Shopify is jam-packed with coders, designers, and marketers, but the coolest department at Canada's tech darling may be HR.


Welcome to the digital frontline of the talent wars, where human resources is becoming the most critical element of any management group trying to win the innovation game. Who knew that the people, not the tech, would be the deciding factor.

Shopify, the Ottawa-based ecommerce company, has grown to 2,500 employees in just a few years, and is now discovering its success, in an Amazon jungle, depends heavily on every new hire.

And they certainly know how to hire well. Shopify was named the #1 Best Place to Work in Canada by Glassdoor — an award is based solely on feedback from employees.

It’s not so much what they can do, but how they will work with others. Passion, curiosity, self-awareness and an unusual mind all matter more than any technical skill. Growth mindsets and resourcefulness count for a lot, too.

As John-Michael McColl, Shopify’s head of talent acquisition puts it: “Interesting ideas come from the weirdest of places.”

I heard McColl and his colleague, Jace Meyer, talk recently about Shopify’s talent strategy, with the cheeky title, “Why HR will be the Most Exciting Place to Work this Decade (yes, for real).”

You’re Only as Good as Your People

The company is no longer looking for position players — individuals who may have a skill that’s in demand. Instead, it needs people who can play on teams, and be nimble enough to pivot (or perish).

It’s also looking for people who want retraining “all the time.” In other words, people who are always learning, always questioning, always contributing.

That makes HR a whole new ballgame.

At Shopify, human resources has been reimagined to hire for qualities over qualifications. What does that mean? People who know who they are — and are burning to build, to create more for the company, its customers and themselves.

The Un-Interview Interview

Shopify does that by turning the interview process on its head. Each new hire is screened by a panel of employees — about half of all staff are now involved — and put through four or five interviews. Only then does the company feel it knows the person more than their resume.

In fact, the company doesn’t even review candidates’ resumes in advance of their first interview. And don’t waste time rehearsing answers – come as yourself armed with what you know.

Off to Camp!

Then there’s onboarding. Every month, all new hires are sent to “RnD Camps,” two-week efforts that bring together new employees to learn the Shopify Way — “we get sh** done” — and are then put on teams of newcomers to solve on some of the company’s challenges.

Regardless of team, everyone participates and are encouraged to start a real Shopify shop during the week –- a real chance to become intimate with the platform.

Employees are always encouraged to experiment, take risks, and pursue the things they care about. Mess something up? Failure is embraced and learnings are shared with the rest of the team.

All of this not only makes new employees feel engaged from the get-go; they learn Shopify is willing to invest in their futures.

An extra benefit: emerging leaders run the camps and coach each team. Again, failure is encouraged. Fun is expected. “It’s like summer camp. When you’re seven, you’re not afraid to f- up,” says Meyer, Shopify’s education architect. “You’re asked to be silly. People need to feel safe, and that’s when they feel free to speak up.”

Want to hear more about Shopify’s culture and hiring practices? Join us for the next #RBCDisruptors: The future of e-commerce on Nov. 8. We’ll be joined by Shopify COO Harley Finkelstein. Tune in via Facebook Live and follow the conversation on Twitter using #RBCDisruptors.


John Stackhouse is a nationally bestselling author and one of Canada’s leading voices on innovation and economic disruption. He is senior vice-president in the Office of the CEO at Royal Bank of Canada, leading the organization’s research and thought leadership on economic, technological and social change. Previously, he was editor-in-chief of the Globe and Mail and editor of Report on Business. He is a senior fellow at the C.D. Howe Institute and the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy and sits on the boards of Queen’s University, the Aga Khan Foundation of Canada and the Literary Review of Canada. His latest book, "Planet Canada: How Our Expats Are Shaping the Future", explores the untapped resource of the millions of Canadians who don’t live here but exert their influence from afar.

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