About the Unemployable Series: Writer Katherine Karaus talks candidly to founders who never quite fit the corporate mold about their entrepreneurial journeys. First up, Jason Shen, Co-Founder of Headlight.
Katherine: What does your company do?
Jason: Headlight is a performance hiring platform. We partner with technology companies to support their technical screening efforts, and we run competitions that help companies identify talent that they may not have found otherwise. Interviewing involves a lot of technical assessment of candidates who end up not being a good fit. Your candidates are judged on a background-blind basis. The judges don’t know anything about degrees or previous work experience -- they just see the work. If the work looks good, that’s what really matters.
Companies are moving toward looking for ways to understand a person’s ability, but there aren’t many resources out there. It’s a new model of hiring, everything’s geared around the resume and bullet points of what you’ve done in the past. We need to create new systems if we’re going to talk about performance and ability in the present. That’s why we started Headlight.
Katherine: How does Headlight help fight unconscious bias?
Jason: A use case for us is screening technical roles, like data scientists or QA analysts, where women and minorities are underrepresented. We’ve developed small challenges and assignments, the candidate completes the assignment, and a network of experts review the work. All they get is a code-named individual (we use planets and stars from the Star Trek universe). They see the work, they use a rubric, and they evaluate the assignments on those criteria. They hand it back, and they know nothing about this person. Years of experience, man or woman. Our graders are trained to look for things that are relevant for that piece of work, so the results aren’t tainted by bias.
Katherine: Was Headlight inspired by your own work life?
Jason: It’s certainly inspired by my own job experiences. I was in marketing, and I was trying to move into product management. The people at my company were not having it. They were skeptical. There were 5 PM roles that opened up, so I was like, “Hey, Coach! Put me in!” I wrote up this whole 2-page thing about why I should be a PM. I tried to bring it to the founders, I tried to bring it to my manager to get the conversation going. They were like, “I haven’t seen you work with engineers.”
I had started my own company in 2011 (Ridejoy) where I worked with engineers. I was like, “You have to see it yourself personally in order to believe?” In order to transition into product management, I had to find another job. I ended up doing projects to show I understood the role and the company’s goals. For me it was always like, “Dont look at what I’ve done, look at what I can do. That’s what really matters.”
Katherine: How did you handle the frustration of being held back at work?
Jason: I usually do things on the side. I started a blog while I was at the first startup I worked with. That has always been a touchstone for me, to help me feel like I always had something that I totally owned for myself. That is what allowed me to cope in corporate environments. My Headlight cofounder was the same way. We were on the same team at Etsy, and I really saw something in him when I realized that he had bootstrapped a company on the side while working full time. I was like “Wow, that’s hustle. That’s really amazing.” It takes a special amount of drive to do something like that
Katherine: What advice would you give someone who’s frustrated at work?
Jason: You can’t take things personally. Everyone is trying to do what benefits them, what benefits the organization from their perspective, and is the least headache for themselves. It’s understandable and not malevolent...most of the time.
Your job is to prove value. Your job is to make it easy for them to say yes. It’s not always going to work out, but that doesn’t mean that you’re not good. Office environments have a lot at play. It’s not a straight meritocracy. The best person for the role doesn’t always get the role. If you can do your own thing, go for it.