Recruiting Q&A: IDEO

The product-design company's director for recruiting describes how its teamwork structure attracts passionate people who think outside of the box

Be ready for a Finger Blaster war if you happen through the Palo Alto (Calif.) office of product-design company IDEO. At any given time, a handful of staffers may grab their Blasters -- toy slingshots that shoot foam rockets -- and ambush each other. "You've got to watch it," jokes Beth Strong, IDEO's director for recruiting.

With 350 employees in 10 offices worldwide, IDEO has developed some of the most innovative product designs in the past two decades, including the Palm V, insulin pens for Eli Lilly, Polaroid's I-Zone instant camera, and Crest's stand-up toothpaste tube. Designing cool stuff is the job of a diverse corps of professionals: mechanical engineers, graphic designers, ergonomics specialists, sociologists. Last year, the private company posted $60 million in revenue. Business Week Online Reporter Jennifer Gill recently spoke with Strong about the company's hiring practices. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:

Q: How many people did you hire in 2000, and what's your expectation for this year?


We hired about 80 people worldwide last year. In terms of exact numbers that we're looking [to hire] over the next year -- that isn't the way we think. We'll only grow as quickly as we can find people who are great at what they do and are a good cultural fit at IDEO.

Q: What do you look for in candidates?


They have to be able to think outside of the box and learn extremely quickly. We don't look for specialists. We look for people who can work across industries and think on their feet. They also have to be really good at working with people in other disciplines. We can't have an engineer who doesn't get the aesthetic or understand design.

Q: Describe the recruiting process, please.


People are hired by their peers at IDEO. A mechanical engineer who comes [for an interview] may meet 12 to 15 people. [Candidates] bring in [examples of] work they've done, things that they are passionate about. They need to be passionate about cool stuff. They have to get excited when they're talking about what they've made and what they want to make. It's easy to evaluate them when you get them in a room with a bunch of people who feel the same way.

After that meeting, we all get together within a day, sit down, and just talk. And we ask [each other]: "Can you see working with this person? Are they going to bring a lot of value to this team?" [The decision] almost has to be unanimous that this is a person who is going to bring a lot of value to us, and they're going to get a lot of value out of what we do.

Q: Do employee referrals account for a large percentage of your hires?


I would say maybe 40%. When cultural fit is so important, if you have people within the organization who love it, they know the kind of people who will also thrive.

Q: What accounts for the other 60% of hires?


It's mostly people who approach us. We don't do much recruiting.

Q: So, how many unsolicited resumes do you get?


People who want to work for IDEO apply to the office they're interested in. In Palo Alto, which is where about half of our people are, we get probably 80 resumes a week. Across the company, it's probably around 150 resumes a week.

Q: What's the organizational structure at IDEO?


We are very flat. When I say that, there are definitely people who aspire to lead teams. But our goal is to create an environment where hot teams form on their own. Some people who come to IDEO never want to lead a team. Their goal is to be the best engineer, the best designer, or the best at what they do. That's fine.

We have 14 studios that vary in size from 15 to 35 people. Each has a studio head who is responsible for the profit and loss of that group. It's like running a small business. There are definitely opportunities to grow into that type of role. We would never hire someone as a studio head.

There are also opportunities to be discipline leads -- people who oversee best practices for their discipline across the whole firm. Usually, they are reasonably known in their industry, and the people in that discipline feel like they're good, strong mentors.

Q: You mentioned hot teams. What are they?


A hot team works together for a period of time. There's a lot of movement at IDEO between teams and among studios. When you get hired into a studio, it isn't like you're going to spend your career in that studio. If you want to gravitate to another one, that's encouraged.

When we get a project, we want to give it to a team that's going to be excited about it. If we get a medical-device project, we want a group of people who are passionate about medical products. We don't want to say to someone, "OK, here's your assignment -- now work on this."

Q: Do you expect several years of experience in a person's discipline, or would you take someone straight out of school?


It really depends on the makeup of the studio. If a studio has a lot of strong mentors who could help nurture people, then we definitely would be open to hiring out of school, and we regularly do. We also hire a lot of people with two to eight years in their discipline.

Q: Are there regular performance evaluations?


They're done once a year. There is no set way that it has to be done. Most people ask for input from three or four people who they've worked with over the past year. [There's also input] from the studio head. And you review yourself. A lot of people choose to have their review done by the whole group of people they've picked. So, you may be sitting in your review with four people.

Q: Beyond standard benefits, do you offer any unique forms of compensation?


Our compensation is very competitive. We have a profit-sharing bonus, which is based on company profitability as well as on your specific studio's profitability. About a year and a half ago, we also started IDEO Ventures. We work on so much great stuff that succeeds in the marketplace that it makes sense for us sometimes to invest in our clients. We could put money in if it's a startup or we could negotiate a royalty agreement with a more established company on that product. As an employee of IDEO, you receive X number of points in any venture fund that opens after your start date.

Q: How do you know if someone is a cultural fit for IDEO?


Our culture is non-rules-based and nonpolitical. I don't want to mislead you that IDEO has no structure. There's definitely a basic process that we follow. But beyond that, we want to put hot teams together and let them come up with great ideas.

The people who fit well are comfortable making their own paths and articulating their point of view. They also have to understand that there's a lot of give and take across the disciplines.

Most people don't have a title on their [business] card, or have a title at all. You can have one if you want. [IDEO] is about working really hard -- and I don't mean that in terms of hours. I mean being extremely engaged and excited about what you're doing. We're all here because we're passionate about the products we're turning out every day.

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