Why and how we do work trials at Linear
Building a quality product and business requires people we can trust to make good judgments. Linear uses paid work trials to have candidates complete real projects that test the skills and attributes essential for roles in our startup environment.
We believe the only way to build a quality product and business is to hire people we can trust to make good judgments, across all functions and levels. Finding people who have the skills, taste, and understanding to shape the product and execute the work itself is how we keep a small and effective team.
At Linear, we expect all team members to take ownership of projects — shaping the direction, making decisions, talking to users when needed, and communicating progress. It’s very much a full-stack role, being part of the product-building, instead of one small cog in a larger machine.
The problem is that these types of people, unfortunately, are few and far between. The majority of companies don’t work in the way we do, which leads to fewer people with these kinds of skills. We found that standard interview processes didn’t work well for us. It’s challenging to assess in interviews if someone is truly a builder, has good taste and judgment, can take initiative, and approaches problems productively.
Additionally, one of the most common reasons people fail to succeed in startups is that they lack the ability to adjust to the ways startups need to operate. Startups need to move quickly while many things are in flux, and roles and problems are often less defined than in mature companies. A conventional interview process, often modeled by large companies, doesn’t account for this.
To evaluate if a person is a fit for Linear with the skills to be successful, we bring candidates in for a work trial as the final step in the interview process. A work trial is a paid 2-5 day period where a candidate works with our team on a real project that we plan to implement (or as close as possible to that) with access to relevant internal tools and resources.
Over the last four years, work trials have helped us scale to over 50 people with a 96% retention rate. Everyone — from engineers to C-level candidates — has gone through one. We think that this has been one the best ways to make sure both us and the candidate feel there is a great fit.
As work trials are a large time commitment from the candidate and from us, candidates only move to a work trial when we really want to work with them. Work trials aren’t for weeding candidates out.
Before the work trial, we follow a fairly standard interview process:
- Defining the role: With all roles, we start with the problem to be solved, not the title or levels. The recruiter, hiring managers, and the interview panel of 3–5 people align on what we’re looking for in a candidate. Along the way, there might be additional calibration.
- Interviews: The early stages of our hiring process contain standard elements — an intro call with a recruiter, a hiring manager interview, and role-relevant skills assessments with team members.
- Panel voting: The interview panelists provide strong no to strong yes scores and share their feedback. During a debrief, they also do a thumbs up/down vote. Ideally, we see a majority of “strong yes” before going forward.
Work trials are designed to help both sides make the right decision:
For Linear: The work trial lets us observe how candidates work in our remote startup environment and make decisions in situations that might have more than one solution. We experience how they collaborate with our team day-to-day. While previous interview stages can surface how candidates have worked in the past, the work trial enables us to see firsthand how they think about problems, drive a project forward, and demonstrate their product sense.
For the candidate: We believe candidates benefit equally from the trial. Taking a job at a company can be a risk and candidates usually don’t get much insight into the company they’re interviewing with. Companies don’t like to share information, and usually the process is focused around what they need. With the work trial, candidates have more access and time to evaluate the company and decide whether this is the right place for them.
The role and the availability of the candidate determine the length of the work trial. Senior roles typically take the full five days, while other positions can be shorter. We understand that candidates are juggling other work and personal commitments, and are flexible in scheduling trials. We sometimes use weekends to help candidates who need to minimize time off from work. And we encourage candidates to maintain a normal, balanced schedule during the week — block off time to spend with family, take appointments, etc.
All work trials are paid. We pay the candidate a daily rate during the work trial, and we communicate that to the candidate in advance.
The goal with the work trial is to simulate a normal working environment as much as possible. To that purpose, we assemble a supporting project team. Members typically include the recruiter, hiring manager, and 3–5 teammates that would closely intersect with this role.
The team first defines what a successful output for the work trial would be based on current and upcoming team priorities, and then works backward to design the prompt. We want to limit the scope of the work trial while getting as close to a real project as possible. Work trial projects sometimes end up being the first project for the new hire when they get started.
Some examples of past prompts:
- For an engineer, building a feature allowing teams to effectively triage incoming feature requests
- For a content marketer, writing a blog post based on a feature release
- For a designer, designing a way to resolve comments
Our recruiter and people operations coordinator handle necessary logistics pre-trial — securing a non-disclosure agreement (NDA), granting temporary tool access, scheduling meetings, and prepping docs conveying context on goals and expectations. We use a templated issue list in Linear to make sure we cover each step.
We give each candidate access to the tools they need to be successful — typically Slack, Notion, Linear, and Pitch but also GitHub and Figma.
As a last step before the trial, our recruiter covers the logistics of the work trial and the project prompt with the candidate.
The work trial itself has a few standard meetings:
- Kick-off: Candidate meets with the team to go over prompt, get additional context, ask clarifying questions, and discuss an initial approach
- Check-in: Candidate leads status update to share progress, ask questions, and get feedback. Check-ins are candidate-led because we want to see their ownership and readiness to course-correct.
- Final presentation: Candidate presents final deliverable to the work trial team and answers questions. These presentations tend to be discussion-based.
Apart from these meetings, the candidate focuses on carrying out the project, and can reach out to the team through a dedicated Slack channel or ad-hoc calls if they have questions or need information.
The recruiter also schedules 1:1 coffee chats with a couple other Linear employees for additional perspective, and invites the candidate to other team events happening that week, such as company all-hands or bake-offs. Some go-to-market candidates will shadow or even run an actual customer-facing call.
After the work trial, each member of the project team submits feedback separately — and without reviewing comments from other evaluators — before debriefing together live. In evaluations, anything other than a strong yes is a no. At Linear, all debriefs begin with a blind thumbs up/down vote and proceed with an open discussion on feedback anchored in specific examples and anecdotes. The hiring manager makes a final decision on whether to extend an offer to the candidate, though we strongly prefer unanimous decisions.
The recruiter documents highlights and key takeaways to later share back with the candidate, offering detailed transparency regardless of outcome as closing the feedback loop can provide significant value to the candidate.
When we decide not to move forward with a candidate, we stick to our transparent approach and let them know why, despite the hard situation.
We’re still improving the work trial process based on feedback from candidates and our team. We’ve clarified expectations for both the candidate and our work trial teams to make sure everyone actively participates and understands each person’s role.
Our company has grown, and we’ve removed the expectation that candidates participate in our regular product meetings or All Hands. Instead, we encourage them to shadow these meetings so they can see our culture and workflows without putting them on the spot to participate actively. We also narrowed the presentation audience to the work trial team, so that we can have deeper interaction in a more comfortable environment.
While we’ve modified parts of the work trial as the company has scaled to provide better experiences, we know that work trials may not scale with us forever. They require a significant commitment from candidates, and a great deal of time from our team. For now, they’re very much worth our efforts.
Work trials may not work at every company. We have a few suggestions if you’re considering implementing work trials at your own company:
- Identify prompts that will surface the signals you’re looking for. Work closely with the hiring manager and project team to define projects that map to real work in your own environment.
- Evaluate candidates based on how they work with your team — while output matters, work trials reveal so much more around communication, self-direction, responsiveness to feedback, etc.
To help you get started, here's the template we use to create the work trial plan we share with each candidate. It’ll give you a sense of how we schedule meetings, but also how we communicate Linear’s work style and culture to candidates. Feel free to remix it, and adapt it to your own company.
If you have questions about how we do work trials at Linear, or what it takes to make them successful, please reach out. We’re happy to help.
If you're interested in a career at Linear, take a look at our open roles.