"You really have to stretch people's minds to get them to think big," says software developer Jon Stahl. "In a corporate world, that's very hard to do."
So, in 2008, Stahl left a large insurance company and founded LeanDog on a 122-year-old boat docked at the Cleveland Lakefront. LeanDog operates on the so-called Agile Manifesto of software development, which preaches strong communication and collaboration. It has worked with a large insurance company to redesign its online account creation and with a startup that serves deaf and hard-of-hearing youth. Stahl knows he needs to attract employees who thrive in an unconventional environment. "We want to solve hard problems," he says. "We have to hire people who want to do that." Stahl shared tips for finding and keeping the right employees.
1. Make a creative space. A floating office tends to attract people who dislike corporate predictability, and that's intentional. "The boat is 22 years older than the Titanic," Stahl says. "It's just completely different than anything else." The boat has wide-open workspaces, a rock-climbing wall, a fridge full of free local beer, and free-roaming canines, including Stahl's own bulldogs. LeanDog sponsors music nights for the whole tech community. Stahl is even building a chicken coop next to the vessel, so employees can enjoy fresh eggs every morning.
2. More than the job. LeanDog participates in local conferences, hosts onboard events, and emphasizes the company's broad role in the community. That has attracted a long list of applicants. "It's not enough to write great software," says Stahl. "We look for people who are active in the tech community." Stahl tries to personally interview every job candidate, to learn about the person's family, values, and hobbies. He likes to hire coders with degrees in sociology, education, or psychology. One software engineer is also a standup comic, while another employee plays the didgeridoo.
3. Audition your candidates. Software developers who apply for jobs receive a test by email asking them to solve one of three business problems. "They have to write software to see if they can follow the Agile practices we teach," says Stahl. That screens out a lot of casual applicants. Applicants who pass the test are then paired with an employee to work on a real coding problem for several days in the office. Still, job performance is only part of the picture. The company is looking for people who are committed to continual learning and personal development, says Stahl.
4. Find your own joy. When the company was looking for an all-around assistant who could vacuum, run errands, make smoothies, and greet guests, employees wanted someone who would spread joy around the boat. LeanDog's advertisement to fill a part-time, hourly wage job brought in more than 80 applicants. The young man who won the job is a college grad, who now makes frequent runs to the farmers' market and prepares lunch on board the boat. Says Stahl: "He's only been here three months and we have people wanting to expand his duties."