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How to Recruit Brilliant Engineers


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Want to recruit top tech talent? Yeah, well so does every other tech company in the country. The supply of tech talent simply cannot keep up with demand, but that doesn’t mean it’s not out there. The best engineers have their pick of jobs, so how do you get them on your team if you can’t pay match Google or Facebook pay? You can’t expect to simply put an ad out and have engineers at your door. To recruit the right engineers for your company, you’ll have to look inward before investing your time and money.

Create the Right Company Culture

You may not have a ping pong room or a masseuse on hand, but you may have something to offer that a large corporation may not; freedom. Room to grow, intimacy, and more autonomy over work are prime examples. There are plenty of advantages to working at a smaller company that could trump ping pong and yoga classes — you just need to make those points abundantly clear when you meet candidates.

Company culture is something you should cultivate from the outset, and the best part is that it doesn’t take much money. It does require your attention though – you have to be astute to the messages you send out.

The first step is making sure your current team is happy, which will be the result of a commitment to establishing an open line of communication and transparency with your employees. To encourage input, schedule 1:1 meetings, and ask real questions like, ‘what is something that’s really bothering you?’, or ‘where would you like to see a change?’ Deliver on employee feedback, and you’ll have the best brand ambassadors you could ask for. This is especially important today when we have social channels like Glassdoor, where potential candidates will undoubtedly be looking to gauge your company.

Culture is also dependent on mission and values. It’s important to keep these alive in the everyday, not just talk about them as abstracts while onboarding. Regularly hold events, quick meetings, company events, whatever — just be creative in reminding your employees (and yourself) why you come into work each day, and why you work hard to give customers the best possible product. In fact, treat potential candidates more like customers. They too are making decisions about your product based on emotions, and will identify with your company based on mission and values.

Joe Stump, a founder who spoke at the CTO Summit, explained why recruiting rockstar engineers is also about firing brilliant assholes and eliminating heroism and technical zealots:

“A lot of people say don’t fire great engineers — but they’re wrong. It only takes one asshole to destroy an entire team.”

Perhaps that’s a brash way to look at it, but keeping a skilled engineer around who makes work miserable for everyone else isn’t going to help you find more engineers. Cut your losses.

The hero on the other hand, works under the guise of a dedicated employee, when in reality, this is the most damaging person on the team. That person who pulls all nighters, and steps up at crisis times is useful, but becomes a crutch — a tool in lieu of building reliable software. Eventually the hero will a) get burnt out b) resent the team for not ‘pulling their weight’ c) be resented by the team for making them feel like their hard work is inadequate. Joe Stump says to either send those people home or mandate vacations.

The third type he warns against are technical zealots. If your engineers are married to certain languages, they’re not open to using the best tool for any given project. These kinds of people start arguments, are stuck in their ways, and won’t be the best innovators. When you bring in new engineers, encourage those with a well rounded toolbox, and find those who are willing to learn.

Company culture is your most effective weapon for recruiting talent, so make your culture very clear from the first point of contact. Your candidates should always have a chance to meet any and all of the other employees to get a taste of the culture and dynamics.


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Referrals & Recruiting

Always incorporate referrals into your search for candidates, as it will drastically reduce the hours you spend looking for candidates. A healthy referral rate is 40-60%, and that requires active participation — don’t just sit around and wait for your employees to spoon feed you leads. Ask, offer incentives, or even start a referral program within your company. DropBox built their own app to manage employee referrals. If that’s any indication of the competitive nature of hiring in today’s market, I don’t know what is.

Recruiters lift a huge burden in these times of growth, and the right one will be a champion of the company’s culture and product. Recruiters are especially important when you have a low referral rate, or are generally having a hard time finding appropriate candidates. Recruiters have experience building these pipelines, and in certain cases, recruiters already have a roster of engineers who they’ve developed relationships with. Recruiting becomes necessary when a company starts growing at light speed, giving executives busy running the company the ability to dedicate their efforts to keeping company culture alive and well.

At what point should you stop trying to find engineers through referrals and hire a recruiter? How much time you got? Sequoia estimates hiring 12 new engineers takes 990 hours. Whether you decide to invest the time, or hire a recruiter to pick up some of the slack, you still need to get to know your candidates personally, and you should always have another skilled engineer assess their skills. Depending on the size of your company and the situation, you may ask your recruiter to come to you before reaching out to a potential candidate. When the first point of contact feels personal, you’re far more likely to get interest — people want to feel wanted and important!

When you’re communicating with candidates, promote ownership. That’s the main reason a rockstar candidate would be talking to you instead of Google. And if they do decide they like the company and the work, be prepared to offer a generous salary. After all, you’re getting what you pay for when the market is so competitive.

I can’t stress how important it is to be polite, welcoming, and real with potential candidates. This is the kind of ‘stuff’ that helps you close the deal. The hiring process is essentially ‘trying each other out’, not grilling potential candidates to see if they pass a test. Communicate about what your company needs and what the candidate needs from an employer. Sell your candidates on how you will meet those needs from a genuine place. The last thing you want is to invest time and money into someone who isn’t the right fit, or who will leave in a couple months because they didn’t get a genuine feel for the company. Send thank yous, be open, be real, and you’ll attract more of the right talent.

Recruiting is tough and absolutely one of the biggest challenges in growing a company. In tech, that factor is multiplied times 10. The first step is to look inward: you should be cultivating a culture that will make potential candidates fall in love with your company. With the competition in high gear, you’d best have a strategy in order for referrals and recruiting. Brilliant engineers are out there, they just need to be wined and dined, and ultimately wooed by your company.