Hiring Insights From a CEO Who Places Non-Traditional Workers

Parallel Travel is a rapidly-growing San Francisco Bay Area startup that works with talented local artists across the U.S. to design unique experiences at vacation rentals. It’s an exciting place to work, with the frenzied nature of startup life and the promise of rethinking the way travelers immerse themselves in new cities. Like any other growth-stage company, when hiring, specific experience, domain expertise, and industry context are critical. It’s a challenge for people without these traits to break into an exciting new career.

But the newest field operations agent at Parallel, Jared, comes from a background that runs completely counter to typical early-stage startup hires: He’s a 21-year old who just moved to San Francisco after three years with the U.S. Army’s elite 75th Ranger Regiment in Columbus, Georgia. He’s an active duty soldier completing his final months of service in an immersive internship. For Jared, this likely means a job offer (or two) at the end of his three-month “tour of duty” — and the company is now tripling down on people with similar non-traditional experiences and uncommon grit, work ethic, and desire to win that come with them.

One of things we’re trying to do at my organization, Shift is make service members’ value clear to companies by showing them for what they are: gritty, cross-functional operators who are experts at solving thorny problems. Matching service members to the right roles was challenging at first. Veterans often don’t even know what types of roles they’d like to fill, and even when they do, their hard skills rarely map cleanly to civilian careers.

As a result, we’ve had to get creative about our approach to hiring, and we believe that our methodology represents a paradigm shift for the industry. After facilitating successful fellowships with rapidly-growing, innovative companies we think that our insights are worth sharing.

Insight #1: Fold data science into your hiring process

What exactly can a transitioning Army Ranger bring to a tech company? How are a helicopter pilot’s skills different from those of a submariner or a logistics officer? The answers to those questions are quite complex, but are broadly applicable to hiring candidates from other hierarchical organizations as well. Finding relevant matches for non-traditional backgrounds requires new approaches.

In our case, the military skill translation tools out there weren’t sufficient, so we built our own to make tailored job recommendations. We take a lot of information into account: preferences, aspirations, soft skills, hard skills, personality traits, and cultural alignment with our partner companies. We also learn quite a bit about partner company needs so we can use more information than just what appears on the job description.

Once we have all of that information, our data science team compares each candidate to specific roles we’re working on. We describe candidates and companies along about 50 dimensions. If you can imagine plotting a point for every candidate in this 50-dimensional space and then plotting a point for every company, you can visualize how we make matches: by selecting the shortest distance between candidate points and company points.

You can quickly replicate this approach by implementing survey processes that track the traits and attributes of hires who are high-performers. So long as the pre-hire survey data is consistent — whether you track personality, preferences, or future ambitions — you’ll be able to find insights as soon as you can define what your ideal hire looks like and close the loop. Here’s the secret: only you have this data and it’s incredibly valuable.

Insight #2: Hire for soft skills and place candidates in roles aligned with passion

Making hiring decisions based on soft skills is difficult, but it’s important regardless of role type or industry. Generally speaking, we pre-qualify candidates for basic qualifications, then interview for soft skills, and finally match candidates to roles based on aspirations, cultural fit, and hard skills.

Military veterans have a great advantage when it comes to soft skills. 300,000 service members transition out of the military annually and many of them already have the most difficult skills to teach or acquire: grit, a growth mindset, leadership and management experience, deep social and emotional intelligence, composure, professionalism — the list goes on.

We place so much emphasis on cultural fit and candidate preferences because person-organization fit is predictive at statistically significant levels of performance and turnover, as documented in a  paper by Charles O’Reilly, et al. It’s also just common sense: people are happier if they feel that their values are reflected in the place where they work.

Insight #3: Use trial periods to assess whether a candidate is actually a good fit for a role

It’s easy to fake your persona during an interview, but it’s not possible to fake performance over a 3-month contract. We advocate using trial periods whenever possible prior to permanent hiring decisions.

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Trial periods are a great way to ensure that a hiring decision is sound and they can take a variety of forms: internships, “returnships,” and contract-to-hire arrangements. They can also be extremely helpful in hiring negotiations, because both candidates and companies have more information to inform conversations about compensation, and employers are often happy to offer even higher compensation than they would have at the outset for someone who demonstrates value above and beyond what was expected. Work trials are powerful instruments for hiring because they reduce the risk of making a bad long-term decision.

Trials are especially beneficial for people who are making major career shifts between industries that look very different from each other. After observing hundreds of military veterans transition from service we’ve learned that preferences rapidly change when they learn the ground truth in a new industry. This doesn’t just apply to veterans; everyone has an idea of what they think a new career field might be like, but the only way to really know is to get to work.

Everyone knows that soft skills are important, but they can be tricky to identify. Fortunately, data science tools have evolved to address murky situations, and hiring is an excellent use case. If you can deploy an analytical approach alongside trial periods that de-risk the entire hiring process, then you just might have a grip on your best New Year’s resolution yet.

Mike Slagh

Mike Slagh is often described as the entrepreneur bridging the gap between the military and tech. By decoding experiences, he’s helping veterans get hired into roles not normally associated with military service. As Shift CEO, he builds strategic hiring initiatives with executive teams and creates pathways for veterans into companies like Affirm and Uber.

A Navy veteran, he deployed to South America and the Middle East as an Explosive Ordnance Disposal Officer, eventually running global operations for a bomb squad battalion. He’s a Naval Academy and Harvard Kennedy School graduate and lives in San Francisco with his family.