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The Two Secrets of Hiring

By Drew B on September 9, 2021

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Hiring can be a big topic to unpack, but at, it’s pretty simple.

There’s really only two key parts to how we vet full-time candidates:

  1. Talk to people who have done real work with the candidates in the past
  2. Do real work together
Whiteboard interviews, algorithmic problems, and behavioral questions have their place, but we’ve found they can only get you so far. At the end of the day, what you really want to know when hiring someone is what they’d be like to work with. Doing real work. Together.

And it’s the same for the person applying for the position. What they really want to know is what it’d be like to work with you at your organization.

In short, our interviewing focuses on 1) references and 2) trial periods.

So far, this has worked out quite well for us. Of all the candidates we have extended offers to, 100% have accepted.

Our design intern Christy made this team portrait as a parting gift. Well, part gift, part roast.

References, references, references

Here is why references are so important: they have done real work with the candidate before. They know what day in, day out looks like.

It’s hard for candidates to talk about themselves. Some may exaggerate, while others may struggle to define their superpowers. Not so for references.

The key with references is to elicit candid and honest feedback. We have found at that this is not the impossible task some may think it is.

Reference checks are just a phone call away. What’s not to like about them? (source)

Our board member Shishir Mehrotra (and CEO of Coda) was the one who first opened up our eyes to the potential of references. Rather than treating them as this procedural, final step — where you do background checks simply to look for red flags—he encouraged us to elevate their role.

Now, towards the very beginning of the interviews, we bring up reference checks.

“Reference checks are a key part of our hiring process. We think it’s an important way to get to know you. As part of the process, we will be asking you for the names of a few peers you have worked closely with, as well as a few supervisors.”
To get unbiased feedback, we’ve found it’s important to ask the right questions. Candidates will naturally select more favorable references. However, that doesn’t mean they won’t make telling remarks or discuss areas of improvement. You just need to probe.

What are their areas of growth?

Where did you struggle the most while working with them?

What is something we should maybe be a little worried about? Why might they not be a fit for our organization?
And the most important question of all: Anything else that I should have asked you that I haven’t yet? It’s amazing how many things can come out in the last few minutes of a call.

Our goal with references has not been to use them directly for weighting the candidate on various metrics. Rarely have references given us anything that actionable. Instead, it has been to identify the areas of question in which we should probe further during the interview process. That’s why it’s so important to do references towards the beginning and not just the end of interviewing.

Indeed, what may have been a weakness at the candidate’s previous employer could be an asset for your organization. Perhaps they worked at a large company where their tendency to go against the grain and rebel a little made them hard to work with. At a startup, though, that may be exactly what you’re looking for. Discovering this during a reference check now lets you know what to look for during the rest of the interviewing. Is the candidate an independent thinker in the way that would be helpful to your startup?

For us, references are always about questions, not answers.


An equally, if not more important, type of reference check is the one not referred to you by the candidate. These can be tricky to pull off, but at we have found candidates to be very receptive to our reaching out to mutual connections and the like, as long as we ask them ahead of time if they’d be OK with such type of reach out. We always make sure to respect their bounds and keep the sensitivities of hiring in mind, especially if they’re interviewing in stealth while at another company.

Finally, note that this is not a one-way road. We encourage candidates to also do reference checks on us! What’s it like to work at What do other people in the edtech field think of our organization? These are questions we want our future hires to be asking.

Just do it

But even references can only go so far. At some point, you just have to start working together.

At, we do this through one-week trials once candidates pass a certain stage (namely, a joint problem solving exercise together—the subject of another blog post). In the case of software engineering, our one-week trials mean asking candidates to onboard, meet our entire team, attend standups, and start committing code to our production website within their first few days. Our design interview process is similar.


Our candidates will often do this outside of their other work hours, or on the side, or on weekends. Our goal is to be completely flexible, particularly because we believe this makes for a more equitable hiring process. Indeed, it’s often better than the traditional interview during rigid work hours. We also offer to compensate people for their time.

Some of our team members built pretty amazing things during their trials. Anees and Akshay helped build the first version of our entire website during their trial (a story for another time). Elysa built one of our most popular features where tutors can highlight learner feedback on their profiles.

Learner feedback for Sidhant R. This feature was built by Elysa during her trial week.

Even after a few days of working together, we have found that what was previously a philosophical conversation between us and the candidate suddenly becomes much more real. No more hypotheticals. The prospects of working together are top of mind, and the candidate’s superpowers are immediately visible.

“I really liked the interview and trial process because I much prefer projects to technical interviews,” Elysa tells me, now having worked with us for several months. “I also got a sense of what it’d be like to work on the team which is rare as an interviewee.”

A side effect of doing real work together is that it also makes interviewing much more interesting, including for the interviewers. Working on new projects with candidates is more fun than repeating the same abstracted programming problem each week.

While it’s true that finding a common baseline to compare candidates on may be a bit more challenging, the upshot of a more fun interviewing process is that we are excited to interview people at And hopefully that reflects in the overall experience for the candidate.

Now, the obvious downside of one-week trials is that they can take up more time for both the candidate and the interviewers. However, we only do these once candidates pass a certain stage. And as mentioned before, we make sure to remain flexible about hours and compensate candidates as needed.

The ethos?

The idea of reference checks and one-week trials it not unique to However, it does align particularly well with our broader ethos.

At, we run a free peer tutoring platform. Our tutors range in age from 13 to their 70s. In order to vet our tutors, we have them each create a portfolio. That portfolio consists of content certifications (e.g. their mastery in limits & continuity in calculus), and over time, it also consists of their tutoring experience itself (e.g. how many sessions they’ve tutored and the ratings they’ve received).

At the beginning, their portfolio may be quite bare. But as they tutor more on the platform, we get a fuller picture of their tutoring abilities and how we can help them grow. In that way, the portfolio is an invitation to start the act of tutoring and then to grow into the role of a tutor over time. The experience is the credential.

Put simply, we think practical experience is important. Applying your knowledge is important. Abstract assessments can only go so far. The best way to assess a tutor is to observe their tutoring.

And it’s not too different in our full-time hiring. Doing real work together.

So, what?

We are in the early days of Our team is small: 7 full-timers at the moment. But we have already found this hiring philosophy to serve us quite well.


Much of the credit goes to our very own team member, Akshay Ravikumar, who has been leading the hiring area of responsibility. With his leadership, we have seen the hiring process become fun, efficient, and—most importantly—effective at identifying true super stars.

100% of the candidates we have extended offers to, both interns and full-timers, have accepted.

A few weeks into their jobs, when we ask them if anything has surprised them about working at, they usually say that it’s exactly what they expected. Why? Because they knew what we were like after their one-week trial.

We still have a long way to go, though, and so we’d love to hear your own nuggets on what makes an effective hiring process.

Our team several months ago, when it was smaller.

And now that you’ve reached the end of this, you probably assume we’re hiring. As of August 2021, though, we are not actively hiring. We just thought it’d be a good time to take stock of things. That said, we always like to hear from interesting people, so if you’re interested in connecting, don’t hesitate to reach out to [email protected].

Huge thanks to Akshay Ravikumar, Anees Iqbal, Elysa Kohrs, Ananyaa Joy Nair, and Shishir Mehrotra for providing feedback on this post.

Written by Drew Bent, COO of [email protected] peer tutoring, for free.


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