Why Detroit Labs ditched cover letters to make hir...

Why Detroit Labs ditched cover letters to make hiring more equitable

"We know that part of the piece is bringing in diverse candidates in the first place. But then, it becomes about building an inclusive environment that those people want to stay in and be a part of."

The subject of whether or not cover letters matter—or should matter—is the subject of debate in some recent internet forums. Since the pandemic shut us inside last March, I’ve seen no less than 5 heavily engaged discussions on the topic in my social media feed.

People who swear by cover letters assert that they’re what set your application apart when candidate qualifications are all the same. People who are fine seeing them go argue that cover letters help sustain the professional status quo and don’t nurture the development of a diverse workforce. What I’ve found most striking in the cover letter debates is the engagement from people who not only believe cover letters don’t matter, but have found ways to disregard them entirely. 

Erika Languirand is vice president of people development at Detroit Labs, a custom software development company that launched in 2011 and is based downtown. The company doesn’t consider cover letters or resumes from candidates in its hiring process. I spoke to Languirand about why Detroit Labs created a nontraditional hiring process for their company, how doing so has increased workforce diversity and her advice for replicating the process in your workplace.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Blend: Why has Detroit Labs eliminated cover letters from the hiring process?

Languirand: None of the applications for any of the roles at our company involve cover letters. Our onsite business unit, where our team members work directly at client centers, often requires resumes specifically because our clients require resumes, but in general, for our main business unit services, we don’t require a resume either.

We’ve never required cover letters—ever. Instead, we have applications called a GTKY, “Getting To Know You,” and it’s named for the thing that we intend to get from it.

I’m of the opinion that, for the most part, a cover letter just tells you how good a person is at writing cover letters. Every once in a while in my career, I’ve seen some really beautiful and creative ones, but writing a cover letter is a skill like anything else. It’s not a skill everyone gets to develop, and it’s not one that tells me how skilled you are in the job that I want you to do.

Tell me about the GTKY. Where did it come from and how does it help you discover how skilled someone is for the job you want them to do?

Our cofounder, Nathan Hughes, created our GTKY and it used to be that everybody, for every role, filled out the exact same one. The intention was to get a sense for who somebody is and what they might bring to the company. We don’t look for “culture fit,” we look for “culture add,” so we want to know what somebody can bring. It’s hard to tell that from a standard cover letter. It’s very hard to get that from a resume.

On the GTKY, we ask a lot of behavioral and storytelling questions. For example, “tell us about a time that you failed and what you learned from it.” Or, “tell us something that you’re passionate about.” Or, “tell us about the last thing that you studied and got good at, and why you picked that thing.”

There are also some general questions about where you’ve worked, what kinds of projects you’ve been responsible for and what you’ve learned from those experiences. We’re a company that is very learning-centered, so a lot of our questions get at that value. 

We’ve found that the GTKY lets us get a sense for who a person is—which is really important to us—and lets us assess things like judgment and self-awareness and all of these things that you don’t usually get from cover letters or traditional applications.

With this initial phase of the hiring process, how successful have you been in attracting talent that you want to keep and that decides to stay?

Our retention is through the roof. When people come, they stay. I’ve been at Detroit Labs for eight years this summer and 30% of our company has been with us for 5 years or longer. We’re only 10 years old. We also don’t do a lot of terminations or involuntary separations. So, in general, the process has been very successful for us. 

That’s also the case with our Apprenticeship program in which we bring in people who don’t have any prior development experience. That’s where hiring is an even bigger risk because we’re evaluating people who don’t even know if they like doing this work, but we’re agreeing to try to figure out if they can be successful in it. 40% of our current team is actually made up of former Detroit Labs apprentices.

We’ve kept hiring this way because it’s kept working for us. And, I think it’s brought some people in the door who would have been weeded out in a traditional cover letter and resume process.

Can you tell me more about that? I’d like to hear about a candidate you hired who you believe would have been weeded out if you hired in a more traditional way.

Yeah, actually there was an apprentice candidate whose background was selling phones for T-Mobile. So, all they had was a sales background. They had no technical background at all. If I were only able to consider their resume, there would have been nothing on it to indicate that they could be successful as a developer. But their GTKY was really thoughtful. In it, they were able to say, “I don’t have any experience, but I’ve taken online classes, learned and tried to teach myself these skills because I’m so excited about them. And, they talked about their learning process, self-awareness and work ethic. In the GTKY, all of these things show up. That person was one of the most successful apprentices we’ve ever had. They actually moved on to a leadership role in our company.

Do you feel like the GTKY hiring process you’ve described can be replicated at companies outside of the tech space, or is it something that’s best for your industry?

I think it can absolutely be replicated. Seeing people for people in a whole picture that they can bring to a company is something any company can do if they want to.

What other parts of your hiring process exist? Say for instance, another company’s leader is reading this and wants to know how to overhaul their hiring process. Is the GTKY all they’ll need or is there more you all are doing to find and retain talent?

The process definitely used to be pretty fast and loose when everybody filled out the same GTKY. Now though, we have a different GTKY for each role. They are specifically designed to tap into the success criteria for the role. We know that developers need to be quick learners, really gritty and willing to be wrong 80% of the time. Delivery leads or project managers need to be really organized and excellent communicators.

So, we look at what the key skills are for each role and then we put those in the job description. Then, the GTKY questions are designed to get at those skills.

It sounds like you’re saying that your process is able to be what it is because you’ve been around for a while now and have gotten the data on what it takes to be successful in each role, thereby enabling you to create a strong roster of GTKYs.

Yes. The hiring process has to be a living process. Our hiring process this year has been largely revamped to be more equitable. We thought, we don’t want there to be hidden requirements in here.

One thing I didn’t mention is that anybody in our entire company has the opportunity to evaluate GTKYs for candidates. We don’t have a specific hiring team right now. What that also means is that we have to be very clear about what the criteria are that we’re looking for. We provide score cards to GTKY evaluators that show the points to evaluate on and give examples of what we’re looking for. We want to make sure we’re clear about how to evaluate the GTKY to make the process as equitable as possible.

That’s remarkable. You said that anyone in the company can evaluate any GTKY? It’s not just developers who read potential developer GTKYs or project managers who read potential project manager GTKYs?

Yes, that’s right. Anyone in the company. If I’m a developer, I can look at project manager GTKYs.

Erika Languirand is pictured in a quote block that says, “Our intention is to get a sense for who somebody is and what they might bring to the company. We don’t look for culture fit,’ we look for ‘culture add,’ so we want to know what somebody can bring. It’s hard to tell that from a standard cover letter. It’s very hard to get that from a resume.”

Why do you do that?

Initially, it was because we were a very small startup and figured, “Hey, there’s 10 of us; we should all have a say in who joins the team.” I don’t know that we really intended that to last until we grew to the 150-person company we are today, but we found so much value in it. People have such different perspectives. And the way our teams work, they’re clustered around projects, so pretty much everybody still has to work together at various points during their time at the company.

So to us, having junior developers help choose the senior developers who will coach them or having a quality engineer say, “This developer said they think that quality assurance slows the process down, so we might not want that,” is something we believe offers a lot of value.

And frankly, we have a very diverse team and sometimes, unfortunately, red flags pop up in the applications and team members who are from marginalized groups or who have had much different lived experiences have the ability to say, “That’s coded language and I don’t feel comfortable with that.” We take that very seriously.

You mentioned that you have a very diverse team. What does that mean for Detroit Labs? Tech still seems, to an outsider like me, to be a field most amenable to young white men. So, what does it look like at Detroit Labs in terms of gender, race, socio-economic background and other things like that?

We do an anonymous, internal survey where we ask people to self-identify across all kinds of metrics, not just gender and race, but also religious background, sexual identity and a few more so that we can get a sense of our team. The two I can give you certain numbers on are gender and race.

Our team is 40% women, non-binary or gender nonconforming, and 35% of our team identifies as non-white.

Candidly, we started out as a very white male company, just like most tech companies founded in the 2010s. I was only the second woman developer to be hired. The big thing that shifted us was our apprenticeship program. 

The apprenticeship doesn’t require that candidates have a computer science background, which itself is a very specific set of people. So, because the applicant pool is diverse, the classes are diverse. With the addition of our apprenticeship program, we went from a team that was 2% people of color and 5% women to the numbers that we have today. 

Of course now, not all of our hires who are not white men come through the apprenticeship. But, the apprenticeship program helped us by turning us into a company where you could walk in the door and not just see white men.

Is the level of diversity you’ve noted at Detroit Labs radically different from companies of similar size in the tech space?

I don’t know numbers for the industry, but I know they’re not good. Most of the numbers that are available are from giants like Facebook, Google and Apple. They’re not really comparable to a 100-person tech company and 100-person tech companies don’t really publish their numbers. I suspect that’s because the numbers aren’t great.

In my experience, there’s always a first Black person or woman, or in my case in places I’ve worked, the only Black woman, who calls attention to the fact that no one is talking about homogeneity in the workplace as a problem. Does Detroit Labs as a company instigate and encourage uncomfortable conversations about the social inequities that create the overwhelming whiteness and maleness that exists in the tech industry?

Absolutely, in hiring and across the board. We know that part of the piece is bringing in diverse candidates in the first place. But then, it becomes about building an inclusive environment that those people want to stay in and be a part of. 

At Detroit Labs, we have a JEDI coach. JEDI is an acronym for Justice Equity Diversity and Inclusion. Part of their job is to continually have those conversations with the team, facilitate those conversations, and help bring in education, but everybody in our People Ops leadership team is involved in personal development around JEDI work. Anti-racism work this year has been a particular area of focus. We also have a JEDI Slack channel where people can discuss thoughts and issues. It’s very much an open topic of discussion.

This story is from The Blend, a digital magazine for Detroit women to find inspiration, advice and resources, while connecting with an inclusive community of women dedicated to supporting each other.

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Courtney Wise Randolph is a native Detroiter with a heart for people and their stories. A WDET Storymakers Fellow, she also writes for nonprofits and individuals through her small business Keen Composition.