Showtime At Athene

You've got to audition for a job at this Colorado software maker. And not everyone gets the part

It's 11:30 a.m. at Athene Software Inc. in Boulder, Colo., and job applicant Carl Drews, in a spanking white shirt and striped tie, is standing in front of a conference room jammed with employees clad in denim and plaid. "Today, I'm going to tell you about the weirdest day of my life," he announces. Then, Drews launches into a slide show about his 1995 vacation in Sulawesi, Indonesia. The climax comes when the mild-mannered software engineer describes how he got stuck for a few terrifying minutes while crawling through a burial cave full of grinning skulls.

I'd wager that this is the second-weirdest day of Drews' life. Why? He's auditioning for a job. It's not A Chorus Line--he doesn't have to sing, dance, or look good. But if you want a gig at Athene, you do have to perform, giving a 15-minute presentation on something--anything--that you choose.

Since its founding in 1997, nearly every one of Athene's 85 employees has auditioned as one of the final steps in the hiring process. Chief Executive Eric Johnson, a serial entrepreneur on his fifth startup, says it's a good way to learn what the person is really like and whether they'll fit in. "Your software can never be better than your people," he says.

Bowling Parties. Granted, these days, every CEO likes to extol the virtues of a cohesive and caring company culture. But I get the feeling Johnson really means it. He often asks prospective hires what constitutes the balance in their own lives. (For him, it's God, family, and business, but there's no right answer.) Johnson says he fired one manager, in part, for pushing himself and his staff too hard.

Athene's employees actually seem to like being together. There are the quarterly bowling outings (they're all pretty bad bowlers, says Johnson) and parties every Friday. And some have a standing 7 a.m. date on Saturdays to play games such as Gazillionaire over the Web. Perhaps it's not surprising that this $10 million company makes a product that's people-focused too. Athene's software helps its clients predict which customers are most likely to defect and suggests how to retain them.

Johnson didn't invent the idea of auditions. It came from Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams by Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister (Dorset House Publishing), which says to build good teams, peers should help do the hiring. All employees are invited, but not required, to attend the auditions, and as you might guess, their opinions matter. Everyone gets to question the wannabe and to comment afterward by e-mail. Performances have run the gamut. Christoph Wertz, a project leader for the customer integration team, put his Lego Mindstorms robot through its paces. Quality assurance manager Eli Smith played the congas. And more than one geek has read his resume aloud. "There have been some real stinkers," says Tom Minyard, the hiring manager who recruited Drews.

It's true auditions discourage some potential applicants, but they're not the ones the company really wants, says Johnson. Even candidates who have gotten angry during auditions or frozen with fear might get hired. But a lousy audition can raise concerns. "I auditioned one guy where everybody came back and said: `Bad guy, Eli,"' recalls Smith. "He had a strange way of communicating."

That's not the case with Drews, who appears to be doing just fine. We learn that he once climbed Africa's Mount Kilimanjaro and has built houses with Habitat for Humanity in Africa and Nicaragua--in other words, he's a risk-taker with a social conscience. As Drews concludes his tale, he relates his excellent adventure to software development: "You have to be flexible. You might get stuck somewhere and have to back up and do some redesign."

Later that day, the reviews trickle in, and they're all positive. Johnson, for one, is impressed by Drews's energy level and openness. As for Drews, the audition helped him get to know the staff--although he says "it would be a bummer to go through all that and not get hired." Not to worry. Drews got the part.

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