In this episode of the Recruitment Hackers Podcast, Max interviews Everett Harper, CEO and co-founder of Truss. Everett talks about the best practices for remote companies and how salary transparency plays a large role in creating an equitable working environment amongst a diverse workforce.
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Max: Hello and welcome back to the Recruitment Hackers Podcast. I'm your host, Max Armbruster, and today on the show I'd like to introduce you to the CEO and co-founder of Truss, Mr. Everett Harper. Welcome to the show, Everett.
Everett: Hey, thank you. I really appreciate it and thanks for having me. I'm looking forward to it and hope the listeners get a lot out of this one.
Max: I'm sure they will because from what I’ve heard, you've implemented some very innovative strategies in order to attract and retain talent, notably around the sharing the transparency around salary information, an information that is typically kept very very secret and that nobody wants to have leaked. And you found that it could be used by some organizations willing to make that leap as a competitive advantage in the world of talent. So, that's the conversation we're gonna have, if that's okay with you Everett, but first for our listeners who are not familiar with Truss, what do you guys do? Who do you hire?
Everett: Sure. So, we are a human-centered, purpose-driven software development company. What we do is solve really complex problems for large government agencies, such as Department of Defense, Center for Medicaid Services. We're one of the groups of folks who helped repair and helped save healthcare back in 2013, for example, for those of you who are familiar with that. On the private sector side, we have several Fortune 200 companies, and we will address issues such as supply chain software issues or how to enable military service members to move without many of the hassles that they normally experience by developing software that's really about being human-centered and human-focused. At this point, we're about 132 people and we are a remote-first company, so we are in, people in about 30 different states across the United States and have been that way since 2011. So, we have a lot of different things that we do with our company, and we'll get a lot more into that as well, but that's just the summary.
Max: Thank you. Thank you. So, you hire engineers, mainly.
Everett: Yeah, so good. Thank you for bringing that up. So, the people that we mostly hire are actually across a range of disciplines. From research and design to application engineering, infrastructure engineering, product delivery, because you can build a thing but you gotta be able to stand it up and make sure it delivers to the customer, as well as a lot of the support and operational disciplines as well.
Max: Okay, and the remote culture since 2011, well, great for you for having that foresight, but now that great competitive edge is gone, everybody is doing remote so you can't use that as your main selling pitch anymore. Although of course, there are different levels of remote, and if you've been at it for 10 years, you're gonna be Level 3+. What are some new tricks or hacks that you have worked on recently to give you a new competitive edge, considering that remote isn't enough to stand out anymore?
Everett: Yeah, so I think the main one is that there is a difference between somebody who’s just doing remote, who's had a very strong in-office culture. It takes a while to figure that out and we have built this up to solve various problems for a decade now and so, the communications structures, the documentation structures, how we hire, who we hire from, the networks that we can hire from. All those have been a decade established. So, there's still a lot of built-in knowledge and mistakes that we've made that we can deploy as far as a competitive advantage. It's things that people will feel in some ways with regard to other companies. In terms of things that we do that might be, I wouldn't call them hacks, but as solutions to challenges, we have a really strong documentation culture and it sounds real boring until you think about how many things were in your office that you sort of just picked up because it was on a whiteboard somewhere or you could lean over someone and get a synopsis of the last meeting, or you could overhear it if there was an open office. If a documentation culture isn't established, who is gonna take notes, how is that being done, where are those published, are they done in a way that everybody can understand, are action items really clear, and are deadlines really clear? You can all of a sudden have a meeting, yeah it was all great, and then nothing happens. And it's probably because there's some missing pieces with documentation, so I can't emphasize how important that is for anybody, for any company, but that's something that we're practiced at. So, I think that's just one off the top of my head.
Max: Yeah, yeah. When hiring remote first, you would think you need people who are warm and great in front of the camera and fun to hang out with, but as it turns out you need people who are good with pen and paper and a keyboard and who are very meticulous about notetaking. I've found the same thing, my company is also fully remote and yeah, it's absolutely essential because it's asynchronous communication as well, you're working on three different time zones, so you might save a lot of time this way.
Everett: And even to go further, when you say you broaden it to talk about asynchronous communication, that's visual communication as well, can you draw diagrams and so forth that are easily shareable to show process steps. So, for folks who are in talent acquisition, clearly, it's a pipeline. How is that visually represented so that different groups can understand and plug in at the right time? We go through a lot of iterations of that.
Max: So, the transparency theme, before we get into the touchy subject of salary, you talked about documentation. So, I assume you also sharing with candidates everything from the leave policy to benefits to how you guys run meetings. You just dump it all on the internet and let them kind of sift through it?
Everett: Um, well.
Max: Maybe dump is not the right word.
Everett: No, no. It's available to them. What I would say though is, we do have, you know we have GitHub repo where we have a lot of our policies people can read through and so forth. But I think one of the things that we do explicitly is we put our values and we put our operating principles on our website. My co-founders and I spent six weeks every Wednesday after work for three hours a time, honing those values really early in our history. The reason is because we knew the benefit of having strong cultures. And a good, clear, actionable value statement or operating principle statement is such a foundation of a great culture, in my opinion, and in particular, it repels the wrong people and attracts the right ones, before they ever get into the pipeline. And I mean repel the wrong people is people who aren't a good match, they may be brilliant at another company but not for us. Everybody needs to know that as early as possible. So, we have the benefit of people seeing and say hey this is a place that I want to be.
Max: Who are you trying to repel? It's a hard one. Because I know you're coming from a point of view of inclusivity as well, and so, who you wanna repel sounds like a gotcha question.
Everett: Yeah, no no not at all. I'm happy to answer that. People who aren't interested in communicating. In a remote space, great communication written and verbal, and now visual, but written and verbal, is really important because it's highly collaborative team environment. We work with clients, so if someone can't communicate very well or doesn't want to communicate very well, they probably aren't gonna be very successful. So that's one type of person who might be successful in a different environment that's less dependent on…
Max: So, if we're talking about, let's say, an engineer, it's somebody who says things I value that most is being left alone and not having to have too many meetings and something like that, would that be an indicator that this is somebody who is not a strong communicator, those kinds of signals?
Everett: Yes, very much so. And again, they might be successful in a different place, but the ability to persuade, to engage, to take feedback, et cetera is critical for us. And so...
Max: The engineers, they'll get a job. We don't have to worry about them, they'll find work. So, sharing everything on GitHub, policies and so on, sharing who you don't wanna hire, of course, sharing your values. Those Wednesday evenings discussing values with your co-founders sounds like they were probably a lot of fun to go through anyway, right? It was a happy-hour Wednesday?
Everett: Yeah, no, actually it was after that. We were the facilitator and we worked really really hard.
Max: Oh, it wasn't beers at the pub?
Everett: No, sure wasn't actually. That's a less sexy story but it was in a breather room that didn't have any windows, and us just slugging through.
Max: Oh boy.
Everett: It’s the things like that.
Max: This goes to be an insight into your company culture that I'm a little uncomfortable with, sounds like a lot of work, lot of whiteboards. Cool. So, let's get into the thick of it. The sharing, the transparency on salaries, which I believe is what you're doing, right, and I've heard other companies experiment with that with mixed results. Is that what you're doing, or your salaries are open for the public to share or open internally to share?
Everett: Good question because it's important to clarify that. So, the first thing is our salaries are transparent internally. Buffer did it externally, we wanted to make it transparent internally. So, that's a clear distinction. And maybe this is an opportunity to say why we even embarked on this in the first place.
Max: Yes please
Everett: We, as a black CEO with my co-founders being a white male CTO and a white female COO who is also, both of whom are highly technical, we had a diverse founding team to begin with, and so we were very committed to having a diverse company as well. And we knew there were great people, engineering, design, product, etcetera, across the spectrum of all different kinds of backgrounds. So, we committed to that early. One of the things we noticed and one of the things that's well-documented is that there's still pay disparities with the same job between men and women, between black and white, or Latina, Latino, Latinx, and white, et cetera. All those are out there. And I heard stories as we're thinking about this, that even well-intentioned companies, if someone negotiated 5% higher than the next person for the same job, happens all the time, if those two people performed at exactly the same level and got bumps proportionately from their salary, in five years, you'll have a very big disparity and what would happen is people would find out, people would inquire. There were lots of stories in Google and other places where people looked around and realized that they're being paid a lot less. That's bad for everybody. And the notion of being at a company where you're working really hard shoulder-to-shoulder with your colleagues, but you're not sure whether they're being paid the same, more, or less, that creates some energy that we wanted to avoid. We've been part of those situation before.
Max: It's also perfect in the remote environment where trust-building is harder to do.
Everett: Yeah, I hadn't thought about that but that's exactly right. I think that's exactly right. So, we really started to do a lot of investigation, we started to do a lot of research and tried to figure out well how would we address this equity issue. Is it about making sure people can negotiate differently, is it about trying to attract different types of people? We found that the thing that we wanted to land on was just make the pay equitable to begin with and if we made a mistake, how do you make sure that it's transparent enough that you can correct it. So, we did a lot of research, and I can tell you about the process, but that is really the origin story of salary transparency. It's about trying to create an equitable working environment for everyone.
Max: I remember the guys at Buffer who had experimented with it, I think they had applied a ratio based on location, because cost of living is smaller in Oklahoma than it is in San Francisco, and people wanted to be, yeah. And I find the argument to be a little bit flawed in the sense that for a lot of work, like who cares if you're in Oklahoma or in California. But from the employees' standpoint, of course they do care. The taxes are different, cost of living is different. I guess there's a debate to be had there internally. How have you resolved it at Truss?
Everett: We pay various salaries, mostly because we originated here. But the same argument is true, if you're contributing and you are at the same level and you're creating the same value, why would I pay you less because you live in a lesser cost of living. It's not about where you live it's about what you can contribute. And we have some marginal hire cost basis as a result, and I think one of the things they'd consider is whether folks living in areas where it's a lower cost of living, that's pretty attractive. And being able to retain those folks, and if they have a network of people that are in that area, and say hey I'm being treated really well, my salary is transparent, I'm being paid in San Francisco rates, and it's a good company I work for and we have really interesting work, you all gotta come and check them out. That starts to develop these local networks and we found, in fact, over the last couple years that that has been an embedded strength of ours in certain areas.
Max: You paint a rosy picture, has there been some push back internally when this was released and if somebody wants to embark on this transparency journey, what kind of obstacles that they need to prepare for?
Everett: Sure. So, I'll deviate slightly and say that I write a lot about this. I have a book coming out, called Moved to the Edge, Declare it Center, coming out on Wiley in February or March 2022, and I go through the process in detail about how we came to this decision, what process we used, and what the outcomes were, and what we did to make it systemic. So, Moving to the Edge is about moving to the edge of knowledge and uncertainty and unknowns in complex situations and Declare it Center is about how you create systems around those learnings so it then becomes a part of your normal operations. It just becomes a fish describing water, it's just normal. So briefly, the whole thing took about 10 months, and the first thing we did was to figure out what is the area of highest risk. And the area of highest risk is everybody's gonna leave, so let's just ask that question. If we made salaries transparent, would you leave or how did you feel about it? Basically, all but one person was very curious and very up for that journey, and the other person who wasn't was like, I have some questions but let's keep going. So, what we did was basically start to look at what is the next area of risk. Okay, are we figuring out the right problem? Is this the right problem? And so that's where a lot of the research happen. Then we went to, okay we are solving the right problem. What's the next step? Well, we have to have good ways of making things equitable across different positions. Oh, we need a performance rubric. That took the most time, months. Because ours was junk, it was just not good enough. And that's hard if you're doing that for the first time. And we have to map salaries to that. Mapping salaries to rubrics, I'm sure everybody knows, is not cheap and not easy. The key thing we did during this stage is we involved employees. So, it wasn't just the leaders, it was people from all different groups across practices at different levels. So we had committees going out and researching certain pieces of this. One the advantage is they have different perspectives, and they can bring different questions. Second, they get engaged in the solution. So, if you participated and you know that you've had a voice, raised your concerns, or raised advantages, you're more likely to be able to be down with whatever...
Max: Be onboard.
Everett: That's right.
Max: I imagine this becomes a selling point for your company amongst the people who are seeking fairness, who are particularly have fairness as a high value for them. Any other ways in which this has affected your recruitment. This transparency value, how do you quantify its effectiveness?
Everett: Not sure if quantify is something that we've attempted to do, although we're fairly data-driven about things, but I do think that we, there's sort of, people talk about being transparent in their culture, we do transparency, and salary transparency is one way you can clearly demonstrate there's a commitment to this. Reflects in a bunch of places, but we're putting our money where our mouth is. I think the second aspect that is quantifiable is, so towards the end when we were trying to map salaries and then we had to say, well where are people relative to where their bands are, what salary are we paying them now, and what types of salary should we be paying them? In some cases, we were under, awesome we get to pay them more, that's always great news, right. Everybody celebrates when that happens. There's some we were overpaying and so the choice becomes well should we move the down or not. We said, look if we overpay them that's on us, as the leadership team, and that's not their fault, that's our fault. So, we're gonna hold their band, we're gonna make sure that their performance catches up to where their band is, but we're not gonna penalize anybody for being overpaid because of our mistake.
Max: This had a financial impact, obviously, initially. But you're getting that money back in a way, that investment that you've made you're getting it into differentiation, as an employer I imagine.
Everett: And I think in retention as well. I mean obviously we all know that people leaving for any reason as a particular cause, so they extend to which people are participating in a solution that is benefitting them and benefitting others with a lens towards fairness tends to have people be willing to stay at the company.
Max: Everett, how do you set your salary?
Everett: Same, and actually this year has been us really thinking about the leadership rubric because as we've grown the definition and the expansion of leadership roles has been something we were a little bit behind on. So, we did the same thing, we set up from market standards and figure out where we are on assessment. We do a self-assessment and then we have managers or peers do assessments and then map it like that.
Max: There was one thing I was thinking of maybe implementing in my company which is what the Singapore government does is it sets the salary of the prime minister based on the average salary of the top five CEOs.
Everett: Oh, no kidding, I didn't know.
Max: Yeah, because they wanna equalize between the private and the public sector and that way it's transparent and they're very well-paid. I wouldn't do that obviously, I'd be like, the average of some of the top salaries in my company, maybe, would be one way to do it. But anyway, that's for another discussion. I'll get to my final question which I ask everyone on the show which is everybody makes hiring mistakes, and I won’t believe you if you tell me you haven't, but if you could focus on one example in particular that broke your heart at the time, and help some of our listeners avoid such heartbreaking mistake by recounting the steps.
Everett: Yeah, I would agree with your assessment, if you can't think of one, then hmm. So, the one that's coming to mind is more recent, and as I said we expanded the company, we had some new exec hires coming and we did not, well, they left before we thought they would otherwise, in one case couple months, another case a little under a year. And given the investment and given the time to get them onboard and to find them in the hopes of really being a different part of the company, that was incredibly disappointing, and to me personally, embarrassing. What we started to realize was, and this was the core of the mistake, we under-invested in onboarding, we under-invested in the type of onboarding. So, one across all of our positions, we weren't as consistent about saying, here's what the company's about, here's where you fit in, et cetera, but doing it on repeat because people come from different places and different cultures. And it takes a while to kind of un-school the previous assumptions about the way the world works and get people addressing and reacting to the way this world works. That's multiplied by a hundred with a leader. And we were measuring onboarding with a few meetings, a couple weeks of training, etcetera etcetera, and then basically you're good, right. And that's big, big mistake. As I've talked to other CEOs and other folks, they're saying, you know, you're measuring onboarding in quarters not in weeks, you're measuring onboarding relationship team to gel in a year or 18 months, not in quarters. That changed our focus to make it longer, changed our focus to being much more embedded and much more personal time to really understand where people are, what they're challenged by, et cetera. The other thing that we have learned is we have to make sure that the rest of the organization is also onboarded to the presence of a new leader. You're getting a new leader to take you to the next level, they're gonna bring and do different things than we had done in the past. What you got here, doesn't get you there, right. That means there's some change that has to happen, so there's some change that has to happen. So, there's a change management component that we completely underestimated for the culture and for the rest of the organization. So those are the things that I learned very much the hard way. One onboarding much longer and much deeper with your leadership team and then the change management process with the rest of your company, both are critical and do it over a long period of time.
Max: No shortcuts there. Just because you're talking to an experienced leader who's done it a hundred times before doesn't mean this time's gonna be the same. So, very good lesson. Thanks for sharing, Everett. Thanks for coming on the show.
Everett: You are very welcome, and thanks for your questions. And again, I'm learning how to do this, give a plug to a) Truss, we are absolutely hiring, if you like what you hear, and then second, the book is coming out, it's called Move to the Edge, Declare it Center, if you wanna hear more in detail about how we went remote and how we did salary transparency, I laid that all out in the context of making decisions in uncertainty and unknowns.
Max: Right. I'll put the book in the links when it comes out or for pre-orders if it's available with the show. Thanks, Everett.
Everett: Thank you.
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