As one of the leading online retailers in the Netherlands, bol.com has a constant need for skilled software engineers. Finding this rare breed of professionals is challenging enough – a challenge that is rendered even more complex because bol.com has a corporate culture all its own, for which not everybody is a good fit. While smart software tools go some way towards resolving this challenge, the human touch remains crucial.
Bol.com’s Talent Acquisition Director Jaap Rip and IT Director Menno Vis about recruitment at bol.com
Skilled IT professionals are virtually impossible to find, but surely for a company like bol.com it shouldn’t be that much of a problem. After all, who wouldn’t want to work for the Amazon of the Low Countries?
Rip: “People do tend to think that, but it’s actually a misconception. Sure, we may receive a few thousand job applications with very little effort, but that doesn’t mean that all or even most of those applicants have what it takes to work for bol.com. So we end up having to turn down 99.9% of those people, who also all happen to be bol.com customers. Since this is what we’re trying to avoid, we are highly selective in terms of whom we invite to apply and who goes through to the selection process. We’d rather go from five candidates to one, than from 50 to one.”
What channels do you use to find these elusive IT workers?
Rip: “We’ve got our own careers site, for starters, where we’re keen to share as much of our employer value proposition as possible: what sort of company are we, and what can you expect when you decide to work for us? We try to get across something of the unique corporate culture of bol.com, which tends to be tricky, because you need to be there in person to really experience it. Anyway, we set the bar high from the get-go, to create a type of self-selection process, where people ask themselves: Am I the right fit? Do I want to apply for a job here?”
Vis: “We also use the networks of our own IT people and tech recruiters as effectively as possible. In that sense, attracting, selecting and retaining people is really the shared responsibility of HR and IT. We’ve also been pleased to notice it’s very easy to involve IT workers in this process, as they, of course, also recognise the importance of being surrounded by the best and the brightest.”
Rip: “That’s right. We also have a company-wide employee referral programme, where we ask our employees if they know any qualified people in their extended social circle. As we want to encourage them to share their input, we explain to them how they can work with our recruiters to open up their network. We then reward them with a referral bonus if they end up referring a candidate. We have been doing this successfully for many years, as we’ve found that people who join the company through the employee referral programme tend to perform even better than those who apply off their own bat because they are looking for a new job. We focus mainly on passive job seekers that way.”
You mentioned being quite selective in the recruitment process. How is that reflected within the company?
Vis: “Our aim is to keep the funnel from candidate to new hire as short as possible. We use all sorts of tools for this purpose, including assessment software and an applicant-tracking system. This system allows you to set up a ‘digital slide’ of sorts, including a solid communication system, where you avoid a situation where managers email each other Excel spreadsheets containing the names and contact details of job applicants. The assessment software is evaluated on an ongoing basis, since we are becoming increasingly aware of the skills and personal traits someone must possess to be successful in our company. It means we get to interview higher-calibre candidates, which is motivational for both sides: the interviews are more successful and more enjoyable for both us and the candidates, with a greater likelihood of a match.”
Rip: “It’s like this: bol.com’s corporate culture has certain characteristics which are important criteria for success, and which we really cherish. We cannot lose sight of these characteristics during the application process because we happen to have a haphazard selection process. This is why our recruiters read all CVs and do not use any automated selection tools. So, yes, we keep the funnel small, while treating all candidates the same. We need to stay mindful of the fact that applying for a job is an emotional process.”
“We need to stay mindful of the fact that applying for a job is an emotional process””
So how exactly do you measure the ‘success’ you mention in the bol.com corporate culture?
Vis: “We look at both behaviour and impact. ‘Behaviour’ refers to whether someone takes on work that might be outside their wheelhouse. Do they not only report any problems they identify, but also try to resolve them? Do they challenge others? ‘Impact’ is more about the extent to which candidates are able to make a difference and demonstrably improve things for our customers and partners. If candidates have specific qualities that stand out in terms of impact and behaviour, we provide the appropriate feedback to the recruitment cycle.”
Rip: “Just to give you an example: we noticed at one point that candidates were dropping out in the second round because they lacked resilience. We apparently did not note this in the preliminary process, and it was revealed only in the second round. Part of our corporate culture is having the courage to take risks, the ability to make mistakes and pick yourself up again if things go wrong. If you hire people who tend to avoid risk, this will inevitably affect the speed of innovation. We test for this particular competency at an earlier stage of the funnel, which allows us to create a higher-quality upper funnel. And that’s just at the people and skills level – this is followed by a process of skills testing, for which we use a separate software tool.”
Vis: “We also developed an initial case in-house: we ask candidates to create a game in a couple of hours, giving them just a few instructions to go by. This allows us to tell how someone writes code, and at what level. Will it lead to something that really works? Have or haven’t they used specific patterns? Does the solution have a working front end? And so on and so forth. We eventually use this as input for an evaluation: why does someone make specific design choices? To be able to be a good software engineer, you need to not only have solid coding skills, but also be analytical, understand the nature of the project at hand, be able to ask the right questions, be firm, be unafraid to discuss the issue with others, and have the ability to suggest alternatives, so that you can achieve 90 per cent of the result with just 10 per cent of the effort.”
Despite the use of all those tools, it still sounds like a pretty labour-intensive process …
Rip: “Yes, it is, but the right quality of hire is our number-one priority; speed and ‘numbers’ take a backseat in this case. Experience has shown that collaboration is the magic factor at bol.com and that we are all in it for the customer and to create maximum customer experience. We use technology where it contributes something, but we insist on maintaining a human touch, to keep us from turning into a factory. You could easily end up doing it all wrong. We also prioritise diversity and inclusion – we currently have people of roughly 40 nationalities working in our IT department.”
“Collaboration is the magic factor at bol.com”
Vis: “And it doesn’t end there either: we spend a great deal of time helping people achieve success and making sure they are given the opportunity to develop at bol.com. That is to say, how do we ensure people are in the right place and can contribute as much to the company as possible? We even appointed a special director in our IT department who is directly involved in the community: what can we do to ensure people feel connected to the engineering community and support them in this process? We also have generous budgets available for training and education. One person might want to take a class in Python coding, while another may prefer to read a book and a third person may choose to attend a conference. We encourage our people to make these types of choices, as it helps you to develop, which in turn helps bol.com, as it leads to faster and superior solutions.”
Rip: “You can tell from everything that the management regards recruitment as strategic to bol.com. Potential investments are critically reviewed, and we can implement improvements quickly, provided we can back this up. This has brought us to where we are today. Although we’re a company, we don’t actually produce anything of our own. This means we rely heavily on our employees, so we need to treat them with great care. I’ve never really taken to the term ‘human resources,’ because humans are not resources; they are human. That’s why we named our department ‘People&,’ to make clear it all starts with the people. Everything else follows from there.”