Tag Archives: Engineer

Successfully Showcasing a Startup

Gone are the days of free soda,  snacks, and meals!  It’s not that engineers have suddenly become more demanding.  In fact many still don’t know their own value, especially femgineers…

Joining a startup as an engineer used to primarily be about believing in the startup’s vision, team dynamics, technology stack, equity, salary, and role along with employee number.  These are still important factors, but the dynamics of decision making have dramatically deepened due to the increasing number of startups that are competing for a stagnant number of engineers.

It’s become harder to recruit engineers, because engineers have many startups to choose from, and especially within the same category: gaming, marketplaces, payments, SMBs, fin tech, etc.  As a result, recruiting top talent has caused companies to become more creative when showcasing themselves.

One company that recently caught my attention is Medium, originally named Obvious Corp.  Medium was founded by Twitter and Blogger co-founder Ev Williams.  Medium is focused on being a platform where people can share ideas and stories about their lives, creative pursuits, and careers.  It aims to be more collaborative than Ev’s previous product Blogger.  Still in beta, the company is putting a lot of effort into hiring top talent.

I was introduced to Medium by its CTO Don Neufeld.  Don and I met at a previous Femgineer Forum I was hosting at CoverHound.  He candidly shared his approach to hiring top talent, team building, and some of the challenges he had faced when trying to attract technical women.

After meeting Don, I dug in to learn more about Medium, because as a blogger I’m generally curious about what platforms are out there.  What I discovered that was even more appealing than the product, was how the company had built a culture where employees naturally wanted to share their experiences on motherhood and being recruited (as a candidate who needed a visa).

You may think that employees who work there will only want to say good things, but then there are those who are around for a just bit, and feel strongly enough that they want to share their experience.

Medium also understands that recruiting and retaining talent is about the long term.  This summer Don has a group of incoming interns, and wants them to have the best experience possible.  Part of that experience is having me come and host a Femgineer Forum at Medium to discuss a rather sensitive topic: Overcoming Insecurities to Innovate.

While Medium is a young startup, its led by notable veterans, who have learned that the secret sauce to building a tech company is hiring the best talent.  There’s no secret formula to attracting top talent, startups have to become better at showcasing themselves, and creating alignment with a young company’s goals.  What’s working for Medium happens to be an extension of it’s company’s core experience, storytelling.

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How to Keep Your Startup Engineer Sane

You worked hard to attract that so-called rock star engineer, thinking that they would be the golden goose who could bring your vision to reality, but now things have gotten rocky.  Iteration cycles are taking too long, buggy code is being shipped, or you find that your engineer is working on things that are not a priority.  Why don’t they understand your ass is on-the-line?!

Because you’ve probably made 1 of 3 mistakes:

Have you changed your vision or product roadmap more than once in the past 3 months?

Engineers need time to think, build, test, and refine.  If you constantly change your mind then it forces them to have to re-work what they’ve already done.  Here’s a simple example, if you went to a cake maker and said you wanted a chocolate cake, then changed your mind  to vanilla as they were mixing the batter for your chocolate cake, then you decide to go back to chocolate, when will the cake maker actually have time to make the batter, bake the cake, and then frost it?!   Same rules apply.  While software can be changed more easily and with less mess than a cake, there is still a process and your constant changes are interfering with the the final product.  This will ultimately demotivate an engineer, because they’re not solving problems.  It also make it hard for them to gain a sense of accomplishment, because the product is always in a half-baked state.

If an engineer is working on projects that are not a priority, its because you haven’t given them a clear roadmap, and they want to fulfill their need for efficacy by building something rather than nothing.

If you’re unsure about the product roadmap or vision for the company work it out before you start building.  You’ll have a happier engineering team.

Were you desperate to find a developer?

If you are not guilty of changing requirements or putting a very aggressive schedule in place, but still have a product that is very buggy or not being shipped on time, then its very  likely that the engineer you hired just doesn’t have the technical chops.  You need to have an honest conversation with them.  You’ll also need to get better about screening candidates to avoid this situation, and make sure you gauge their skill level.  This might be hard to do if you’re a business founder.  The two easiest solutions are to have someone work on a mini-project for a short amount of time to judge the quality of their work, or find someone who can run your candidates through a rigorous technical interview.

Are you calling the shots for technical issues that are actually outside the scope of your expertise?

People burn out and leave because founders breathe down their neck, and micromanage.  You heard Rails is the rage therefore your engineer needs to learn Rails…  First of all this is not a decision that you should be making.  Obviously you don’t want it built on something esoteric that makes it hard to recruit additional engineers or hard to maintain.  So your conversations should revolve around what is the skill set of your initial development team, how manageable will the code base be using that technology (programming language), and the final is when will be the right time to switch or entertain other technologies, and how to prepare for it.

If you know you hired well then give your engineer the benefit of the doubt.

Now don’t go beating yourself up because your engineer has gone awol 🙂  Its after all a startup, recruiting and retaining talent is hard.  If you think the relationship is salvageable admit to your mistakes and have them work with you on fixing the problem.  If you care about the success of your startup and want to build an effective and efficient engineering team, then take sometime to think through how you can be a better boss for the next candidate.  Technical founders can commit these mistakes too, its just about learning how to manage people, which is a hard and takes time.  Eventually, you’ll want to hire someone who can take this process of your hands like a VP of Engineering or a CTO, but until you have the funds to do so don’t  let your non-technical background stop you from moving forward!

If you’ve enjoyed this post and want to learn more ways you can recruit and retain technical talent then check out our Lean Product Development Course Learn more!

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Retaining Startup Engineers

In my previous post I focused on the key issues to think about when recruiting a startup engineer.  In this post I’d like to shift focus on how to keep them.

Engineers jump ship early for various reasons, its usually a combination of the following three: instability in management, unclear path to an exit, and work that is mindless and unyielding.  But there are those who stick around even if there isn’t an end in the near term, there are periodic shakeups in the organization, and they’re well past their vesting initial vesting period.  The reason they stay is that they are enjoying the work, being challenged, and experience the impact they are making on users.  They also have a manager who has given them the support they need to advance in terms of projects, and believes in quality of the work they are doing.  So how does an engineering manager retain talent?

Prized Projects

Managers should realize that if they have engineers on their staff that have a decent track record, have been at even one successful startup (including the present one), and can bang out code on a couple platforms then chances are they are going to be wooed all the time!  You can’t blame recruiters for trying to covet your prized programmers.  Instead you’ve got to learn to understand each of your engineers and continue to motivate them.  This is hard to do in a startup.  Why?  Because as a startup manager your time is limited and you’re under a lot of pressure to produce results and end up prioritizing it over making sure that everyone on your team is satisfied.  And even if you wanted to please everyone there are only a limited number of juicy projects to work on.  If you can’t promise a project don’t.  But if there is a chance to break up a project into parts, and divvy it up that might be the way to go.  That way you’re not playing favorites and you’ll benefit from building redundancy in the knowledge base over time.  Remember startup engineers don’t want hand-me-down projects, i.e. they don’t want to feel like someone else has built everything and now they just get to maintain it.  They want to be part of the creation phase, and if you can give them a slice of it then they’ll stay motivated because they’ll feel like you listened and cared about advancing their experience and skill set.

Communication and Coding Style

Most people speak up for what they want.  Some just go off and build stuff.  While others sit around and wait to be asked if everything is ok and are afraid to go off on their own.  As an engineering manager its important to figure out what your engineers’ coding and communication style is right off the bat.  Its perfectly ok to ask people whether they like having freedom to manage their own projects or need a more disciplined task master.   You also need to know their preferred work style.  Some people like to come in late and code into the night while others may be morning people and want time off to relax in the evening.   There are those who code away in noisy environments while others need a quiet room to think in for a few hours a day.  There are also some who work best if they just work on a single project and others like context switching or working along the entire stack as opposed to just front or backend development.  These are the types of questions an engineering manager needs to ask during the hiring phase to gauge their candidate’s personality.  It will of course change with time, which is why its important to do a monthly checkup at the very least.


I’ve been on both sides of these, and frankly its awkward for everyone.  The manager sits there and first wants a status update then moves onto pressing issues, and then finally asks the engineer how things are going.  At which point an hour or more has gone by and everyone is exhausted.  Checkups should not be status updates.  A manager should know what the status is if they’ve reading checkins and tracking bugs.  One-on-one time is meant to place the engineer’s concerns first.  Find out if they’re stuck on something, if they’ve been exploring a new technology, how they like the project so far, or if they have any concerns with a member of the team or the company.


Yes there are limited funds, so monetary rewards aren’t always possible.  If you can’t afford to give someone a raise then at the very least give them praise!  There are a lot of other ways to incentivize people: conferences, giving them time to learn a new technology, showcasing their latest achievements in front of their peers, and for heavens sakes tell the founders, investors, and management about the stellar job they’ve been doing!

Remember in a startup emotions runs high especially if there are periodic fires to fight.  If there is one unsatisfied engineer then chances are there are more or there will be soon.  As a manager your time is limited and its hard to motivate everyone on your team all the time.  But that’s another reason why you have to make sure the team dynamic is one where people help each other out.  Collaboration isn’t just about getting things done its about building a culture that can last through the fires.

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