hiring, is knowing when it’s time to move on. Personally, once I’ve brought on a member to the team, I feel committed to their success. With this said, it’s important to know when it’s not working out; to be able to identify when a person is no longer able to thrive within the greater whole, and may even be a detriment. That one has been especially tough for me. It’s a skill I am still learning, and learning how to apply as a leader.

Signals of change:

One signal that comes to mind is the frequency with which we’ve received internal recommendations for roles. And perhaps more so, how often those recommendations prove to be on point! Simply, members of Team CodeSee have expressed the desire to bring their cohort into the fold. Josh and I believe this speaks volumes for the value of the culture and environment we’ve created.

Concluding notes for a fellow founder:

Let’s see. One piece of peer-to-peer advice that comes up: Build culture from the ground up! It’s the approach we’ve taken at CodeSee, and it’s the approach I wish had been taken in past companies I’ve known.

Culture is not something you put into place by bringing on staff to focus on diversity and inclusion well after the company is active. It’s most valuable to every member of the team when it’s evident at the outset, and it’s far more difficult to change culture once it’s well established.



Hey Shanea,

Quite helpful to read your reflections on this hiring process you’ve adopted. Thanks for taking the time to draft them!

I’d be eager to hear your thoughts on diversity and how it is impacted by the culture-fit/culture-add conversation, especially as you bring in CodeSee’s early (foundational) hires — something we’re now starting to do at Locale. How do you ensure that the focus on finding a culture-fit candidate doesn’t become a biased instrument used by hiring managers to recruit a similar set of people?