What’s different about hiring data scientists in 2020?

It’s 2020 and the world has changed remarkably, including in how companies screen data science candidates. While many things have changed, there is one change that stands out above the rest. At The Data Incubator, we run a data science fellowship and are responsible for hundreds of data science hires each year. We have observed these hires go from a rare practice to being standard for over 80% of hiring companies. Many of the holdouts tend to be the largest (and traditionally most cautious) enterprises. At this point, they are at a serious competitive disadvantage in hiring.

Historically, data science hiring practices evolved from software engineering. A hallmark of software engineering interviewing is the dreaded brain teaser, puzzles like “How many golf balls would fit inside a Boeing 747?” or “Implement the quick-sort algorithm on the whiteboard.” Candidates will study for weeks or months for these and the hiring website Glassdoor has an entire section devoted to them. In data science, the traditional coding brain teaser has been supplemented with statistics ones as well — “What is the probability that the sum of two dice rolls is divisible by three?” Over the years, companies are starting to realize that these brain teasers are not terribly effective and have started cutting down their usage.

In their place, firms are focusing on project-based data assessments. These ask data science candidates to analyze real-world data provided by the company. Rather than having a single correct answer, project-based assessments are often more open-ended, encouraging exploration. Interviewees typically submit code and a write-up of their results. These have a number of advantages, both in terms of form and substance.

First, the environment for data assessments is far more realistic. Brain teasers unnecessarily put candidates on the spot or compel them to awkwardly code on a whiteboard. Because answers to brain teasers are readily Google-able, internet resources are off-limits. On the job, it is unlikely that you’ll be asked to code on a whiteboard or perform mental math with someone peering over your shoulder. It is incomprehensible that you’ll be denied internet access during work hours. Data assessments also allow the applicants to complete the assessment at a more realistic pace, using their favorite IDE or coding environment.

“Take-home challenges give you a chance to simulate how the candidate will perform on the job more realistically than with puzzle interview questions,” said Sean Gerrish, an engineering manager and author of “How Smart Machines Think.”

Second, the substance of data assessments is also more realistic. By design, brainteasers are tricky or test knowledge of well-known algorithms. In real life, one would never write these algorithms by hand (you would use one of the dozens of solutions freely available on the internet) and the problems encountered on the job are rarely tricky in the same way. By giving candidates real data they might work with and structuring the deliverable in line with how results are actually shared at the company, data projects are more closely aligned with actual job skills.

Jesse Anderson, an industry veteran and author of “Data Teams,” is a big fan of data assessments: “It’s a mutually beneficial setup. Interviewees are given a fighting chance that mimics the real-world. Managers get closer to an on-the-job look at a candidate’s work and abilities.” Project-based assessments have the added benefit of assessing written communication strength, an increasingly important skill in the work-from-home world of COVID-19.

Finally, written technical project work can help avoid bias by de-emphasizing traditional but prejudicially fraught aspects of the hiring process. Resumes with Hispanic and African American names receive fewer callbacks than the same resume with white names. In response, minority candidates deliberately “whiten” their resumes to compensate. In-person interviews often rely on similarly problematic gut feel. By emphasizing an assessment closely tied to job performance, interviewers can focus their energies on actual qualifications, rather than relying on potentially biased “instincts.” Companies looking to embrace #BLM and #MeToo beyond hashtagging may consider how tweaking their hiring processes can lead to greater equality.

The exact form of data assessments vary. At The Data Incubator, we found that over 60% of firms provide take-home data assessments. These best simulate the actual work environment, allowing the candidate to work from home (typically) over the course of a few days. Another roughly 20% require interview data projects, where candidates analyze data as a part of the interview process. While candidates face more time pressure from these, they also do not feel the pressure to ceaselessly work on the assessment. “Take-home challenges take a lot of time,” explains Field Cady, an experienced data scientist and author of “The Data Science Handbook.” “This is a big chore for candidates and can be unfair (for example) to people with family commitments who can’t afford to spend many evening hours on the challenge.”

To reduce the number of custom data projects, smart candidates are preemptively building their own portfolio projects to showcase their skills and companies are increasingly accepting these in lieu of custom work.

Companies relying on old-fashioned brainteasers are a vanishing breed. Of the recalcitrant 20% of employers still sticking with brainteasers, most are the larger, more established enterprises that are usually slower to adapt to change. They need to realize that the antiquated hiring process doesn’t just look quaint, it’s actively driving candidates away. At a recent virtual conference, one of my fellow panelists was a data science new hire who explained that he had turned down opportunities based on the firm’s poor screening process.

How strong can the team be if the hiring process is so outmoded? This sentiment is also widely shared by the Ph.D.s completing The Data Incubator’s data science fellowship. Companies that fail to embrace the new reality are losing the battle for top talent.

Triplebyte incubates ColorStack to increase Black and Latinx representation in CS programs

Triplebyte, a technical recruiting platform that emphasizes a candidate’s skills rather than background, has incubated nonprofit ColorStack, which aims to increase the number of Black and Latinx people enrolled in computer science programs.

ColorStack, a mentorship-driven community of Black and Latinx engineering students, officially launched in May, but got its bearings at Cornell, where founder Jehron Petty successfully worked to triple Black and Latinx enrollment in the school’s computer science program within three years. Now, as ColorStack, the goal is to produce similar outcomes at additional schools throughout the country.

Currently, ColorStack’s community consists of more than 600 students across more than 250 schools.

“The main source of impact we can drive is getting them to persist through the major,” Petty (pictured below) told TechCrunch.

Image Credits: Jehron Petty

From there, Petty leans on other organizations, such as dev/color, which looks to get Black and Latinx folks into careers at tech companies.

“What we’re solving for them is this next level of growth — where the next set of engineers they support come from,” Petty said.

For Triplebyte, its general mission operative is to increase access to opportunities. When the company first launched, a major goal was to have a significant impact on diversity in terms of race and gender, TripleByte co-founder and CEO Ammon Bartram told TechCrunch.

“One-and-a-half years in, I was surprised and unhappy to see that, in terms of race and gender, our results looked pretty much identical to startups. We had a big impact on socioeconomic opportunity, but the big identity categories of race and gender were in the same depressing ratios of Silicon Valley’s traditional ratio.”

Bartram said he began talking to his advisors about the issue and that’s when Y Combinator CEO and partner Michael Seibel, who is a board member at Triplebyte, encouraged Bartram to think outside of the box. Seibel encouraged Bartram to treat the problem like a startup and to try new things, Bartram said.

Triplebyte considered things like sponsoring Grace Hopper, or bringing in a head of diversity, “but the truth of the matter is, the majority of larger companies do these things but the percentage of Black and Latinx engineers has barely increased over the years,” Bartram said.

“The status quo is broken and not working,” Bartram said. “People have done great work but it’s still not working.”

This is how Triplebyte found its way to ColorStack. What stood out about them was the success they were already having.

“It can be a bleak field — diversity and inclusion,” Bartram said. “There’s been so little change in the stats. But one thing that has been shown to work is mentorship. Role models, people who look like you, have a huge impact on people staying in tech and not leaving. But the mentorship role model, with people who look like them, has a huge impact on people choosing a mentor, staying involved and not leaving.”

Through the incubation, ColorStack will remain independent while also not having to worry about funding. Additionally, Triplebyte pays Petty a salary and provided ColorStack with operating funds for two years.

“If it goes well, we might extend it,” Bartram said. “My goal here is for Jehron to succeed. There’s lots of synergy between what we’re doing. We’re a for-profit company but we’re pretty mission driven. I’m doing this because I want to do something more impactful than the work I did in the past. Success would be ColorStack having an impact and doing the work that worked at Cornell and duplicating that at even 10% of the colleges out there. That’s a huge increase in representation of Black and brown folks in engineering.”

Recruiting for diversity in VC

Like many industries with a high concentration of wealth — and the careers that help professionals accumulate it — investment firms have a severe dearth of diversity in their ranks.

Regardless of whether the focus is venture capital, private equity or any other investment asset class, the firms are replete with white men. Though there have been some modest efforts of late to push for diversity, particularly in VC, these have yielded single digit percentage changes at best — and nothing at worst. Only 9% of investment decision makers in VC today are women; just 2% are Black.

Some firms have made reasonable inroads on this problem with good intentions. Based on my search experience recruiting investment professionals, I would guess that at least half of those searches were for clients with a strong preference to hire a “diverse” candidate. The Black Lives Matter movement has recently advanced the dialogue even further and has shined a light on underrepresentation in VC more than ever. “How do we increase our pipeline of diverse candidates?” is a question I heard frequently before 2020, but in past weeks this has become a chorus. Unfortunately, if solving this problem were as easy as telling a recruiter you want more diversity, it might have been solved long ago.

Below are a few common pitfalls we see in our searches with VC firms in particular, as well as some thoughts on how firms can improve their hiring processes, in order to work toward having more diverse representation within their investing teams.

Job description: Great comes in many forms

The most common reason I see for hiring processes leading to a slate with primarily white male candidates is because the criteria my client views as required almost completely precludes the possibility that the candidate slate will be diverse.

Taken as a given that women and minority men are not well-represented at senior levels in VC, any job spec that asks for a candidate to have seven to 10 years of experience in the industry, or a large number of board seats or investments led, will mean that the pool of “qualified” candidates will consist of mostly white men. This has historically been referred to as the “pipeline problem” and it’s an increasingly well-studied concept that academic literature is beginning to point to as a bias that pushes the onus of hiring minorities away from the hiring manager and on to the candidate pool. Even for firms that remain committed to hiring underrepresented groups without making adjustments to their criteria, the result is a zero-sum game where proven minority investors rotate from firm to firm, and an outcome that does not increase diversity in the industry as a whole.

VC firms seeking to improve their diversity have to recognize that great comes in many forms. By crafting broader specs and really thinking about the qualifications for their investing roles, a whole new talent pool opens up. To see that new pool of talent though, firms must first determine what characteristics are relevant to the role, and avoid tenure (or other tenure stand-ins) as the main criteria. VC investing is as much an art as a science; firms should decide what personal traits make somebody strong in their organization and why. How would a different viewpoint be additive to sourcing or diligence discussions?

Firms then need to commit to interviewing for those traits and perspectives, and assessing candidates along those same lines. One VC firm I worked with interviewed dozens of candidates before they realized that their process focused too much on financial acumen and not enough on the other factors they felt would make somebody a strong venture capitalist, resulting in a final slate of safe, “qualified,” and mostly nonminority candidates.

We reworked our process, and theirs, to interview for different criteria moving forward. We asked about overcoming hardships and about risks taken, and we got a sense for what type of impact that person made in whatever organization they came from rather than just asking about deals and transactions. It should be no surprise that the candidates with noninvesting backgrounds are performing much better in the process now, and the value they’d add to the organization more clear, even though the interviewers and the roles are the same.

Affinity bias: Go beyond what’s familiar

A broad spec and a team committed to hiring diverse talent, and interviewing appropriately, are great starting points. But then there is much more to do. Affinity bias is a well-known phenomenon that many investors are likely aware of, but it is pernicious in hiring settings and can be a serious challenge to overcome. Affinity bias in hiring is when a person or group of people prefer a candidate who looks, talks, acts or has a similar background to them.

In the case of hiring candidates with diverse backgrounds, affinity bias may be the tallest hurdle. In VC, the job is in many ways to seek common ground with the people you talk to. Good VCs are relationship builders — with entrepreneurs, other VCs and strong executives they want to recruit into their portfolio companies. But most investors are white people from affluent communities who attended elite universities and have worked at top-tier banks or consulting firms. In some cases there may have been a stint at another top-tier institution, be it a technology company or another investment firm.

White men are more likely to have these backgrounds. In a hiring process, white male VCs will naturally find ways to connect with candidates with similar backgrounds (i.e., other white men), in contrast to candidates with none of those same experiences, even when the candidates with other backgrounds are equally qualified for the role.

Affinity bias can be very subtle. It is human nature to feel the conversation was easier with somebody who in many ways has led the same life you did. It can feel somewhat logical even: The critique of the nonwhite or nonmale candidate is never as obvious as “They didn’t go to Stanford” or “They don’t belong to my country club.” Rather, it is often expressed as something softer and subjective — a seldom-articulated criteria of cultural fit. “Our culture is different from the place they work” is the most common. “I’m not sure they have the drive” is another, or “They don’t have an X-factor.” Now, these critiques can be completely legitimate.

A candidate may indeed be a bad fit for the culture of the firm because, for example, their prior employer was a gigantic corporate machine reliant on extraneous processes and they are interviewing for a role at a small entrepreneurial organization. But sometimes, particularly when interviewing candidates from different backgrounds, culture fit is a mask for affinity bias, and VCs (like all interviewers) need to be conscious of this tendency.

Look in the right networks

Investment firms almost always try to make a hire through their own network before leading a full search, and even before posting a job as being open anywhere online. This has become such an ingrained behavior that it is often discussed as a best practice. Unfortunately, “hiring through our network” almost certainly means the slate of candidates that a firm considers at the outset is going to be heavily nondiverse. Unless a firm (or to broaden this guidance, an organization) is already diverse across multiple vectors, then beginning a search by canvasing the firm’s own network is highly unlikely to yield a “diverse” candidate. This seems innocuous but it can actually be harmful to the odds that the firm ever hires a candidate from an underrepresented group. Why? There is another bias at work, the status quo bias.

Studies have shown that people tend to make choices that favor the status quo. Creating a balanced slate of choices is critical to avoid disfavoring minority candidates inadvertently. One study showed that having multiple women or Black candidates on a finalist slate increased the odds that the selected would be a minority by 70x-100x. But if a group of interviewers meets five white men through their networks before they meet anybody else, it is going to take an disproportionate number of underrepresented minority candidates to overcome the group’s bias toward hiring the “status quo” of the white men they met at the outset of the search.

At True Search, we recently audited one of our own searches to look for candidate-selected markers of their identity. We compared our pool of candidates to the NVCA diversity data from 2018. Compared to the industry averages, our pool of candidates was half as white and twice as female as the industry at large. I am not sharing that data as an advertisement for True Search, and in fact we strive to do more and are working on multiple programs to increase our networks with diverse candidate pools. The point is, when a VC firm uses a search firm or any outside consultant for a search, the pool of candidates is going to be much more diverse than if that VC firm simply calls up the people in their network, who probably are not all that diverse.

Focus on inclusion

A commitment to hiring more talent with underrepresented backgrounds is great; actually doing it is even better. Many studies have shown that diversity improves the performance of a team, but the onus is on the organization to foster an environment where those viewpoints are appreciated. In my discussions with VCs who are minorities, they point out that once they are in the door of the firm they still face challenges that white male colleagues don’t.

They are less likely to have mentors who share their backgrounds, and investing is largely an apprenticeship business. If they did not come from Stanford or Harvard, they are less likely to see deals that come through the sorts of personal networks that the firm is likely accustomed to seeing. If they came from a noninvesting background, they may be taken less seriously when presenting investment ideas to the team of career investors. A firm has to support diversity of thought once it is in the door, or the contributions of those team members may be unappreciated.

Firms can do many things to foster strong talent from diverse backgrounds once they are in the organization. Minority investors have shared some great ideas with me as I was thinking through this article, so these suggestions aren’t just my own. Underrepresented groups have historically (in the short history of such groups having any significant representation in the investing world) formed mentorship networks that transcend the walls of a given firm, such as Latinx VC, BLCK VC and All Raise.

VC firms should build as much connectivity with those sort of networks as possible. This will not only increase the odds that a firm will see more candidates from underrepresented groups, but it will also mean that the firm can play a role in finding strong mentors for their diverse talent throughout their career. Those networks can be built through small individual actions like attending and sponsoring events, or sharing job postings in the firm and portfolio with those networks.

VC firms can also help to jump-start a hire’s network in venture. Imagine a scenario where a firm hires a noninvestor with a unique yet amazing background into an investing role. Their peers all went to Stanford or worked at Facebook and are sourcing their deals through those personal networks. VC firms can use their resources to help close that network gap, such as by setting aside small pools of capital for a seed fund to be deployed by new investors with diverse backgrounds, thereby giving them a boost in early network building. I’ve seen firms deploy this strategy as a way to keep tabs on high potential operators, or on partner-level candidates they want to get to know more before they commit to hiring full-time.

Firms can help train junior talent and better prepare them for future full-time roles in venture by running intern or analyst programs and emphasizing the hiring of underrepresented groups into those roles. Even a part-time gig in VC will give a candidate a leg up in future interview processes, and even if that person goes off to another firm for a full-time role, the network back to that person will remain and could be helpful as a source of (or mentor to) the diverse talent the firm hires in the future.

What does accountability look like in 2020?

“What happens after a company gets called out?” he asked over the phone. “Do you know what happens to the people in-house that come forward?”

I didn’t.

A Black male engineer at a fashion tech company who wished to remain anonymous was telling me how he’d been passed over for promotions white counterparts later received after they’d pursued risky and unsuccessful projects. At one point, he said management tasked him with doing recon on a superior who made disparaging comments about women because his subordinates were uncomfortable reporting it directly to HR.

When human resources eventually took up the matter, the engineer said his participation was used against him.

More recently, his company brought furloughed employees back and managers promoted a younger, white subordinate over him. When he asked about the move, his direct supervisor said he was too aggressive and needed to be more of a role model to be considered in the future.

In the absence of industry leadership, there’s no blueprint to remedy institutional problems like these. The lack of substantial progress toward true representation, diversity and inclusion across several industries illustrates what hasn’t worked.

Audrey Gelman, former CEO of women-focused co-working/community space The Wing, stepped down in June following a virtual employee walkout. Three months earlier, a New York Times exposé interviewed 26 former and current employees there who described systemic discrimination and mistreatment. At the time, about 40% of its executive staff consisted of women of color, the article reported.

Within days, Refinery29’s EIC Christene Barberich also resigned after allegations of racism, bullying and leadership abuses surfaced with hashtag #BlackatR29.

In December 2019, The Verge reported allegations of a toxic work environment at Away under CEO Steph Korey. After a series of updates and corrections in reporting, it seemed she would be stepping away from her role or accelerating an existing plan for a new CEO to take over. But the following month, she returned to the company as co-CEO, sharing the statement: “Frankly, we let some inaccurate reporting influence the timeline of a transition plan that we had.”

Last month, after Korey posted a series of Instagram stories that negatively characterized her media coverage, the company again announced she would step down.

Bon Appétit former editor-in-chief Adam Rapaport resigned his position the same month after news broke that the cooking brand didn’t prioritize representation in its content or hiring, failed to pay women of color equally and freelance writer Tammie Teclemariam shared a 2013 photo of Rappaport in brown face.

In a public apology, staffs of Bon Appétit and Epicurious acknowledged that they had “been complicit with a culture we don’t agree with and are committed to change.”

Removing one problematic employee doesn’t upend company culture or help someone who’s been denied an opportunity. But with so much at stake when it comes to employing Instagram-ready branding, the lane is wide open for companies to meet the moment when it comes to doing the right thing.

A 2017 report by the Ascend Foundation found few Asian, Black and Latinx people were represented in leadership pipelines, and at that point, the numbers were actually getting worse. Seemingly, in an effort for transparency and accountability to do better, 17 tech companies shared diversity statistics and their plans to improve with Business Insider in June 2020. The numbers were staggering, especially for an initiative supposedly prioritized industry-wide in 2014:

Underrepresented minorities like Black and Latinx people still only make up single-digit percentages of the workforce at many major tech companies. When you look at the leadership statistics, the numbers are even bleaker.

While tech’s shortcomings show up clearly in a longstanding lack of diversity, companies in other industries polished their brands sufficiently to skate by — until COVID-19 and the call for racial justice after George Floyd’s murder called for lasting change.

In June, Adidas employees protested outside the company’s U.S. headquarters in Portland, Oregon and shared stories about internal racism. Just a year ago, The New York Times interviewed current and former employees about “the company’s predominantly white leadership struggling with issues of race and discrimination.”

In 2000, an Adidas employee filed a federal discrimination suit alleging that his supervisor called him a “monkey” and described his output as “monkey work.” When spokesperson Kanye West said in 2018 that he believed slavery was a choice, CEO Kasper Rorsted discussed his positive financial impact on the brand and avoided commenting on West’s statement.

In response to the internal turmoil at Adidas, the brand originally pledged to invest $20 million into Black communities in the U.S. over the next four years, increasing it to $120 million and releasing an outline of what they plan to do internally, Footwear News reported.

On June 30, Karen Parkin stepped down from her role as Adidas’ global head of HR in mutual agreement with the brand. In an all-employee meeting in August 2019, she reportedly described concerns about racism as “noise” that only Americans deal with. She’d been with the brand for 23 years.

Routinely protecting employees perceived as racist, misogynistic or abusive is bad for business. According to a 2017 “tech leavers” study conducted by the Kapor Center, employee turnover and its associated costs set the tech industry back $16 billion.

POC experience-centered social and wellness club Ethel’s Club invested into its community’s well-being and has not only managed to stay open (virtually) through the COVID-19 pandemic, it has managed to grow. Meanwhile, The Wing lost 95% of its business.

So, what really happens after the companies are called out? Often, the bare minimum. While the perpetrators of the injustice may endure backlash, abusers in corporate structures are often shifted into other roles.

Tiffany Wines, a former social media and editorial staffer at media/entertainment company Complex, posted an open letter to Twitter on June 19 alleging that Black women at the outlet were mistreated, sharing a story in which she claimed to have ingested marijuana brownies left in an office that was billed as a drug-free environment. Wines said she blacked out and accused superiors of covering up the incident after she reported it.

Her decision to speak up prompted other former employees to share stories alleging misogyny, racism, sexual assault and protection of abusers. One anonymous editor said she was asked if she would be comfortable with a workplace that had a “locker room culture” during a 2010 interview. (She did not end up working there.)

Complex Media Group put out a statement four days later on its corporate Twitter account, which had approximately 100 followers — as opposed to its main account, which has 2.3 million followers.

“We believe Complex Networks is a great place to work, but it is by no means perfect,” read the statement. “It’s our passion for our brands, communities, colleagues, and the belief that a safe and inclusive workplace should be the expectation for everyone.” It went on to state that they’ve taken immediate action, but it’s unclear if anyone has been terminated. [Complex is co-owned by Verizon Media, TechCrunch’s parent company.]

Members of the fashion community have formed multiple groups to combat systemic racism, establish accountability and advance Black people in the industry.

Set to launch in July 2020, The Black In Fashion Council, founded by Teen Vogue editor-in-chief Lindsay Peoples Wagner and fashion publicist Sandrine Charles, works to advance Black individuals in fashion and beauty.

The Kelly Initiative is comprised of 250 Black fashion professionals hoping to blaze equitable inroads, and they’ve publicly addressed the Council of Fashion Designers of America in a letter accusing them of “exploitative cultures of prejudice, tokenism and employment discrimination to thrive.”

Co-founders of True To Size, Jazerai Allen-Lord and Mazin Melegy, an extension of the New York-based branding agency Crush & Lovely, started offering their Check The Fit solutions to the brands they were working with in 2019. The initiative is an audit process created to align in-house teams and ensure sufficient representation is in place for brands’ storytelling.

Check The Fit determines who the consumer is, what the internal team’s history is with that demographic and the message they’re trying to communicate to them, and how the team engage’s with that subject matter in everyday life and in the office. Melegy says, “that look inward is a step that is overlooked almost everywhere.”

“At most companies, we’ve seen a lack of coherence within the organization, because each department’s director is approaching the problem from a siloed perspective. We were able to bring 15 leaders across departments together, distill through a list of concerns, find points of leverage and agree on a common goal. It was noted that it was the first time they were able to feel unified in their mission and felt prepared to move forward,” Lord says of their work with Reebok last year.

Brooklyn-based retailer Aurora James established the 15 Percent Pledge campaign, which urges retailers to have merchandise that reflects today’s demographics: 15% of the population should represent 15% of the shelves.

During the melee that transpired largely on Twitter and Instagram only to attempt to be reconciled in boardrooms, one Condé Nast employee and ally has been suspended. On June 12, Bon Appétit video editor Matt Hunziker tweeted, “Why would we hire someone who’s not racist when we could simply [checks industry handbook] uhh hire a racist and provide them with anti-racism training…” As his colleagues shared an outpouring of support online, a Condé Nast representative said in a statement, “There have been many concerns raised about Matt that the company is obligated to investigate and he has been suspended until we reach a resolution.”

Simply reading through accusers’ first-person accounts, it often seems like these stories end up on public forums because little to nothing is done in favor of the people who step forward. The protection has consistently been of the company.

The Black engineer I spoke to escalated his concerns to his company’s CEO and said the executive was unaware of the allegations and seemed deeply concerned.

Seeing someone who seemed genuinely invested in doing the right thing “obviously, means a lot,” he said.

“But at the same time, I’m still really concerned knowing the broader environment of the company, and it’s never just one person.”

Crisis management tips from startup whisperer Margit Wennmachers

When it comes to building a company, lots of things can and do go wrong. Margit Wennmachers — an operating partner at Andreessen Horowitz and long one of the most powerful public relations pros in the startup world — knows this firsthand.

Thankfully for all of you, Wennmachers was able to join us for our recent Early Stage event, where she shared some of her tips and tricks for dealing with everything from fast-ballooning crises that reporters catch wind of, to laying off people during a pandemic, to why lawsuits can actually fuel some companies’ growth.

It’s advice you might save for future reference. As she noted, how a crisis is handled can make or break a startup, and the list of things that can go wrong at even the smallest outfit is “long,” including a product needing to be recalled, a site going down, a cyber breach, a founding team that doesn’t get along, inappropriate behavior, lawsuits and cultural issues.

Some of her most actionable advice included:

How founders can prepare for the inevitable crisis

First, said Wennmachers, spend time modeling out the scenarios, and “let your imagination run wild” as you do. Spend a month on this if necessary. As you’re thinking of worst-case scenarios, also figure out the team that would be involved in a crisis response. Legal will always have to be involved but also, often, HR, outside counsel, and, if a startup can afford it, the help of an outside crisis communications team. If it’s a product failure, you’ll also need the product lead, too, she noted.

Neo’s Ali Partovi on best practices for hiring early-stage startup engineers

On day one of TechCrunch’s Early Stage virtual conference, Ali Partovi joined us to discuss best practices for startups looking to hire engineers.

It’s a subject that’s near and dear to his heart: Partovi is co-founder and CEO of Neo, a venture aimed at including young engineers in a community alongside seasoned industry vets. The fund includes top executives from a slew of different industry titans, including Amazon, Airbnb, Dropbox, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Stripe.

Partovi is probably best known in the Valley for co-founding Code.org with twin brother, Hadi. The nonprofit launched in 2013 with a high-profile video featuring Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Jack Dorsey, along with a mission to make coding education more accessible to the masses.

It was a two-summer internship at Microsoft while studying at Harvard that gave Partovi an entrée into the world of tech. And while it was clearly a formative experience for the college student, he advises against prospective startup founders looking to large corporations as career launch pads.

“I spend a lot of time mentoring college students, that’s a big part of what I do at Neo,” Partovi said.

“And for anyone who wants to be a founder of a company, there’s a spectrum, from giant companies like Microsoft or Google to early-stage startups. And I would say, find the smallest point on that spectrum that you’re comfortable with, and start your career there. Maybe that’s a 100-person company or maybe for you, it’s a 500-person company. But if you start at Microsoft, it’ll be a long time before you feel comfortable doing your own startup. The skills you gain at a giant company are very valuable for getting promoted and succeeding in giant companies. They’re not often as translatable to being your own founder.”

FlexJobs CEO Sara Sutton on what newly remote companies tend to get right and wrong

Over the last few months, just about any tech company that can go remote has gone remote.

Are companies adopting remote for the long haul, or is it just a holdover until they can get people back in the office? What are newly remote companies getting wrong or right in the transition? If a company is going to be sticking with a remote workforce, what can they do to make their roles more enticing and to build a better culture?

FlexJobs CEO Sara Sutton has been thinking about remote work for longer than most. She founded FlexJobs in 2007 — at a time when she herself was looking for a more flexible job — as a platform tailored specifically for jobs that didn’t keep you in an office all day. In 2015 she also founded Remote.co, a knowledge base for remote companies and employees to share the lessons they’ve learned along the way.

I recently got a chance to chat with Sara about her views and insights on remote work. Here’s the transcript of our chat, lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Tech at Work: DE&I at Facebook, Prop 22 and gig worker earnings

Hey, ya’ll. I’m experimenting with a bi-weekly roundup that looks at the state of labor in tech.

We’ll use this space to explore topics related to diversity, equity and inclusion, the future of work, issues relating to pay equality, notable personnel changes and much more.

This week, we’re looking at Facebook’s civil rights audit, a new gig worker earnings study, the latest on California ballot measure Proposition 22 and layoffs amid COVID-19. 

Stay woke

The artist Celos paints a mural in downtown Los Angeles on May 30, 2020 in protest against the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died while being arrested and pinned to the ground by the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. (Photo by APU GOMES/AFP via Getty Images)

It’s been less than two months since the police killing of George Floyd. While the tech industry has continued on with its funding rounds, mergers and acquisitions, there is still work to be done on the racial justice front. Here’s a look at some developments over the last couple of weeks. 

Facebook’s civil rights audit highlights gaps in DE&I work

As seen in Facebook’s final civil rights audit report conducted by former ACLU attorney Laura Murphy, the social networking giant still must do more to increase diversity in its senior leadership roles and C-suite. These roles for Black, indigenous and people of color must also not be “limited to diversity officer positions as is often the case in corporate America,” the report states. 

According to the audit, there must also be company-wide recognition that diversity, equity and inclusion efforts are not to fall solely on those in underrepresented groups, but rather on all members of the senior leadership team and managers. The audit also highlighted employee concerns around “a lack of recognition for the time URM employees spend mentoring and recruiting other minorities to work at Facebook.”

Dear Sophie: What does the new online classes rule mean for F-1 students?

Here’s another edition of “Dear Sophie,” the advice column that answers immigration-related questions about working at technology companies.

“Your questions are vital to the spread of knowledge that allows people all over the world to rise above borders and pursue their dreams,” says Sophie Alcorn, a Silicon Valley immigration attorney. “Whether you’re in people ops, a founder or seeking a job in Silicon Valley, I would love to answer your questions in my next column.”

“Dear Sophie” columns are accessible for Extra Crunch subscribers; use promo code ALCORN to purchase a one- or two-year subscription for 50% off.


Dear Sophie:

One of our founders is currently in the U.S. on an F-1 STEM OPT. Our company is sponsoring her for an H-1B visa, and we recently received an RFE.

What does yesterday’s F-1 visa international student immigration announcement mean for her? Is the H-1B going to be denied? Do we need a backup? What should we do?

—Concerned in Cupertino

Dear Concerned:

To find out if an F-1 student is affected by the Trump administration’s international student ban, watch my latest YouTube Live. For more on the H-1B visa ban, please read last week’s Dear Sophie column.

International students have been allowed to take online classes during the spring and summer due to the COVID-19 crisis, but that will end this fall. The new order will force many international students at schools that are only offering remote online classes to find an “immigration plan B” or depart the U.S. before the fall term to avoid being deported.

At many top universities, international students make up more than 20% of the student body. According to NAFSA, international students contributed $41 billion to the U.S. economy and supported or created 458,000 jobs during the 2018-2019 academic year. Apparently, the current administration is continuing to “throw out the baby with the bathwater” when it comes to immigration.

Universities are scrambling as they struggle with this newfound untenable bind. Do they stay online only to keep their students safe and force their international students to leave their homes in this country? Or do they reopen to save their students from deportation, but put their communities’ health at risk?

For students, it means finding another school, scrambling to figure out a way to depart the States (when some home countries will not even allow them to return), or figuring out an “immigration plan B.” Yesterday’s video explores F-1 visa alternatives.

Fortunately, since your co-founder is on OPT, I don’t think the latest F-1 restrictions will affect her based on my initial reading of the tiny bit of info that trickled out of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) yesterday and the slightly broader SEVIS broadcast message guidance for schools. (“For the fall 2020 semester, continuing F and M students who are already in the United States may remain in Active status in SEVIS if they make normal progress in a program of study, or are engaged in approved practical training, either as part of a program of study or following completion of a program of study.”)

On the RFE front, I don’t know if it’s any comfort, but you’re definitely not alone: The percentage of H-1B petitioners that receive a Request for Evidence (RFE) has nearly doubled since 2016. Nearly 21% of petitioners received an RFE in fiscal year 2016 compared to more than 40% in 2019. During the first two quarters of the current fiscal year, 41% of all H-1B petitions received an RFE. Check out my podcast because we’ll be covering RFEs, Requests for Initial Evidence (RFIEs) and Notices of Intent to Deny (NOIDs) soon.

Just to be totally clear in answer to your first question: No, getting an RFE does not mean your H-1B application is more likely to be denied. In fact, an RFE offers a final opportunity to strengthen your petition for approval. Because the stakes are so high, I recommend consulting with an experienced immigration lawyer when crafting a response to an RFE.

Make sure U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) receives your response to the RFE by the deadline printed on the RFE. Last week, USCIS extended its deadlines: The deadline for RFEs issued between March 1 and Sept. 11 is automatically extended by 60 calendar days after the due date due to the COVID-19 crisis and the budget shortfall facing the agency. If your response is not received by the deadline, USCIS will deny your company’s H-1B petition.

You always want to make sure you understand exactly what additional evidence USCIS is seeking from you. Check your original application package to make sure that the requested document or evidence was not included. Sometimes, USCIS mistakenly overlooks information already submitted. If that’s the case, resubmit the requested document in your response package. If you can’t provide a requested document, explain why and provide alternative evidence if possible. Otherwise, provide the document or evidence as requested.

Among the top reasons why USCIS issues an RFE are for failing to show that the position qualifies as a specialty occupation or that a valid employer-employee relationship exists. If the RFE you received is for either of these reasons, here’s a quick reminder of what USCIS is seeking for each requirement.

To qualify for an H-1B visa, your petition must have demonstrated to USCIS that the position sought by the international professional is a specialty occupation. You should have provided evidence that the job requires the understanding and application of highly specialized knowledge and that it usually requires at least a bachelor’s degree — or equivalent experience — in a particular specialty. In recent years, USCIS has narrowed its interpretation of what qualifies as a specialty occupation. For instance, it no longer considers computer programming to be a specialty occupation. USCIS has also challenged positions that don’t require a bachelor’s degree and positions with titles such as computer systems analyst, financial analyst, market research analyst and human resources manager.

Making the case that an employer-employee relationship exists is tricky when it involves a founder working for the company she helped create. An employer must demonstrate that it will control the work of the H-1B beneficiary. For founders, that means someone at the company — either the board of directors or a co-founder — would have to supervise the H-1B beneficiary and have the authority to fire the individual. There are lots of ways to set this up properly.

Once all the evidence and documents required to respond to the RFE are ready, they should all be submitted together in a single response package with the original copy of the RFE as the first page. Save a copy of the response package for your records and send the response to the correct location using tracking and proof of delivery options.

Given that U.S. embassies and consulates abroad have stopped issuing visas and green cards under the executive proclamations issued on April 22 and June 22 and due to the ongoing COVID-19-related travel restrictions, your co-founder should remain in the U.S. for the foreseeable future.

For long-term immigration security for your co-founder, your startup should consider sponsoring her for one of the following green cards if she qualifies:

  • EB-1A green card for individuals with exceptional ability.
  • EB-2 NIW (National Interest Waiver) green card, which is ideal for startup founders.
  • EB-2 green card for individuals with an advanced degree or exceptional ability, which requires a time-consuming PERM labor certification from the U.S. Department of Labor.
  • EB-5 investor green card, for which your company could provide your co-founder with the investment funds for this option.

Apparently the Trump administration is not yet done with its efforts to further restrict legal immigration. They are taking a look at whether individuals currently in the U.S. on H-1B visas, as well as EB-2 green cards and EB-3 green cards limit opportunities for U.S. workers. Further restrictions or even expanded moratoriums may be put into place. Of course, I’ll cover it all here if and when it happens.

Let me know if you have more specific questions about an RFE. Good luck!

—Sophie


Have a question? Ask it here. We reserve the right to edit your submission for clarity and/or space. The information provided in “Dear Sophie” is general information and not legal advice. For more information on the limitations of “Dear Sophie,” please view our full disclaimer here. You can contact Sophie directly at Alcorn Immigration Law.

Sophie’s podcast, Immigration Law for Tech Startups, is available on all major podcast platforms. If you’d like to be a guest, she’s accepting applications!

Why I flip-flopped on opposing remote work

Most people would agree that a chief revenue officer is a pretty significant hire, but I have yet to meet mine in person. Right now, our only face-to-face interaction is over video. In fact, that’s how our relationship began — like many business leaders during this pandemic, I had to hire Todd through a series of video calls.

The pandemic has caused me to question and reevaluate many of my own assumptions. This not only led me to hire our CRO remotely, but it is ultimately why I also decided to allow employees to work from home until 2021.

While it’s tempting to call this a pivot, those who have worked with me would probably describe it more accurately as a flip-flop. I used to believe that you could build an in-person culture or a remote work culture, but that a hybrid of the two was destined to fail.

The realities of COVID-19 have not just changed my outlook, but transformed the way I think about how work should get done —and how leaders need to show up for their team, even if they can’t “show up” in any physical sense.

The remote work debate changed in an instant

Before the pandemic, the debate over remote work revolved around its perceived impact on productivity, collaboration, employee engagement and culture.