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AI was around long before ChatGPT. Scale AI, whose mission is to accelerate the development of AI applications, has been leading the race, and is now a company worth $7.3 billion. They recently landed a deal with the Department of Defense to set the path on how the United States military uses Artificial Intelligence.

Scale AI is known to have extremely high talent density. How did they achieve this? Existing evidence suggests that it all started with the company's founder, Alexandr Wang, who took recruiting very seriously.

He knew that talent density is something you need to get right from day 1 and that it'll be increasingly difficult to maintain as his company continued to grow.

Even when the team grew to over hundreds of people, he still made sure to personally interview every single person they gave an offer to.

"It is critical, and will only become more important as time goes on. There is no future if we hire people who do not identify with our mission, our product, and our problem. We will become an undifferentiated crowd of uninspired people who will not have a shot at creating a generational company."

In this article, we'll cover 4 actionable lessons we can learn from how Scale AI recruits the best talent and maintains high talent density.

Scale AI’s hiring strategy

1. Only hire people who have an internal locus of control

There are two kinds of people in the world: having an internal vs external locus of control.

  • If you have an internal locus of control you believe the things that happen in your life are a product of what you do
  • If you have an external locus of control, it's the opposite. You believe the things that happen to you are mostly the outcome of things outside of your control. You believe the world is very deterministic.

Scale indexes heavily on people who have an internal locus of control and perhaps you should too. You want to aim for people who take responsibility for what they do.

"One way to index off of that is by seeing how hard people work toward things that matter to them. If they have an internal locus of control, they're gonna work their ass off to make sure the things that matter to them happen the best possible way. If they have an external locus of control, it matters to them but they throw their hands up and let the world take the wheel"

You can ask the following questions to screen for this during the interview process:

  • When you achieve a goal, what factors do you attribute your success to?
  • When you face a setback, what do you typically do?
  • What motivates you to put in the effort to achieve your goals?
  • Do you feel like you have control over your future?

2. Risk of hiring from big brands

"If your recruiting organization looks like a college admissions office, you should be pretty scared"

It can be quite difficult for somebody at a big tech company to have real impact. They hire so many people and often each individual has a limited scope of problems that really matter. So a lot of people they hire end up working on a tiny piece of a tiny piece of a problem.

With that line of reasoning, if you think about the selection bias here, a lot of the people who get selected into large brand-name tech companies are those who are over-optimizing for brand and status relative to impact.

By contrast, small startups are the opposite. People who join them are optimizing for impact and steep learning curve.

This is not a blanket statement. Exceptions exist, i.e. working on core products or very important teams at big tech companies, errors in the startup hiring process, etc.

However, when you're specifically looking for folks who care about making a big impact, this risk turns out to be true more often than not.

3. Hire people who give a shit

**This part is based on a memo Alexandr shared with the his company right before a period where Scale grew the team significantly from 70 to 200+

"Over time interviewing, I’ve found that I mainly screen for one key thing: giving a shit. To be more specific, there’s actually two things to screen for"

1. They give a shit about Scale.

2. They give a shit about their work in general.

On the first point, essentially you should preemptively worry about your company becoming more of a credential rather than a slightly less extreme kind of cult.

As your company continues to grow, it will be more common for people to interview for the brand rather than the substance. It's easy for most growing companies to miss this effect entirely because getting a sudden spike of more top-of-funnel interest can be alluringly distracting.

"Before you know it, there will be a constant churn of smart but uninvolved people who stay for a few years, and never dive deep enough to do meaningful work. Unless you actively fight against it, it will happen."

On the second point, when someone applies to work at your company, yet has never been deeply obsessed about something before, then it's probably a bad bet to think that your company would be the first.

It's not easy to screen this just from a couple of interviews. Here's a recommended line of questioning from Scale:

  • What's the hardest you've ever worked on something?
  • How many hours were you working a week?
  • Why did you work so hard? Why did you care?
  • When were you the most unmotivated in your life?
  • What's the thing you're the most proud of?
  • Do you think it was worth it?
    • For an obsessed person, it's always worth it

4. The importance of having a strong point of view

Scale AI founder and CEO Alexandr Wang at Congress
Scale AI founder and CEO Alexandr Wang at Congress

For the last generation of tech companies like Google, Facebook, Apple, etc, the classic business wisdom was to have as much of a neutral point of view and brand as possible. The idea was that you could distribute your product more broadly and have as wide-scale impact as possible.

"We're very quickly entering a very different era which is that the right thing to do is to have a pretty strong point of view and to be very loud about that point of view."

By having a strong point of view:

  • You can attract the talent of people who agree with you. It's incredible for building a positive culture and building a very talented group.
  • More and more customers care about working with people who they philosophically agree with.
  • It forces you to keep your company authentic.

A lot of companies may get this right very early on but invariably, a lot of companies tend to stand for nothing as they scale.

Maintaining a high talent density can be easy at first, but it will get increasingly challenging as your company continues to grow.

We hope that this article and learnings from Scale AI help you navigate the challenges of recruiting well.

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