Richard Sheridan likes to talk about joy and why software development can be such a joyless occupation. Programmers sit for hours in their lonely cubicles. Companies, meanwhile, must wrangle "hero" developers—individuals who alone on staff are proficient in some crucial area and whose absence slows production to a crawl. After losing his vice president's job at a Web development company in a downsizing, Sheridan joined with James Goebel, Robert Simms, and Thomas Meloche to launch Menlo Innovations with the goal of creating a workplace in which everyone (not just programmers) works together on everything. "Constant collaboration means we are constantly transferring knowledge to one another," says Sheridan. "I grow my team an inch every day."
The job applicants, 22 of them, start to assemble a few minutes before 4 p.m. They press sheets of paper bearing their names to their chests, mug-shot style, while Carol Sheridan, Menlo Innovations's floor manager, snaps their pictures. Everyone finds seats at one of six long tables as Richard Sheridan and James Goebel, two of Menlo's four co-founders, semaphore for attention at the front of the room.
Sheridan delivers the introductory spiel: "Welcome to extreme interviewing. We don't ask any questions here. This is not about what's on your resumé. This is our best attempt to figure out are you a good fit for our culture." Then Goebel lays out the process. The group will be divided into pairs, and each pair will be given an exercise typical of the kinds of work done at Menlo, a custom-software firm whose clients include Domino's, the University of Michigan, and Thomson Reuters. The pair will have 20 minutes to work on the exercise, while a staff member observes their interactions. At the end of 20 minutes, everyone will get new exercises, new partners, and new observers. Twenty minutes later, they will switch for a third time.
"This is not about getting the right answer," says Goebel. "The thing that you will be evaluated on is whether you bring out all the best qualities in your partner. Your job is to make the other applicant look as good as possible."
Goebel pairs off the applicants, who are vying for jobs in several functions. The most successful pairs quickly fall into a rhythm, passing their lone pencil back and forth to take turns marking the paper.
Leaning back in his chair, the facilitator scribbles notes on a form attached to a clipboard. At the 20-minute mark, Sheridan halts the proceedings. Everybody moves.
If Menlo Innovations were a restaurant, extreme interviewing would be its signature dish. The practice distills the creators' intent. One bite, and you know whether or not you want to eat there.
The company prizes collaboration above all things, because that is what employees do all day, every day. Nearly everyone at Menlo works in pairs. Two people share a single computer, passing the mouse back and forth while brainstorming ideas and double-barreling problems. Pairs stay together for a week. On Mondays, they all switch, like dancers in a Jane Austen novel. Employees start fresh not only with new partners each week but also, in many cases, with new pieces of a project or a new project altogether. There's a little bit of a learning curve with every change, but the new person brings a fresh perspective to the proceedings.
"Just the act of one person bringing the other up to speed, saying things out loud, brings out things people hadn't noticed before," says Sheridan. "That makes them smarter." The variety of partners and tasks also keeps energy high. That's important, because some of Menlo's projects take years to complete and could potentially burn people out.
Such close and consistent collaboration means cultural fit is beyond imperative. Menlo's elaborate hiring process is designed to ensure no one comes on board unless everyone on staff is happy to have the person. After extreme-interviewing sessions, which usually take place twice a year, staff members collectively decide which applicants to invite back. Those chosen spend a day at Menlo working, for pay, on real projects and partnering with two employees. The best of that bunch return for three-week trials.
By 6:30 p.m., the candidates have gone, and Menlo's staff members convene around a long table. As they chew on tacos, Lisamarie Babik, whose title is Menlo Evangelist, projects pictures of the candidates on a screen to remind everyone who is who. As she reads out each name, the three employees who observed that candidate's sessions thrust their thumbs up, down, or sideways. Candidates earning three thumbs-ups or three thumbs-downs require no discussion. Most, however, inspire animated debate.
A couple of days later, an applicant named Laura Willming raves about the event and confesses that she has what she calls a "company crush" on Menlo. "What I found the most interesting," she says, "was the response from the other interviewees. I was excited about Menlo, but they seemed relieved. As if they were forever free from the chains of bad treatment, sterile work relationships, and inhibiting day jobs. Is it really that bad out there? It makes me fear to venture to companies beyond this one."
Willming doesn't have to worry. She got three thumbs-ups.
Thanks to Leigh Buchanan / Mansueto Ventures LLC. / Inc.