“How to Attract Top Technical Talent” By Poornima Vijayashanker
There are a lot of things I really suck at. The first is visual design. I’ve never been trained as a designer, and while it would probably take just a month or two to learn Photoshop, I know my time would be better spent doing other things. So I don’t even bother doing more than some light CSS and HTML, and on occasion I fiddle with a Photoshop file someone else has already designed for me.
You’d think that as an engineer I’d want to learn design, and believe me, I do! I’ve read some great books on design and I’ve learned about UX (user experience), which is why I can create wireframes and do usability tests. But I just haven’t made the time to learn visual design.
As it turns out, I might never have to, because I’ve learned to recruit some top notch designers. I can instead focus on what I’m actually good at: engineering, writing, and what absolutely needs to get done—sales!
Since design leaves a lasting first impression on a customer, I focus on finding the best folks to work with and then delegate away.
I know it seems easier said than done, which is why in this post I want to share some of the best techniques for sourcing and recruiting technical talent like software engineers and designers.
In this post, I’ve distilled my knowledge and experiences from having conducted 100+ interviews, from intern-level candidates to CTOs. If you’re in the early stages of building a product, these strategies will get you far.
So let’s dive right in on how to attract top technical talent!
There is a right time to recruit.
You might be eager to find technical talent the minute a lightbulb goes off in your head with an idea, but that’s actually not the right time to recruit.
You want to wait until you are fully committed to your idea. If you aren’t yet committed, then it will be hard to recruit someone else and ask them to be.
Take the time to refine and validate your idea first.
The best time to recruit top talent is when you have a vision, even if it’s just a blurred one, and you have a sense of what you need to build over the next 3-6 months. It doesn’t have to be set in stone, but any engineer or designer will want to have a sense of what is coming ahead.
Engineers and designers need time to think, build, test, and refine. When they have a product roadmap they can think through how to build in a way that is flexible and will allow future changes. They’ll also be able to identify things they need to learn before they can build and anticipate any issues related to your product’s complexity.
If you rush into recruiting before you are committed to your idea, have a vision, and have created a product roadmap, then it’s very likely that you will constantly change your mind. These changes will force your technical team to have to re-work what they’ve already done, and ultimately, this delays the product from shipping.
Here’s a simple example: you go to a baker and say you want a chocolate cake. Then a few hours later, you change your mind to vanilla as the baker is mixing chocolate batter. The baker has no choice but to throw the chocolate batter away and start on vanilla. If you then go back and say you want a black forest cake, the baker is going to get a little annoyed. After all, when will the baker actually have time to make the batter, bake the cake, and then frost it if you keep changing your mind?!
Same rules apply to building software. While software can be changed more easily and with less waste than a cake, there is still a process, and your constant changes are interfering with the the final product.
This will invariably demotivate your team because they’re not solving problems. It also makes it hard for them to gain a sense of accomplishment, because the product is always in a half-baked state. While engineers don’t mind refining a product based on customer feedback, they will get tired of constant changes before shipping. They’ll be happier if they can ship what they’ve built and share it with customers.
Figure out who you want first.
It’s not about needing a front-end engineer versus a back-end engineer or an interaction designer. It’s about finding someone who is going to be a fit with your company culture, how you work, and the particular space you are in.
Even though your company is young, you will still have a sense of the culture you want to cultivate.
For example, one of the early startups I advise, Lenda, has a simple motto: “Defend or die.” What they mean is that if you have an idea, be prepared to share it with the rest of the company. If you can present it in a compelling manner, then chances are people will be receptive to trying it. If you don’t care enough to defend it, just let it die.
If you have a particular style of working, then you need to share that with potential candidates as well.
For example, in the early stages of its interview process, the live chat software company Olark tells candidates that while they are headquartered in San Francisco, California, they mostly operate as a remote team. They still care about everyone getting to know one another, so they plan a company retreat 1-2 times a year. Some candidates love the freedom and flexibility of remote working, while others really want to be around their coworkers. Letting candidates know early on lets them decide if it’s going to be a good fit for their preferred work style.
In the early stages it’s particularly important that technical talent have an understanding and an appetite for what you’re working on. They don’t need to be as passionate about it as you, the founder, but they need to have some interest. If they don’t, it will be difficult to develop empathy for customers and anticipate their needs.
I remember in the early days of Mint, all the early employees really understood personal finance, budgeting, and investing. As a result, we understood our customers’ needs and were able to build a product that addressed them.
Now, assuming you are committed to your idea, have a product roadmap for the next few months, and know the type of person you want to hire, let’s talk about where you can find technical talent.
Stop wasting your money on job boards.
Many founders tell me that they’ve posted on job boards, and while they produce some leads, the candidates are just not the right fit.
Job boards aren’t going to yield quality candidates because you are a new company. So when someone sees an ad for a job posting, they might not know what you are doing or be interested in the space. Remember, you’re competing against buzzworthy startups like AirBnB, Square, and Uber.
Instead of going online, start with your existing network. Don’t blast your email or LinkedIn contacts. Start by sending out 5 to 10 personal emails to people within your network, especially those who you know are pretty social. Explain what your company does, who you’re looking for, and how they can help.
They might struggle to come up with names initially, so help them out by asking questions like:
Do they know anyone who is unhappy in their current position?
Who wants to work at a startup or break into the space your startup is in?
Take their referrals and treat them as the tip of an iceberg. The referral may or may not be a fit, but you can ask them for additional referrals.
The first month I was working at Mint, I interviewed a candidate for a product manager position. Ultimately, we decided it wasn’t the right time to bring them on because we didn’t have enough of a need for a PM. What we really needed was a VP of Engineering with a security background. We were candid with the PM candidate, and once we told them what we were looking for, they ended up referring us to their good friend who became our VP of Engineering!
Go where technical talent actually hangs out.
While there are a lot of great online avenues for sourcing candidates, I can honestly say that I have the best close rate with candidates when I meet them face to face initially.
My personal preference is to go to Meetups, events, and speak at conferences. In fact, almost 99% of the people I’ve personally hired initially saw me speak at an event and reached out to me afterwards. I developed a rapport, understood their specific skills and talents, and ended up interviewing and hiring them either a few months or a year later.
I also recommend sponsoring a Meetup group and asking for 5 minutes to talk about your company and hiring needs.
If you are technical, then even presenting a 5-minute lightning talk is an effective way to build awareness for your company.
Once you have some promising candidates, you’ll want to interview them. What should you ask them? What if you want to hire an engineer, but you have no technical background to help you evaluate their skillset?
You don’t need to be technical in order to interview someone.
Most people don’t know how to build a house, so they end up hiring an architect or contractor to design and build one for them. When it comes to hiring the contractor it’s not like they sit there and ask them questions like, “How would you install plumbing in a 2000-square-foot home?” Instead, they focus on asking for references and requesting samples of their work.
When it comes to references, they ask questions like, “Are you happy with your home? Did Archie the architect deliver the design on time? Did Candice the contractor stick to the budget? What was the quality of their work? How did they communicate changes or delays to you?”
Same rules apply when building software.
You don’t need to be technical; instead, you can focus on gauging the personality of the candidate and determining if they will produce quality work.
Personality fit means that someone will enjoy the tasks and nature of the position. Most importantly, it means they can and will do what is required of the job.
It’s important to do a technical screen eventually. If you don’t have a technical co-founder, then find a technical advisor who can devote a few hours a week to helping you screen candidates.
So how can one gauge the type of candidate they have during an interview? Consider some types like structure vs. creativity and thinker vs. executer.
Structure vs. Creativity
By structure, I mean people who need organization structure in order to do their best thinking and work. This doesn’t mean they won’t do well at a startup, but they might need some time to adjust.
In general, candidates who fit into the structure category are ones who operate really well if there are clear guidelines. The want to be managed, work within a process, adhere to milestones, and may not appreciate open-ended projects as much as their counterparts who crave creativity. On the other hand, people who are creatively inclined will want to know that there is little to no process and they have the freedom to enact change if need be.
Both types of individuals are very much necessary in any type of organization. Here’s why: the candidate who is structured will be very methodical, meet project deadlines, and keep projects moving forward. However, if there is a snag, they might get anxious. That’s when the creative type can step in and solve problems in unconventional ways.
Its important to have both and have them working with each other. But in the midst of hiring you have to figure out the nature of the position you are filling and which type of candidate it will appeal to. Figuring this out will also lead to lower turnover rates, because you’ll know the personality of your employees and be able to manage them better.
Thinker vs. Executer
There are those who may show a lot of enthusiasm for a company or a project and will be able to provide a high-level solution, but then have a very hard time when it comes to execution. These are thinkers. Others may be detail-oriented and enjoy executing. This is actually a trait that is easy to gauge during an interview. For starters, you need to be able to spot how methodical someone is when solving problems or following a conversation. If they are very linear, then they will most likely fall into your bucket of executer. They will follow a logical path. In contrast, a high-level thinker might wander around a little, but they tend to be pretty creative in their approach to problem solving.
Do keep in mind that none of these traits is mutually exclusive. There are some who will exhibit a blend of all of them, and certain traits will be prominent at different times or even based on the type of work they are performing.
There are, of course, other traits like the ability to work well under pressure or the need for very clear and explicit directions, but these are harder to gauge in the context of an interview. They will come out with time, or you can do a reference check to speak with past employers.
Once again, it’s up to those who are recruiting to figure out which kind of employee they want to hire, and what leading personality traits they need. Then they must gauge the candidate’s traits to help manage them and set expectations for the position.
Don’t try to fit a square programmer into a round hole.
Too often, recruiters and developers think that matching the job position’s skills and the culture of the team is sufficient for a hire. But truthfully, every developer is different in terms of their personality and how they go about solving problems. If you are interested in having the candidate work for you and add long-term value, you have to be able to gauge their interests and capabilities from day one. Failing to do so can manifest in underperformance, not because the developer isn’t talented, but because their skills and personality aren’t leveraged correctly.
As you’re creating a job description or conducting an interview for your next hire, think about the following:
What are the upcoming projects in the pipeline?
Does the candidate have time to learn a new skillset?
Do I need someone who is already an expert and can start executing right away?
Does the project require working with different departments, figuring out feasibility, and going through a few iterations?
In previous positions, did the candidate succeed in a structured or unstructured environment? For how long?
How would the candidate react to deadlines that are moved up or pushed back?
Start with a project or a work-along day.
If you’re at all concerned about a candidate or don’t have a technical co-founder or advisor to help with recruiting, then give the candidate a small project to work on. When you’re designing the trial project, make sure that it will take them 1-2 days max, give them clear criteria for how you will be grading their work, and communicate how they should deliver the project to you.
Not everyone will complete the project and some might actually scoff at it, which means they weren’t a good fit to begin with. Those who take the time to produce a polished project will be the ones you want to hire!
When I was hiring my second engineer at BizeeBee, I gave the candidates one feature to work on: to create graphs in the product using a graphing library called HighCharts. The candidates had exactly 1 week to complete as much of the project as they could. The candidate who completed it within 1 week and produced the highest quality was the one I ended up hiring and eventually they became my co-founder.
Understand their needs.
Once you’re this far in the process, take the time to ask the candidate if they have any specific needs and gauge their level of interest.
I’ve had a few candidates tell me that they absolutely needed to make a certain amount of money because they were in a tight financial situation.
Or that they absolutely needed to work from home 2-3 days a week.
Ultimately, I had to decide whether I could meet their needs, and if I couldn’t, then I’d just have to tell them that and move on.
The last thing you want to do is hire someone knowing that you cannot give them what they need.
Craft an offer.
If the candidate is a great fit, it’s time to make an offer.
I know that salaries have skyrocketed, especially in the Bay Area. Everyone expects to start out at $100K and most senior talent wants $150K+.
If you cannot afford this because you’re bootstrapping or haven’t raised a lot of capital, then you need to be up front about it.
Give candidates a reason why your offer may not be market rate. Once again, the ones who really care and believe in your idea will be OK with it.
I always like to let candidates know that there is a potential for a bump in their salary if we raise additional capital or our revenue increases, and if they want, then I’m happy to include that in the offer letter.
But even before you talk numbers, remind them of the opportunity you’re offering them and why you chose them!
Learn more about the process for recruiting and managing teams to build software products in How to Transform Ideas into Software Products. It will give you a step-by-step process for validating your ideas and bringing them to life, plus save you the agony of having to learn it all on your own! Sign up here to receive more information and samples from the book.