If you are a leader in engineering, hiring is one of your most important responsibilities. It can also be one of your most demanding tasks. It can be challenging and expensive to attract talented engineers that meet your qualifications and are a good fit for your organization.
Have you ever considered looking outside of your traditional hiring pipelines to find engineers; perhaps inside your own company? There are people you see every day who don’t yet have the title of engineer but are ready and willing to learn. Here at Eventbrite, we’ve had several folks move from our customer support teams to engineering. We’ve found that high performing customer support representatives (CSRs) have skills well suited to engineering.
In January, I wrote How To Move From Customer Support to Engineering in 5 Steps. I promised to follow up with a post for leaders in engineering who want to support these career moves. Read on to discover how to find the best QA engineers for your team.
Customer Support Representatives make excellent QA Engineers
At Eventbrite, we’ve observed that roles in Quality Assurance (QA) are a good fit for those coming from customer support. Here are four reasons why you should take a closer look at your hidden talent pool.
When I was in customer support, I would invite software engineers to sit next to me to shadow my calls with customers. One time, a customer called in to get help using a particular feature. During the call, the software engineer observed the customer’s difficulty with the feature because of a small UX flaw in the product. After the shadowing session, the engineer immediately went to his desk to fix the flaw. He saw firsthand the customer’s pain and did not want any others to suffer the same way.
This type of customer empathy helps build delightful, user-friendly products. However, encouraging customer empathy among development teams can be difficult. Most software engineers don’t have the time to talk to customers or to shadow your support team’s calls.
Folks from customer support speak with customers every single day to help them understand how to use your product. They have built a wealth of knowledge about all the various user flows, edge cases, and sticky situations your customers encounter. They have spent hours teaching a customer how to use the more difficult parts of your product, and have been on the receiving end of a tirade from an angry customer encountering a bad bug. Finally, they know what makes your customers happy and what makes them want to search for a competitor.
This profound amount of customer empathy makes people in customer support exceptionally well equipped to help improve your product. Why not give them a voice by hiring them into a software development team? There they can recommend product solutions and suggest changes in project requirements. Their inclusion will help to create delightful experiences the first time around, not only after hearing user feedback.
CSRs are complete experts in your product. Just as they know your customers, they also know your product through and through. They know all the quirks, nuances, and flaws — and how to work around them. Many CSRs have your product entirely memorized too. I once saw a CSR walking a first time customer through their account. She was guiding them on setting up their first event page and how to use our advanced features. She did this all while walking around the office with no computer screen in front of her. She relied only on her memory to lead the customer step by step through links, pages, forms, and buttons to publish their event. She knew the product inside and out.
This deep product knowledge makes CSRs excellent at identifying test cases. They are especially good at finding test cases that your software development teams might otherwise have found as critical bugs in production.
Critical thinking skills
Most folks in customer support don’t have degrees in computer science, but what they do have is a unique strain of troubleshooting expertise. CSRs often have to think of solutions and workarounds to appease a customer on the spot. Picture this: a CSR is on the phone with a client who is experiencing a bug. A thousand people are waiting impatiently to get into the event. Even in this high-stress situation, the CSR can calm the customer while searching for a solution to the issue. This way of working requires a particular type of critical thinking skill that doesn’t bend under pressure.
Another benefit of this expertise is an unparalleled ability to anticipate problems proactively. CSRs have seen every manner of bug, design flaw, and user error in the past; they can help your development teams anticipate these problems when building new features so that you can develop a firm foundation for your product.
It’s easy to hire CSRs to engineering
Hiring someone from customer support into engineering is so much easier than hiring externally. You don’t have to go through a lengthy and expensive hiring cycle. You know that the candidate is a good fit at the company because they already work there. Moreover, you won’t have competing offers from other companies to entice your candidate away from you.
While it is easier to recruit internally, there are a few things you should consider when trying to attract talent from other parts of your organization into engineering.
Provide learning opportunities to those outside engineering
Many people outside of engineering want to learn coding basics, but they might not know how to get started. When I was in customer support, Eventbrite offered me the opportunity to take a very basic online HTML course which sparked my interest in programming. It also recharged my commitment to building my career at Eventbrite after I felt it slow down after some time in my role in customer support.
Encourage tangential work
These are tasks that are just outside the scope of your regular assigned role. As a CSR tangential work for me was anything that wasn’t answering phone calls and emails. I was able to triage bugs, which exposed me to our internal tools as well as SQL, databases, logging, and even the command line interface. As a QA Engineer, my tangential work was finding ways to start to make an impact in the code. I started to fix small bugs, write Python scripts to automate bug statistics, and pair program with my teams on building small features. This work wasn’t in the job description for my QA role, but it helped keep me engaged at work. These bite-sized opportunities were an excellent way for me to try out a software engineer role. Switching from customer support to full-time software engineer seemed impossible, but by taking on these bite-sized pieces of work, I was able to build experience and interest in the career path.
It’s also important to note that you should provide opportunities for people to do this work during their work hours rather than expect them to work overtime or outside of work. Reward high performers with 10% of their work hours spent on tangential work. By encouraging this type of behavior in your company culture, you’ll see greater retention of employees. High performers will choose to look for internal moves that align with their career growth rather than look externally.
Reach out to high performers in other roles
Your coworkers on the other side of the office may not know that opportunities in engineering exist for them. They may not know that you are willing to hire people into engineering without a technical degree; that was the case with me. I learned that you could be an engineer without a technical degree for the first time at a Girl Geek Dinner. At the event, I heard a software engineer speak about her experience moving into engineering from customer support at her company. My mind was blown; before this, it had never occurred to me that this was even a possibility.
Spread the word by proactively reaching out to high performers to gauge their interest in a career change. Assure them that they would be well supported in this transition along the way. Make sure you have a plan for how to onboard them and provide them with a mentor (check out our resources on the topic here, here, here, and here).
You might be wondering if all of these benefits are worth the risk of hiring someone who doesn’t have previous experience in a QA role. I’ll let our VP of Engineering, Galen Krumel, sum up why it’s a lower risk to hire a QA Engineer internally from customer support than it is to hire one externally:
“Working on the front lines and helping customers solve their most difficult problems is a challenging job. You can only really be successful at this if you are passionate about the customer experience, understand the product deeply, and are driven to solve difficult problems. These are the exact same traits that we look for when hiring QA Engineers. And when they’ve already established a track record of getting things done, and have a strong set of relationships inside the company, it takes away nearly all of the risk of hiring an unknown entity from the outside.”
Beyond being less risky than hiring someone from the outside, looking inside your company to find engineers can be far easier and more cost-effective than looking externally. Also, as we’ve learned, customer support representatives hold an abundance of knowledge about your product and customers. High performing CSRs will look elsewhere if their company doesn’t keep them challenged and some studies even show that average CSR turnover is between 30-45%. If these CSRs leave your company, they take all of the invaluable knowledge about your customers with them (and potentially to your competitors!). Keep that knowledge with your company; even better, retain that customer-centric knowledge within your engineering team where it will be put to good use as you build your product.
Do you have experience hiring engineers from other departments at your company? Let us know in the comments below or reach out on Twitter (@snazbala).