“Soft skills have more of an impact on your performance than knowledge” Martin Kullberg, Head of Talent Acquisition at Paradox Interactive

The HR industry has been gaining momentum lately, as the competent selection of employees directly affects a company’s operations. Our hero today has been acquiring talent from all over the world for the Paradox Interactive team. We talked to Martin and discussed how to find the best specialists, what to put into your resume and why questions like “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” are a waste of time.

“We want to make sure that we actually do talent acquisition, not just wait”

— Martin, you’re the head of talent acquisition at Paradox. Can you tell us how you ended up in the gaming industry?

— I’d say it was completely by chance. I’ve always been a gamer, but I had no idea that you can work with the stuff that I do within games. It had never crossed my mind, but obviously game studios and publishers have to hire. This was back in 2015. I was living in Norway, but I wanted to come back to Sweden and I was just looking for jobs. The advertisement for an HR recruitment specialist popped up on my feed and I applied. And you know, the rest… the rest is history, as they say. So it wasn’t a long-held dream or passion of mine. It just happened and I’m very glad.

— So you never planned to work in the games industry and still ended up at Paradox as the head of talent acquisition. Could you tell us what’s the difference between talent acquisition and recruitment?

— I think it’s always tricky with words like this. But I’d say recruitment is a little bit more reactive. It’s about placing roles as they come up to the recruiter or recruitment department. 

The opposite of that will be proactive. You are looking at not only when roles get approved, but you’re actually trying to look ahead. What’s going to happen in the next 12 or 24 months? The further ahead we can plan, the better, obviously. The most important part is that you try to figure out and stay ahead of the curve because that gives you time to plan and to come up with strategies around that growth. So the more time you give yourself, the less mistakes you’re going to make, and the better the people you’re going to end up hiring. 

— Do you have a talent acquisition strategy? 

— We want to make sure that we actually do talent acquisition. We’re not reactive, we are proactive. That’s, I’d say, one part of it. That sort of mentality has to be tied to actions and actually result in something. And that means planning a lot more while making sure that we have a common idea with the organization.

First, we’ve got to understand the goal of the business and come up with strategies on how to reach those goals in terms of people. You need to have a good idea of the situation in the company, ask the main questions: What are the most important things for moving forward? What are the most important roles, disciplines, skills? Where are we going to struggle? 

In short, our strategy can be described as follows: to spend the most time on the things that are the most impactful for the business, on the things that are going to be the most difficult. And then, for some areas, it can be okay to do traditional recruitment. We’ve got to realize where we can get the most return on investment in terms of our time and money, and build the recruitment strategies around that. 


— You are trying to be proactive, meaning to hire the right people before there is a need for them?

— It can be that. Let’s imagine we’re planning our work for the next year. We have a better grasp of the games we’re going to make and thus the workforce we need to achieve those goals. Say we need 10 programmers, 5 designers, and 5 testers.

Now we need to answer a few more questions. What seniority level are we talking about here? How are we building this team? If we’re going to need 10 senior programmers then we need to start building this pipeline now. If the design team needs junior specialists, maybe the path we need to go down here is internships.

— Is there anything unique about talent acquisition in gaming, or is it about the same everywhere?

— I have only worked at one company in the games industry, but I’d say people are passionate about work in this sphere. We tend to fill a lot of roles just by candidates applying for them. But that’s not always the case. Unless you have a super-strong brand and you’re world-renowned, it can be a hassle and a struggle.

We’re so fortunate that people reach out to us and apply to us and tell us: “We’re dying to work at Paradox. We’re dying to work in the games industry.”That’s the part that stands out. Other than that, I’d say it’s not that different. You still have to make the same kind of decisions, you need to be diligent, and plan things out.  

“There’s always a risk of being duped.” 

— When dealing with a reactive strategy, what should the job description be like to attract the right people?

— We are trying to think of what is important for candidates, what they want to read. It’s important to know how they digest information. But we’re obviously very dependent on our managers, who know the craft really well. We give a lot of ownership to them to use the toolbox that we have provided to them. With its help, they create a good job description, and if something doesn’t work, then we decide how it can be improved.

I think there is only one secret – try to make it less boring. Instead of a list with hundreds of requirements, you need to provide more information about the work itself. Give the candidate a complete picture of what is to be done and be sure to pay attention to the problems and challenges. If everything is a bullet point, nothing is a bullet point. That’s why you need to mix it up a bit. I think you need to spend more time on a job description than you think you do, but it’s worth the investment of time.

Try different methods and compare them, but the most important thing is to stay consistent and look at the job description from the candidate’s point of view.

— What are the dos and don’ts of having a good resume?

— This is about the perspective of the person reading the resume. I have an opinion, but that can differ a lot from another recruiter. But there are obviously some basics that I think you can find pretty much everywhere. Like, try to tailor it based on the job description. Make sure you highlight what you think the recipient might want to read.

The purpose of the first documentation is very black and white. Does this person have the basic qualification? Yes or no? Different companies and different individuals do this on different levels. We don’t want to make too many assumptions based on that kind of information, because there’s only so much you can get out of it.

If we need someone who has five years of experience, that’s a question you can answer yes or no. But in your CV you can’t really show stuff that is more tied to soft skills. That’s something that we have to explore in the interview. After a dialogue, there is less of a risk of falling into the trap of looking at someone’s name or origin and making a decision that is not relevant to the person’s performance. That is why resumes and cover letters are going out of fashion, they’re not very strong at predicting future performance anyway.

— Okay, so let’s assume we’ve successfully passed the CV part. How many interviews are there usually between applying for a job and getting hired at Paradox?

— So we evaluate mainly two things throughout the process, one is role fit. Do you have the competencies, skills, behaviors tied to the role? And that can look different if you’re a programmer or if you’re a producer, of course. And then there’s cultural fit. It’s about behaviors and attitudes that we think are important regardless of which role you have at Paradox. There is usually only one cultural interview, but in other ways the process may be different.

I’d say you are probably looking at 3 to 4 interviews. We always try to cut out the fat and leave only the most important stages. Managers should always think “What is the purpose of having this step? Does this candidate really need to meet that stakeholder? What are we evaluating here?”There is a balance of course. Sometimes having an additional interview can be the right call, but we always need to think what it adds.

If you want to do some reading on this subject I recommend looking into what Google did a couple of years ago.Because they have a lot more data. They used to have a ton of interviews, but at one point realized that from the fifth interview they don’t add enough information to make it worthwhile. I think modernizing this based on statistics is cool. We don’t have that kind of data yet, but we can try to think about it at least.

— Who usually takes the lead during the interviews? Are those the heads of departments you’re hiring for or is it still TA or HR maybe?

— So the responsibility for evaluating the role fit part is with the hiring manager. It’s their responsibility to find out whether this person is qualified or not. I think it’s really good to involve teams as long as you give people the right kind of training and tools. It shouldn’t look like the candidate is being introduced to the team and they are just chatting. Yes, that can be a nice conversation, but you need to do a proper interview, evaluate the right things.

And then we do the cultural interview ourselves, and the manager is not in there. They just need to read the evaluation afterward. 

— Should TA managers watch something like Lie to Me or House MD to know how to notice different face changes during an interview.

— No, I don’t think so. It’s really important that you acknowledge that the interview is hard. That it’s difficult. What we need to do is rather to start. Okay, First, we’ve got to think “So, what do we need for this role? What are the сompetences and behaviors we want to evaluate here?”And then we make sure that we construct interview questions that actually measure that. That’s why it’s important to not only settle for knowledge and information but ask about particular situations. Because you can always charm yourself out of a hypothetical situation. But lying about real stuff that has happened is getting more and more difficult the deeper you go. It’s about that. So, you can watch those shows for entertainment I suppose. But I don’t think you need it.

Ask enough questions to have a really good idea of this person’s performance, how they handle the situation, how they behave. Obviously, there’s always a risk of being duped. But the more thorough you are, the more difficult it’s going to be for that person to tell anything but the truth. 

“If candidates have to guess what you’re looking for, it’s unfair.”

 — Should questions be unique to each candidate?

— No, they shouldn’t. Again, you should control what outcome you’re looking for here. Depending on the answers you could ask follow-up questions to understand their situations. But really what we want to get out of this is answers that can make it easier to compare candidates.

For example, we’re looking for someone who is very structured, who can build the structure. So we want to compare candidate A to B to C to see who performed the strongest here. So tailored questions should be limited to follow-up questions if we don’t understand something. In general, the goal is to make it very comparable.

— How to avoid cliche questions everybody knows about?

If you are well prepared you won’t have many of the cliche questions, like “What is your greatest strength?”In that case, you give them a chance to control the narrative and say anything. But that’s unfair to them as well because they’re going to guess what we’re looking for. It is better to actually tell them what we’re looking for and have them try to answer that.

Make a list of questions ahead of time to make your life easier. You can think of it as a funnel where you start up top with a very broad question and then you go down to more specific ones. This approach helps to delve into the details.

— So if we have two very similar candidates, but one has better soft skills, and the other is more of an expert in their field. Which one would you choose? 

— I would translate soft skills here to behaviors. And I think the right kind of behaviors often have more of an impact on your performance than knowledge because the knowledge you can learn. It is very good when you have qualities and habits that are suitable for a particular position or work in general. 

You might be behind at first, but I think you’re going to outgrow the specialist quite soon. If you’re stronger in the behaviors tied to the role, that’s important for the role.

— What are the red flags during an interview? Should you trust your gut even if you think something’s wrong? 

— Let’s say that we want to measure something in particular here. If we’re checking collaboration skills it’s rather easy to see red flags there. We all have an idea of behavior that is less good for teamwork.

If we think that something is off, but don’t know why, I’d say we are probably making a mistake here. So in that case it’s important not to assume things. You tell me something, you give me 90% of the story and then I fill in the rest of 10% based on my biases and my ideas. And that could be either good or bad for you, that depends. In cases like this, I’d say we need to go back and make sure that we figure out what the rest of the 10% was if it’s important to our decision. It’s always awkward to go back and say ”So we talked about this and I realized that I didn’t quite fully understand.” But I’d say it’s better to do that rather than guess because then we’re going to make a decision that might be wrong.

“Honesty is the best policy.”

— Are there any secrets to getting a good job offer?

— What we try to do is to talk about it as early as possible. We don’t want to end up in a situation when we spend time on both sides and then realize at the end that it was in vain. But it depends on the company. The company might have very clear guidelines on salary policy. And in that case, it’s probably going to be more difficult for you as a candidate to influence what you can get. If the manager is in a position where they want to solve a problem they might be inclined to get you more pay if you haggle.

I’d say your biggest chance is with smaller companies. They can give you a higher offer than they intended. So it never hurts to go higher in the beginning because if we have that transparent conversation we should be able to let you know if that’s going to be possible and then you can always adjust and say: “Okay I’ve given it some thought and, you know, I’m probably going to be able to go at this level.”

When I am interested in a candidate, then we try to find a solution that suits both parties, fits into the company’s policies and guidelines. It is unfortunate when we’ve been clear about our expectations and what we can do, and then you realize that it wasn’t really what you are looking for.

Honesty is the best policy. Being clear with what you want early on is good, it works. When we talk about the compensation the candidate might say “I don’t want to sell myself too short, you know. I don’t want to be at risk of saying a number while you were thinking of a higher number.” But, you know, it’s not our goal to get you as cheap as possible, our goal is to get you on a level that works long term. If we get you in too low, that’s going to create problems especially if we know that you’re worth more than this. 

We want to make sure we pay what’s right, not the lowest amount possible. Otherwise, the person might get upset and say: “I found out that other employees get more, although we are performing at the same level. “Of course, you can always make these mistakes in evaluating candidates. If this happens regularly and on purpose, then you are guaranteed to find yourself in a situation where people are unhappy with what they’re paid, which means they can leave at any time.

— When should a candidate decline a job offer?

— I think this depends a lot on the context, and even the country. I’d encourage anyone to ask questions. There might be things that look weird or very good or just things that you don’t understand. And even if you feel that you want to throw yourself at the opportunity make sure that you ask questions. So that we don’t misunderstand each other and end up in an uncomfortable situation afterwards. I’m sure everyone in the same position as me would be happy to spend some time to answer those questions. Plus, we’ve gotten those a million times before so it’s not too much of an effort to answer them.

You know, there are no dumb questions here. I wouldn’t be surprised if you looked at our offer and didn’t understand certain parts of it. Contracts are complex and context is important. If the company you’re engaged at is reluctant to at least explain the offer then that would probably be concerning. This may be company policy, but it looks suspicious.

— What are your thoughts on hunting talent from other companies?

— Sometimes you have certain markets where it’s a small community. The culture might be that you don’t poach talent from other companies within that little fish pond. Then you need to adapt to that. 

Say we acquire a studio in a country where we might not know that much about the gaming industry. Then we need to investigate the market before we start. But if we know the market and we know that this happens then we can start attracting talent.

I think hunting talent is okay, we just need to remember that those decisions are made voluntarily. If this is accepted in the industry then it’s a good way to be proactive and build talent pools with potential candidates. Maybe they are not interested now, being in the middle of a project they want to finish. But who knows what happens next?

— You’ve mentioned internships among talent acquisition strategies, Are there any internships within Paradox?

— We’ve done quite a few with art when the art department has grown. But if I look ahead of our current plans, thinking of different teams we are building in terms of seniority, it’s not going to be too much. Historically and looking ahead we haven’t done it too much. A couple of people each year.

But it’s better to talk about this and look at internal and external data to see what the company plans are. Maybe the growth that we are going for here is not going to be possible without finding balance by bringing more junior people in. And that’s our role as acquisition specialists 

— What should an intern do to be selected? Do you need to have a large portfolio?

— The games industry is quite good in this regard. It is possible to have a portfolio without having professional experience as an artist. If I’m talking about Paradox specifically, you might gain experience modding our games. You can ease your way into a content design role, a game design role.

Same if you’re a programmer, you can put a lot of stuff in your GitHub and show it to us. And, obviously, you always have to consider what you put in there because you want that to reflect who you are. But you can also take a little bit more of a chance having something in there rather than nothing. You can showcase what you’ve got. That is not as easy in some other industries. 

— How likely are interns to get a full-time job at Paradox after the internship is over?

— It should be the goal. If we have an internship it should be because we think there’s room for someone to come in. Obviously, we could be charitable and just give people experience and then let them go to somewhere else. But to be completely honest that’s not a good investment on our side.

So if you’re going through an internship and you’re doing well you should be hired at the end of it. Again, looking back we haven’t had that many interns, but most of them tend to get an offer at the end of it. And that’s how it should be from our perspective and the candidate’s. 

— When it comes to building the workplace, is the modern work campus approach the only way in IT? Should companies try to give more room to employees to spend time and relax? 

— That’s an interesting question. Especially now with the pandemic and remote work. You have to acknowledge that some people want to spend their free time with colleagues, they want to be at the office playing pool or playing video games afterwards. And we definitely have a culture where that happens. But you also have to acknowledge that not everyone is going to be like that. Some people want to clock in, stay super-focused during the day and then you clock out and that’s it. And there should be room for both.

This is about culture and attitude to me. You can’t push people and demand that they spend all their free time at work – not everyone will like this. This is not only tied to personality. You go through different cycles. At one point in life, you want to spend time with your co-workers and that’s your social life. But at some point in time, you might get a family, and then it changes. And if we signal that that’s not okay, that you only get certain opportunities if you hang around for Tuesday beers, that can be dangerous, I think. 

— How do your colleagues deal with stress? And is crunching an issue at Paradox? 

— I wouldn’t say it’s an issue. And maybe this is a reflection of Sweden’s working culture. So throughout the years that I’ve been at Paradox, I’ve known a few cases where we had crunch for a very limited time. Not anything crazy. Our ambition is to never plan for failure or crunch. If it happens we need to reflect: what went wrong? Why did we fail in planning here? 

But stress can be a whole different matter because you can be stressed anyway. Even if you’re not crunching. And that can be more difficult to get a handle on. Especially now when you’re working remotely and digitally. There are less boundaries, you might pick up your computer and work later in the evening just because you can. And I think for us that’s more dangerous than crunch in a sense. Because crunch is something you can measure and see, but stress is more hidden.

It’s important for all our managers to make sure that they are communicating, that they see their employees. We try to make sure that there are ways to catch this and to support both our managers and employees when it happens. I think it’s super-interesting if we’re talking about the games industry. What’s unique to it is you’re building a product that is so visible. And while I’m not making the games myself I feel it too. If a game doesn’t perform, if it gets poor reviews, that has to be very stressful. That’s something that you need to factor in as well as how that impacts you.

We’re a company that in both good and bad times stays very close to our community. Sometimes you may be reading too much and put too much on yourself. And that’s probably not going to happen if you are a company making nails or whatever.

— Can you tell us how Paradox is structured? Are the teams more project-based or split into departments? 

— In general, the teams are quite small because the projects are quite small. This is not a 400-member AAA behemoth. The teams are quite slim and that is a strength. If you’re not making those huge games, anyway.

As we grow, and as we learn, it’s going back and forth. Teams tend to be of different sizes, but in general, we try to keep it small because then you have a lot of ownership for each individual. The bigger you tend to get, the more red tape and bureaucracy there is and the work slows down. 

— What’s the best thing for you about being a part of Paradox? 

— One thing is that we’re making games. Often you can try something that is still not out. And there are wonderful people working here. Geeks have a lot of cool interests that they’re happy to share.

 And the ambition is to always make bigger and better games. For many employees, including me, each year is not like the previous one. Nothing stands still and that gives you a lot of room for growth. 

— Any tips for potential candidates wanting to join your company?

— To listen to everything else I’ve said previously. And you can just go check out the available jobs, see if you are qualified for any of them, and then apply. And if you think you might not be, you can always take the chance and do it anyway.

If there’s nothing on there that you think is interesting right now or you think “I want to work in design but there’s nothing there right now” you can always connect to an area that you think is interesting, it’s super quick and simple. And then when a job is published within that area you’ll get a notification. So you can sort of stay passive and then decide to get active if you want to later. 

What is your favorite Paradox game? 

— The most time I’ve spent on a Paradox game is on Stellaris and I love it. I love the setting and I love that it has depth and it’s complex. I don’t play Europa Universalis, Victoria, or Crusader Kings. Although I think I would be able to get into them. But still, I got into Stellaris from the start and I have 500 or 600 hours on it. I just love the storytelling in that game.