AMA with Greg Coburn, Director of Talent at Toptal

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Last updated: May 7, 2020
(Scroll down to see the transcript from the session)

We're pleased to welcome Greg Coburn, Director of Talent Screening at Toptal for our next AMA!

Toptal helps freelance software developers, designers, product managers, project managers, and finance experts find their next best opportunity at top companies from around the world. For years, Toptal has thrived as the world's largest fully distributed workforce, boasting over 4,000 individuals working remotely from over 100 countries with no physical office.

As Toptal's Director of Talent Screening, Greg is responsible for managing the talent screening team, who assesses the skills and expertise of applicants to Toptal's Talent Network. Before Toptal, Greg worked at Rackspace, where he held many roles in product and operations. In those roles, Greg concentrated on process improvement and automation driven by data analytics and insights. Greg also has experience in the telecommunication industry, where he led an international team in designing and building a proprietary workforce management system. Greg graduated from Texas A&M University with a BS in Finance.

Job hunting and finding remote work isn't always a cakewalk and with the added layer of the pandemic, we empathize that it's even harder right now. Please take this opportunity to ask a true hiring expert about what today's remote companies are looking for when hiring for technical roles.

If you're not a member of our Slack community yet, you can join here.

Be sure to save the date and come prepared with your questions. If you can't make the AMA, we'll be transcribing the session into a blog post.

Find Greg on LinkedIn:

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Transcript from the AMA

Justine Shu
Welcome to our second AMA with Greg Coburn, Director of Talent Screening at Toptal 👏

If you haven’t yet, please review the guidelines for the AMA that’s pinned to this channel.

Greg, I know you have a lot on your plate, so thank you for being here and taking the time to connect with the WWR community.

Passing it over to you folks!

Greg Coburn
Hi everyone I am excited to be here.   I look forward to answering any questions you may have about freelancing, working remote or Toptal.  Let’s get things kicked off.

Question 1
Hi Greg! I wanted to ask what you perceive as the most valuable skills remote workers should have and how you identify them from applicants' CVs/cover letters

Greg Coburn
Great question!  At the top of the list is communication; to be an effective remote worker you must be able to effectively communicate with team members or clients.   I would say the second is flexibility.  Working remote provides great flexibility to you but you also must be flexible to accommodate the needs of the business.

As for identifying these traits at Toptal, we don't solely rely on a resume or cover letter to assess these skills.  We have a comprehensive process that tests different areas of a talent's abilities including tests, projects, and problem-solving sessions.

Good communication doesn't seem like the kind of thing you can tell until you have spent sufficient time with the candidate. How do you test if a remote worker is good at effective communication?

Can you elaborate on what you mean by being flexible? I assume that you manage many remote workers from different time zones, so what do you take into consideration that helps you decide if a remote worker is 'flexible' or not?

Greg Coburn
I agree that getting a full sense of someone's communication level takes time, however, we can get a pretty good sense of their style as they move through our screening process. In addition, as our talent are engaged by our Matching team, their interactions and communication are also evaluated.

Toptal is a fully distributed team,  I have team members across the globe which means the traditional 8-5 workdays is not really an option.   It's important to find a balance, but remaining flexible is also needed since working remote often means you're not in the exact timezone of the company/client you are working for.

In regards to flexibility, I am sure you may work on multiple projects spanning multiple time zones. When you ask a potential candidate "How flexible can you be?" What are you looking to hear?

Greg Coburn
When placing a candidate, that is usually determined by the client.  In most cases, they ask for a certain number of hours that overlap their main timezone.

Question 2
Can you give an example for a strategy in your candidate screening to figure out, if a person is a great fit for a remote workplace?

Greg Coburn
I mentioned before communication and flexibility are important, however, another area is the person's passion and enthusiasm for what they are working on.   When someone is working on something they care about it shows, and these individuals can work remotely effectively without requiring someone looking over their shoulder.

Question 3
For non-developer remote positions, such as IT Project Manager or Product Manager, what is most important when considering bringing that person into Toptal? The name recognition of companies they have been at and products they have worked on or specific traits or skills? Something else?

Greg Coburn
Great question.  Our clients seek out Project Managers and Product managers who have to lead an entire project end to end and delivered great results.  In most cases, they are looking for individuals who can hold their own in an executive meeting.  Every client is unique so having relevant experience in the industry of the client is also critical.

Question 4
What’s your opinion on PMP certification?  Is it a requirement for your project/program managers?

Greg Coburn
Certifications like PMP are great to reference on your profile and in some cases, clients have specific requirements for these.  However, they are not required and many clients would rather see relevant employment history or projects that align with the problem they are trying to solve.

Question 5
What if any barriers are there for cross-border remote work... for example Canadians seeking US positions?

Greg Coburn
This question highlights one of the great advantages of remote work, in that companies are not constrained by geographic borders to locate talent. If you are an SMB company in a small town without a major tech presence your talent pool would be severely limited and you may have trouble finding talent for your open position.  Conversely, if you're a very talented developer in Croatia your local job market to work for Fortune 500 companies or tech startups would also be limited.

Thanks Greg... So work visa and the like are not a requirement?

Greg Coburn
Not unless a client requires an onsite presence, but in most cases working remote is all that the client requires.

Question 6
What are the top 3 common mistakes you see candidates make when job hunting and/or applying for positions?

Greg Coburn
Great question:
  1. Assuming the first person who reads your resume will connect all the dots between your work history and current role.  In most cases someone / a program is scanning through dozens or hundreds of resumes for an open position. Make their jobs easier by calling out or highlighting relevant job experience.
  2. Not having results-based job records in your resume.   Unless you're moving to the exact same role in another company, most employers will not be familiar with industry jargon.  Instead focus on results that are widely accepted like cost saving in $, automation that eliminated wasted time in minutes/hours, etc. 
  3. The last would be Energy.   You are selling yourself, be excited about the role your applying for.  I have had many candidates look amazing on paper, but once you interact with them, you are left feeling drained of energy. 

In regards to #2, I always find it hard to find out how a developer is supposed to measure results based job records on a resume. Finding out how much money I saved a company, or how much wasted time I have eliminated isn't very intuitive. Are there any results based records that you commonly see on a developer resume that stands out to you?

Greg Coburn
You can also show results on modernizing an application or building a mobile app, referencing increased usage of the application or number of new users.   The idea is to showcase a measurable improvement from your efforts which can be understood by anyone.

Question 7
Besides REACT/PYTHON what are the other technologies that are in hi demand on the platform? If you would start studying today what would you study first?

Greg Coburn
In addition to React and Python, we are also seeing high demand for JavaScript, Node.js. Vue.js, Ruby on Rails, and React Native.

If I started studying today I would choose React Native, not only due to the demand for the skill but also because of how interesting the projects are.

Question 8
In your experience would you say that a developer who may have mediocre hard-skills (like how well they can code) but have excellent soft-skills (very flexible, excellent communication) still have a fair chance to be hired? Does a developer even have a chance of being hired if they are lacking in either hard or soft skills?

Greg Coburn
Of the thousands of applications that Toptal receives every month, typically fewer than 3% of people are accepted. Hitting 3% is not a specific goal, but it demonstrates that we have a rigorous process that enables us to hire the best talent globally, no matter where they might live.  As part of that, we heavily test for both skill level and communication/ other soft skills.

Justine Shu
We’re at time now —  thank you to everyone who participated, great questions.

Thank you, Greg, for providing your insights here, super valuable and helpful! Any last words?

Greg Coburn
Thank you for hosting, I enjoyed getting to discuss these topics.   I believe this is very relevant given the current situation of COVID-19.  While COVID-19 forced many organizations to go remote, we believe many companies will realize the benefits remote work provides to both the organization and employees, and that they will adopt more flexible work models in the future. Even if companies don’t make a full shift to remote work, they’ll need to have a remote strategy in place to position themselves for success in the case of future disruptive events.

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