On today’s episode of the RecruitingDaily podcast, we have Scott Willoughby, Chief Operating Officer at Brainium. We’ll discuss the future of hiring and what HR leaders can learn from the gaming community.
Scott has 15 years of leadership in mobile and digital product management, marketing, and brand development in consumer technology, entertainment, and gaming industries. For the past two years, he’s been with Brainium Studios, an extraordinary Software-Publishing Studio dedicated to creating games to challenge your brain, inspire your mind, and leave your face with a smile on it.
Today, Scott and I talk about Branium’s hiring process, how the future of hiring can benefit from the gaming community and teach HR a thing or two, and more. It’s a fun conversation!
Listen in and give us your thoughts.
Listening Time: 27 minutes
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Ladies and gentlemen. You’re listening to the RecruitingDaily podcast. This Is William Tincup. And we have Scott Willoughby on from Brainium. We’re actually going to be talking about a really fun conversation. So I’ve been looking forward to this podcast for a couple of days. The topic that we’re going to be going back and forth on is the future of hiring, what HR leaders can learn from the gaming community. And so Scott’s going to take us into that world a little bit.
And so without any further ado, Scott, why don’t you introduce yourself and also introduce Branium, if you don’t mind.
Absolutely, William, thanks for having me. I’m really excited to talk to you. Yeah, my name’s Scott Willoughby, I’m COO, chief operating officer, at Brainium studios. We’re a small, independent mobile game maker based in Portland, Oregon. The company’s been around since about 2008, started by two college friends who went to school here in Oregon and decided to start making games at the dawn of the app store in 2008. And we’ve grown ever since then.
I joined the company about two years ago and we’ve doubled in size since then. We doubled through the pandemic actually, did a lot of hiring during that. And it’s been a really exciting ride. The company’s continued to grow. The industry’s had a real explosion in interest in users, especially over the last year while people have been locked at home. So it’s been a great adventure and it’s been a really interesting ride and taking a very small company … When I started I was employee 14 and I think we just had number 35 join this week.
So we’ve been growing quickly, and especially doing it all remotely and through the pandemic has been a really interesting adventure, but it’s been a lot of fun finding and identifying ways to bring really unique, interesting and super talented people into a business that has a really interesting culture.
I Love that. What’s the hiring process look like for Branium?
Yeah, we’ve been using a lot of the typical tools in terms of job posting. We work with recruiters, external recruiters, sometimes to help source candidates. But, beyond that, once we actually get people in the pipeline, that’s where it gets a little bit interesting. I don’t think we look at candidates the same way a lot of companies do. I’m fond of saying we like to hire for potential rather than pedigree. So we don’t always look for, “How many years of experience do you have? What kind of education do you have?” We never include education requirements on any of our job posts at any level. And we really do look for people who express a sense of passion and interest and curiosity about the role, about the company, about the industry, and are really looking for opportunities to grow and be innovative.
So we get people in roles from really unusual backgrounds for our industry, specifically more broadly, the tech industry and technical roles. In fact, we have engineers that were English teachers. We have engineers that are completely self-taught. We have one person who joined recently whose background is actually a mechanical engineer. He just of got bored with that and started teaching himself how to code. And this is his first ever engineering job and he’s spectacular.
And it’s interesting to see that because what we found is that really focusing on that sense of curiosity and that passion about the field is a much better predictor of success for us than, as I said, pedigree, and I’m looking at somebody who might have a really top notch education and had many, many years of experience doing the same thing with a large company or something, hasn’t been a great predictor of somebody who’s going to fit, mostly because those people can often be very set in their ways, and we do things a little bit differently. I’m not an engineer, I’m not a technical person, but we have a really unique engineering culture. We have a really unique design culture, and we find that people who come in and are willing to try different things and may be informed by their past experience, but not beholden to it, tend to do much better with our company.
I like that. I liked that a lot. And there was a couple of words in there that keyed in on passion, curiosity, potentiality. First of all, how do you evaluate for that? Or how do you ask questions around that? Or how do you listen for the story, arcs coming out from candidates? So how do you cue into that? How are you hiring managers and those that are in the process? How do they listen for those keywords?
There are a few things: I think starting very early on in the process when we’re looking at resumes and looking at cover letters, this is a little bit old school, but we really look for things like, “How is your resume formatted? Are you paying attention to spelling and grammar? Did you write a cover letter that’s specifically for us? Right?
That sense of looking for people who are really interested in this company and this job and not just looking for a job anywhere is a really important cue for us. But then once we get people in, our hiring process is probably pretty extensive, especially for such a small company. Usually folks we’ll talk to, between five and eight people in the company, before they get an offer. And that’s at all levels, from their peers to folks in other departments who might not be super senior but have been with the company for a long time. We spend more time interviewing for culture fit than we do for technical skill in most cases.
And a lot of that is just through lots of conversations. In our more technical roles, engineering roles, there are certain engineering questions and tests that we have people go through to demonstrate competency, of course, basic competency, in how we do things, but really a lot more time is spent on evaluating for, how are they exhibiting creative thinking and interesting approach and a willingness to learn and a willingness to identify and figure out, what we refer to as Brainium solutions for problems, rather than typical solutions.
And you’re looking for diverse backgrounds. I mean, everyone’s looking everywhere. There’s, thankfully, a hundred years late, but we’re looking for more diverse and inclusive candidates. But you all take it a step further in that you’re looking for people from diverse backgrounds. You’re really, really, really pushing the envelope and trying to find folks with different types of backgrounds to … Again, you can teach them, you can teach them a lot of this stuff. Yeah, they have to have certain competencies, of course, but there’s a lot of this that can be taught.
Take us into that world. When you’re looking at someone’s background and they’ve got something that’s maybe atypical or, like me, I have a BA in art history. If I were to apply to Brainium, I’m sure people would probably ask the question, “How does A apply to B?” But take us into the diverse backgrounds part.
Yeah, absolutely. So there are a few things: one, I’ll say one of our co-founders, Jake, who’s the engineering head of the company, he has an uncanny knack. I don’t necessarily know how he does it, but he has an uncanny knack for spotting little things in people’s resumes or conversations with them that he’s able to just hone in on and say, “Maybe this person doesn’t actually have the right experience or maybe their skill level isn’t where we’d like it to be for this particular role, but there’s something about them that is really exciting and tells me they would be a really valuable person here.” So that’s a little bit of magic and I can’t explain it and I can’t teach it. So I won’t try to.
But what you’re talking about, you’re being in art history, and my background and my BA’s in communications and I have another one in biology and a master’s in film producing, but my career has developed in marketing and product management and now executive management. I’ve literally never taken a class or a course on any of those things. So what I think actually matters more for us and where I’ve seen real success, not just at Branium, but with people I’ve hired in other companies too, is finding someone who is really passionate about what they’re doing, has a really curious and creative approach to how they see the world and finds a way to build a discipline based on their strengths and their interests around the work they’re doing, right?
When I fell backwards into marketing in the tech industry, I had no training in marketing, but I did have training in film and it was an area I was passionate about, and what that really boils down to is storytelling. It was doing creative development in the film industry for several years. And that’s where I built my discipline from in the marketing space, was from a storytelling perspective. I still maintain, possibly incorrectly, but I’d like to believe it’s true, that I was probably one of the first people, if not the first person, to use the term brand storyteller and people used to look at me like I had lobsters crawling out of my ears. But now I feel I see it on resumes all the time. It’s a very common term as really having the storytelling discipline and connecting with users on that level has become stock in trade for marketers nowadays.
So it really is finding somebody who’s passionate about what they’re doing, and even if they don’t have the skill and the background and the “correct experience,” they’re really excited about it and they’re really going to take a unique approach. And that’s why we really try to hire for what we call diversity of thought, right? People from different backgrounds who are going to approach problems, somewhat typical problems, but from different ways so we’re not doing the same thing everybody else in the industry is doing. We’re not relying on the go-to or standard solutions for things. We’re really trying to look at a problem with new eyes and say, “Okay, what’s the best solution? What’s the right solution for our users and for our business and for our people to make this company and our products and our audiences really special and have the craft and attention and care that we like to put into everything we do?”
I love that. And I love that you bring things back to the Brainium way, because that’s been so far a theme that you bring things back to, “You know what? We’re not trying to be Amazon. We’re not trying to be … Pick another firm. We have a certain way and it’s got to fit us. But we’re looking for people that actually don’t fit us. We want some disruption. We want people with diverse backgrounds, diverse thought, et cetera.”
I know that coachability or the willingness to learn is also important to Brainium. So take us into that. How do you key in on that in either a resume or an interview or LinkedIn or something like that? How do you know if that candidate is really got an appetite for learning?
Yeah, that’s another interesting thing. So a lot of times, I think, typical recruiting processes, we’ll see career movement or career change as a bad thing or a yellow flag, if not red flag, for people. I actually like that. I like seeing people who’ve moved around to different places and had different roles in their career and tried different things because I think it really does speak to that element of curiosity and initiative and a willingness to try new things and new approaches.
When I see somebody who’s been at one company for their entire career, and we actually have some of those at Brainium. We have really great retention, so it’s not a knock against anybody, but it always raises that question of, “Are you leaving that role because you want to try something new and find a new way to do things or is this just a rote job change and you’re really locked into that way of doing things? Do you want a new experience, a new adventure?” And really that is one of the things that helps us out in that coachability, in that learning mentality, is people who are looking for a change and are looking for different things and that speaks back to that diversity of experience.
But within the company, we’ve built a really good culture of peer mentoring and peer coaching. We partner people with peers when they come into the company, regardless of how senior or junior they might be, more to learn our approach to thinking about things and our culture more than anything else. It’s not always about learning technical skills. It’s more about just learning the way we think. For the engineers, they do these great fun times every Friday, where a different person leads a class on a different element of engineering. It could be a new programming language or a graphics rendering thing or whatever. I could keep pretending to throw out technical terms that I understand, but I won’t. But they do that.
My team across operations, we meet and discuss areas of the gaming industry all the time. We have continuing education support programs for people. We encourage people. Last year has been a downtime because nobody’s been traveling, but we send people … Everybody gets to go to conferences and industry events every year, fully paid, travel included, just because we want people getting out and being involved with the industry, seeing other things that are going on, learning from peers in different parts of the industry and in related businesses so they’re always thinking about new and different ways to approach things, because even as we grow, we don’t want us to get stale in the way we’re thinking about approaching things and get too canned answers for things. We always want to be thinking about new approaches and fresh perspectives on how we can do things.
It’s very refreshing because … And, again, we’ll get to the post-COVID stuff, but I think it’s really refreshing because so many people look at training and learning that this is, “If I train them, then they’ll leave. Or if I send them to a conference and they learn something new or meet somebody new, then they’re going to leave.” And so it’s almost like they put up these walls around learning, training, development, et cetera. And you all have looked at that and said, “No, this is actually a retention tool. This is actually a way … This is a reason that …” I know you all have low turnover. You mentioned that you have low turnover and low turnover with engineers, in particular. I think it’s because … Well, at least that one thing drives that, is because you allow people, you not just allow or give them permission, but you really encourage people to go and learn.
Right. Right. And it’s interesting. I do agree. There are a lot of companies too who are a little bit afraid of that, right? “Lock your people down. Don’t let them see what else is out there.” Because there’s this spirit of, “Oh, if they get out in the world and see these other companies they’ll think the grass is greener and want to leave.”
I actually see that exposure as both a retention tool and as a recruiting tool in a lot of ways. As a COO my biggest things with Brainium are, one, making sure that this is just a great people for people to do the best work of their lives. And if there’s one wish I have it’s that everybody who joins this company, whether they’re with us for a week or their entire career, at the end of the day, they look back and say, “That was the best job I ever had. That was the best place I’ve ever worked. That was a really great supportive place.” And if somebody goes out and they’re experiencing and talking to other people and they see another opportunity that they want to try outside of Brainium, or they think the grass is greener, I want to know why. I want to learn that. I want to keep improving our company.
And as successful folks from Brainium do go out into the world eventually, none of them we have currently, but if ever that starts happening, that’s good for me. I want people to go out and I want us to have a reputation of, “Man, people who come out of Brainium are amazing.
They’re doing something right there. What can we learn from them?” And I really want that to be true. I want to believe it’s true.
Well, [Crosstalk 00:16:29].
There’s always a lot of growth we can have.
Oh yeah. And it’s also you create a great alumni network. If you create a great experience, the best version of them while they’re with you, then they go on and do something else, a they’ll have that thought about, “This was the best job,” but also they might come back. They might go out and do a tour of duty somewhere else and then go, “You know what? I really liked it. I had it pretty good. I want to go back.” And you know what? If they left on good terms and all that other stuff, they’d be welcomed back. And so I think, again, that’s a cultural thing. That’s something you set up from the jump and you also back it up.
Let me ask while we have you, because it’s important for the audience to understand the things that you get to see because you’re in a very, very specific industry and looking through a very specific lens. So within the gaming industry itself, take us into this world, because for most people listening this might not be their background. They might be in hiring or in HR, but they might not be-
… in the gaming industry in particular. What do you see coming out of college, when you see fresh grads coming out of college? It’s been such a weird 2020/2021, maybe even 2022, if they’re graduates, a weird time to evaluate fresh grads, but how do you all look at talent when they first come out, you get a resume for somebody from Cal Poly or wherever, what does that candidate look like? What do you think they’re great at? And what do you wish that maybe they would’ve gotten a little bit more of at college?
So there are a few things: so, one, we’ve got a lot of folks that have joined in the last year who are very recent college grads and we’re super fortunate. We have really talented people who, even as being very early in their career, some of them their first real post-college job they’ve ever had, their ability to step up and show leadership and initiative and really buy into our culture of self-motivation and ownership and initiative has been just super impressive to see. So I have hope for the new generation that’s coming out of college based on the folks that I’ve interacted with.
But we see a few things. There’s some very trendy development languages within gaming and a lot of times I think people in college who want to go into gaming, have a desire to go into gaming, we’ll try to follow those trends, particularly through AAA development, which is big games on consoles, The Call of Duties of the world and things like that, whereas we’re a little interesting. So we develop on a proprietary engine. We use C++, which is a fantastic coding language, but it’s not one that a lot of new grads are spending a lot of time-
… with necessarily. So we do find a lot of people will come in and there’ll be just super proficient in other languages, but have minimal exposure to C++. But we also have a pretty unique approach to using that language that’s been developed by our co-founder, Jake. So it’s helpful in some ways, right? So we really look for people who want to come in and are interested in that.
We’re also doing some really innovative stuff with another emerging programming language called Rust and that attracts a lot of people to us. It’s a very interesting cutting edge object oriented programming language that we get a lot of interest from our work in Rust. We have a couple of people who we’ve hired out of Rust communities online that Jake found in Rust communities that are great and doing really cool, exciting things with it.
So what we see are people who are really interested in doing fun and innovative and different things with their engineering career, rather than just getting a straight up coding job, want to be one of a million coders in a giant company.
They really want to come in and learn and have exposure to new things and be able to experiment and get a lot of really deep hands-on exposure to more senior people and people who are going to help teach them and educate them and partner with them to develop them. And I think what we see out of that is a level of leadership and ownership, even among really junior and really new employees that, in my experience, is really atypical and really special.
So when you look at … Because you keep your eye on candidates obviously apply maybe to a couple of different jobs and they hit your hiring process, it’s clearly different and unique. That’s obviously given you some insight into how other people recruit and maybe some of their processes or interviews or interview questions or the way they go about it. What are you … And not that you’d fix it. But what do you see other people doing wrong in their hiring of, especially technical talent?
Yeah, the biggest thing, to me, I think, is disqualifying the wrong people. I think … And it’s just true a lot for the larger companies especially that-
… just have so much brand recognition, they have such a massive pipeline of talent coming in and huge recruiting organizations. You got to filter people out some way. And I understand that. And I think the default ways to do that are educational requirements, years of experience, filtering for certain keywords. And I understand that there’s some efficiency there, but it also has a downside, and that is you get homogeneity of the people that are coming through, right? You get the same people coming through, the same educational background, the same experience, the same exposure to things, because that’s what you’re looking for.
And what that hurts is that diversity of perspective, that diversity of thought. I’ve worked at very large companies where I see just at certain levels of the company, it’s 95% MBAs out of four schools.
And that’s great, but what you’re doing is you’re completely eliminating really valuable perspective and really valuable talent that hasn’t had that opportunity, whether financially vocationally, socially, et cetera. And you’re also limiting yourself to a very narrow set of thought patterns and perspectives. I think that’s something a lot of large companies actually miss out on.
Now, we have the opposite problem that we’re a small company. We don’t have the same recognition as some of our very large local competitors for talent. So, for us, it’s a matter of getting the exposure and getting the pipeline and letting people who are looking for something a little bit different and a little bit more unique in their career, the opportunity to know we exist and know that we are open to talking to people from diverse backgrounds and diverse educational backgrounds and experiential vocational backgrounds. So that’s a challenge for us, but I think the flip side is the challenge for large companies that you can get very one note in the thinking that you bring into the company.
Love it. Last question, Scott. And I’m going to give you a magic wand. And you look at those source talent, those are the recruiters, anybody that helps in the recruiting process, the hiring managers, people that do interviews and candidates, if you could fix one thing … Again, you’ve got a magic wand, so you can fix anything. What would you fix in the hiring process if you could?
I think the biggest thing would be finding a way to get interesting roles in front of people. Yeah, it’s funny. Working in gaming, and especially in a company that is so predominantly ad- monetized within our games, I see the amount of time and talent and technology that goes into being able to match consumer ads to customers-
… very precisely, very, very accurately. I wish there was a … If I could wave a magic wand, I would have a system that put that rigor and AI and intelligence and algorithmic horsepower behind putting interesting jobs in front of interesting candidates-
… and pairing them up. So it’s not just a matter of the sheer size and overall brand power of a particular company that is the arbiter of who even thinks to apply to them and look at them.
I love that. And what I love about that just from a Branium perspective, but also from an industry perspective, it’s the old marketing axioms of right audience, right time, right budget, all of that other stuff. But you really made it even better by saying, “Interesting people, diverse backgrounds, interesting jobs, encouraging thoughtful people.” You know what? It’s not a mass deal. You’re not trying to put the job ad in front of 15,000 people or 15,000 engineers. “I can do that. But is it an interesting gig? And are we an interesting company and do we have an interesting background and philosophy and, oh, by the way, are they interesting?”
So I absolutely love that. And I’ve loved this topic and I appreciate your time so much because you’re carving out time to educate us and bring us into your world. So thank you so much, Scott.
Likewise, William. Thank you so much for having me. This has been a lot of fun. I really appreciate it.
Hundred percent. Thanks for everyone listening to the RecruitingDaily podcast. Until next time.
William is the President & Editor-at-Large of RecruitingDaily. At the intersection of HR and technology, he’s a writer, speaker, advisor, consultant, investor, storyteller & teacher. He's been writing about HR and Recruiting related issues for longer than he cares to disclose. William serves on the Board of Advisors / Board of Directors for 20+ HR technology startups. William is a graduate of the University of Alabama at Birmingham with a BA in Art History. He also earned an MA in American Indian Studies from the University of Arizona and an MBA from Case Western Reserve University.