Davis Baer

Host of Hacker Noon Founder Interviews

Startup Interviews: Nimrod Hoofien of Gusto

Nimrod Hoofien is the Head of Product Engineering at Gusto, the people platform that enables small businesses to pay, onboard, and insure their teams. Prior to Gusto, Nimrod led people engineering as Director of Engineering at Facebook.
 

What's your background, and what are you working on?

At heart, I’ve always been a problem-solver and a builder, which, looking back, are two fairly obvious traits of a future programmer. Yet, growing up in Israel, I wasn’t always 100 percent sure that engineering was the path I wanted to take. I’d done a bit of coding in high school, and I studied computer science in college.
But, for a little while, I seriously considered applying my problem-solving skills to pursue a career in law. 
Of course, the pull towards technology was too strong to ignore, and I wound up in California in 2002, right after the dot-com bust. I worked for a time at a Silicon Valley startup before heading up to Seattle to work on supply chain systems at Amazon.
Working there taught me a lot, especially about customer-obsession as a way of life. Afterwards, I worked for a string of startups until Facebook brought me aboard just as it was making the transition to mobile. I loved working on complex business and product interactions and turning them into simple and effective customer experiences.
After a three years I joined the People Engineering team where we worked to help scale Facebook’s culture and people practices. Looking back, the thing I’m most proud of is the rotational engineering program we set up to help coders with non-traditional background find their place at Facebook. 
After three months off, including my annual weeklong trip to Black Rock City, I started work at Gusto, the people platform that enables small business owners nationwide to pay, onboard, insure, and offer benefits to their employees.
Similar to what motivated me at Facebook, I’m eager to tackle the complexities of payroll, healthcare, tax code, and insurance, and funnel it all into an experience that feels natural to the people using our products.  

What motivated you to get started with your company?

Working for a mission-driven company is addictive and, also, contagious. Once you work for one, you can’t work for a place that values anything less. I was drawn to Gusto because of its emphasis on purpose-driven work. Our engineers here know they’re not here just to write code; they’re here to write code that matters and solve real problems for real people.
I was excited to find a cause I could really get behind—building a people platform that helps small business owners run their companies and create great places to work.
Setting the defaults correctly for small business owners, and getting them to the right starting point from the get-go, creates a ripple effect that will impact lives for years to come. 
I also really enjoy helping organizations shape and scale their culture. To me, that is the highest degree of organizational complexity, because the work you do there is what echoes and reverberates across an organization for years.
So far, I’ve been impressed with how thoughtfully Gusto approaches culture at scale, even during times of hypergrowth. 

What’s your favorite piece of advice? 

It’s funny, the other day, I played Baz Luhrmann’s “Everybody’s free to wear sunscreen” for my 10-year-old son. The part that resonated the most for me was the line that says, “Advice is a form of nostalgia.
Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it's worth.” 
So, my first piece of advice would is be careful with whose advice you buy. But, bearing that in mind, my core advice to engineers is always that people are people. And, no matter what technology we throw at them, people will always act like people—with their own feelings, emotions, motivations, and experiences.
That’s why a people-first approach to engineering is crucial. We can’t hide behind our code; we need to see outside our software, so that we build systems that enable people to behave like humans.
When you have empathy for your customers’ needs and circumstances, you not only care about the product you’re building, you care about the potential impact your product is capable of having—good and bad—even after it’s shipped.
For engineers just starting out, my advice is always: keep building. Don’t get distracted by anything that isn’t about building. Being a builder is always useful, even as engineers make the transition to leadership and other roles. The longer you stay actively building, the better you’ll be at empowering people. 
I’d also say, don’t get caught up in the hype of the Valley. It’s easy to get caught up in the flash of what’s “new, now, and next.” Building for Silicon Valley will get you a billboard along 101, but that’s about it.
In fact, it’s largely a waste of time, because Silicon Valley is not what the rest of the world looks like. If you really want to make an impact, and have an effect on the world, build to solve real problems for real people. 

How do you identify talent? 

When it comes to interviews with candidates, what I’m looking for is a spark. I love seeing evidence that somebody made a decision, or a career move, because they felt like they needed to do it—not just because they think it will look good on a resume, or it would impress a hiring committee.
These are people who felt a spark, and it propelled them to make a change. Case-in-point, one of the coolest coders I ever hired was a former CHP officer.
They didn’t plan on becoming a coder. But felt compelled to build something, so they joined a bootcamp and that’s how we found them. 
Usually, you get a sense of that spark in a candidate’s open source participation, or a job change, or through their volunteer work. But, you don’t really see it until you’re 1:1 with someone.
That’s why face-to-face interviews are so important. When I meet with a candidate, more often than not, there’s no white board involved. Instead, we’ll go on a walk so that I can try to get to know them and understand their motivations, and what they’re about.
To me, that illuminates the personality that a line of code never could.

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