Drupal Web Developer Career Series Post 4: View from the Summit

This is final installment of our four-part blog post series that encapsulates the advice, tips and must-do elements of career building in the Drupal Community from the panel of experts collected for DrupalEasy’s DrupalCon Austin session; Drupal Career Trailhead; Embark on a Path to Success. It will be listed with other career resources for reference at the DrupalEasy Academy Career Center.

Recruiters and executives with five various-sized Drupal shops from across the globe capped off the session with insight into what they look for when they hire, which together, they were looking to do at least 150 times over the next few months. Moderator Mike Anello of DrupalEasy and the audience queried the panel, which included Kim Pepper of PreviousNext in Australia, Steve Parks of the UK arm of Europe’s Wunderkraut, Mike Minecki of Austin-based Four Kitchens, Eric Gaffen, recruiter for Acquia, and Nancy Stango, who also kicked off the session, of Blink Reaction.


The panel provided varying and interesting insight on getting hired in the Drupal world. But what really struck us is that even though they represented five companies of varying sizes, operating on 3 continents serving various markets, they all shared a few surprising perspectives:

  • Communication skills trump technical knowledge
  • Passion and focus trump technical knowledge
  • Most companies have onboarding processes in place so they can hire the right people and train them up in Drupal as needed.

Granted, these observations could be a function of the shortage of experienced Drupal talent in the community, but it does say a lot about the approach some of the top companies are taking when recruiting.

Insightful Emissaries

Kim Pepper is co-founder & technical director of Australia's premium Drupal agency, PreviousNext. PreviousNext has been around for more than 5 years and employs about 22 people, about half of who work remotely. Kim explained that their new hires come from connections they make through the community, either through people they know, or those who attend and present at events. PreviousNext is continually looking for talent.

Steve Parks is managing director of the UK office of Wunderkraut, Europe’s largest Drupal Agency with more than 140 people spread over 9 countries. Each office of Wunderkraut has a different approach to traditional and virtual jobs. In London almost all work remotely. Wunderkraut also relies on DrupalCons and meetups to find their talent, but the London office is now looking to diversify, and experimenting with hiring those with skills outside of Drupal, and training them up. They have put a buddy system and a mentor system in place to assist with this new approach.

Mike Minecki is the director of technology for Four Kitchens where he leads and coaches the technical team. Twenty-two people work for Four Kitchens from their main office in Austin and remote locations, many of which are home-based, across the US, and most recently in Europe. Four Kitchens just finished up a round of hiring, and will likely be starting again soon. They use a 2-pronged approached to recruiting, with the first being from within the community through referrals and people they meet at Drupal events, and the second going outside the community and training up. Mike explains it helps to build diversity in the company, and gets them outside the very competitive Drupal hiring scene.

Eric Gaffen started his position as Global Manager of Talent Acquisition for Acquia just over a year ago when the staff was at 220 people. He’s been really busy, more than doubling the number of Acquians to 460 since then. Acquia’s main office is in Burlington, Massachusetts, with small offices in Portland, Oregon and Redding, UK. Acquia finds talent at events, has an employee referral program, and is also looking to overcome the Drupal talent shortage by going outside the Drupal ecosystem and training up non-Drupal developers by reviving their AcquiaU training program.

Nancy Stango, CEO of Blink Reaction, built her firm up from 16 people in 2009, to more than 80 at the time of DrupalCon, with sites set on a staff of about 120 by year’s end. Blink’s focus on finding passionate people who fit well into their culture is supported by a multi-pronged approach including the community, but more recently going outside of the community. Blink has in-house training programs for front-end and back-end developers. They rely on a very strong employee referral program, social media and word of mouth for recruiting.

Finders’ Keepers

A question from the audience about attrition opened up a discussion about each organization’s experiences, and provided the conclusion that really the best way to keep employees, is to hire people that are a good fit for the respective company’s culture. None of the companies formally measure their attrition rates, but most had a good idea of where they stood.

Blink Reaction still employs five of their original employees, and people leaving because of dissatisfaction is rare because, according to Nancy, finding the right people and maintaining a work environment that keeps them happy is a business priority. It is a main topic at every quarterly meeting to ensure that they maintain a fulfilling environment through the rate of growth they are experiencing.

At Acquia, attrition has historically been in the single digits, but they are naturally experiencing growing pains, having gone from less than 200 to over 400 employees in less than two years. Eric explained that the people who brought Acquia from small to medium, may not be the right fit to bring the company from medium to large; and some choose to move to a company they can be employee number 30 or 40 again. In addition the depth and breadth of the projects at Acquia provides employees with great experience, which often times make them a target for recruiters.

Attrition is also rare at Four Kitchens, according to Mike, and when it does happen, it is usually because it was not a good fit at the start, or someone leaves to start their own company.

Wunderkraut and its independent management teams do not have a corporate-wide human resources function, so they do not track attrition. With the merger of the smaller firms that make up the larger entity and culture, they have gone from needing site builders to more experienced coders to handle their enterprise clients.

Down under, PreviousNext, according to Kim, really puts effort into hiring the right people during the recruiting process, because hiring the wrong person is very expensive. They try to make sure the person is is a good fit for their culture, and once hired, they undergo continual reviews. They have the conversations to address the issues, even small ones, so everyone is comfortable and attrition remains low.

First Impressions

When asked about favorite interview question, most of the panel agreed that they were usually quite informal. Nancy likes to lead with questions so people reveal their passion. Steve’s interviews, some of which take place in pubs, are not in any set format. He likes to see where the conversation goes and hopes to get a true sense of the person, their professionalism and communication skills. Kim likes to ask about the person’s greatest challenges and how they overcame them to get a sense of how the person deals with problems. Mike’s favorite question is “after you press enter in the menu bar, what happens?” (He is looking for someone who is awed by the magic, but also demonstrates an in-depth understanding not specific to a framework.)

Red Flags

It is clear that passion and personality are key to opening the door at all of our panel companies, but what attributes, an audience member wanted to know, could potentially snap it shut? This was a surprisingly extended discussion.

Rock Star Egos

Mad skills are great, but companies want people to fit in. If you’ve got people who work alone a lot, they may not be good at communicating, working as part of a team or collaborating. Build experience with teams, talk about challenges that have been overcome.

Commitment Issues

If you’re resume shows a new job every 6 months, you might have a red flag.

No Knows

If you walk into the interview and don’t know about the company you are meeting with, you are not prepared. Read some blogs, know the goals and how they fit into the technology and demonstrate why you are excited to work there.

Finger Pointing

Talking about challenges at previous jobs is a good tactic to demonstrate how well you can overcome problems, but start blaming other people for failures usually means that will always be your answer for any problem.

Secret Code

For several of the panelists, code samples are key, whether they are Drupal related or not. We work in open source, so showing what you can do helps demonstrate your technical skills, but also your level of engagement with the community. Even if your code samples are the result of a hobby, if you feel nervous or are not comfortable, you have to get over it and share.
Code is the best judge of technical skills and determining how well you interact with the community. Recruiters will go to Github or Drupal.org to see samples of work. Make sure there’s some there. And patches count!

Pinball Wizards

The panel had a lot to say about people who apply for jobs that may have stellar technical skills, but major voids in communication abilities. Many feel communication is the greatest industry talent issue. Since Drupal is a group project, you have to be able to communicate effectively and work collaboratively. It’s not just about transmission with the recruiter, it’s about your track record and engagement.

Take a look at your footprint in the Drupal space. Do you have one? How do you report bugs and respond to bugs filed in issue cues? Are you positive, helpful and polite?

Don’t forget a cover letter. Most on the panel cited a lack of a cover letter as a big red flag. Four Kitchens requires one so that they can understand how the applicant communicates professionally. If the letter is a problem, there will not be an interview.

The interview is the first place to demonstrate your human skills, so get into it; be interested and curious and ask intelligent questions that will also give the interviewer insight into you. Don’t try to be slick, just be effective. Would this company want to bring you along to client meetings?

Some Bits

Lots of questions from the audience and our moderator brought out some points worth noting:

Breadth versus Depth

When it comes to technical skills, several of the panelists warn against hyper-focusing on your specialty in Drupal, or Drupal at all. You should strive to be open to learning about different technologies. It is important to be knowledgeable and passionate about your specialty, but don’t ignore other technologies and the changes and advances that are taking place. Showing an interest and ability to look beyond Drupal demonstrates that your interests are broad and your ability to learn is great.

The same goes for business acumen. Kim is especially impressed with junior developers who when asked what they are working on, describe the client’s project and its goals and then drill down into their role rather than describing just their narrow focus. Demonstrating that you have a big-picture understanding of the scope and challenges of projects beyond your task with can really differentiate you from other applicants. Mike took it further, stressing that the most successful people are those who understand not just the big picture, but are compassionate and respectful of the other parts of the project, from design to accounting.

The future of site builders

Site builders may not necessarily knows code, but they know Drupal. Most of the panel agrees that the role of site builders is changing. Pure site builders may not have a place at companies like those on the panel who are working on large, enterprise projects. For them, site building is a role, not a position. The jobs for pure site builders will be at generally smaller firms focused on small business web sites, and there is also tons of work and a lot of opportunities in that space.

Hero Support

The quest to find excellent support positions at the companies on the panel appeared to be almost as much of a challenge as finding Drupal talent. The hurdle is identifying people who are a good match to the passion and culture of the respective company communities. Recruiting for finance, office management and other business functions is generally through more traditional methods, since not too many accountants attend meetups.

Most agree that passion for their chosen field, along with integrity and intelligence is key, along with excitement about what the company is doing. Eric is excited by filling Acquia non-Drupal positions with people that he eventually hears evangelizing about Drupal. Mike agrees, noting that their passion for what they do also transfers into the overall work environment, and that’s what makes those people a good fit.

Blink goes as far as providing introductory training to non-Drupal hires so they will have a solid understanding of what the company does.

Kim wrapped up the discussion with a great visual concept that PreviousNext uses to hire for their small shop. They always go to people whose knowledge is “T.” They have broad knowledge of several things (the horizontal bar of the T) and also one thing that they are laser-focused on, with deep expertise and passion for (the vertical bar of the T).

Planting the Flag

Even with the unique knowledge requirements of Drupal careers; character, passion and ethics of the individual seemed to weigh heavily for all of the companies. In addition, those who are motivated to learn and make time for community involvement would seem to have a leg up in getting hired. It’s hard to hone in on a single message, but getting hired and staying employed is a function of who you are, how well you fit into a company’s culture, and what you want to get our of your career.

If you are looking to kickstart your drupal career, go to Drupal Career Online to learn more about DrupalEasy Academy's live, online career training session starting in September. 

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