Hiring engineers at early stage startups
How do you hire your first engineers? It’s a challenge many early stage companies spend a good amount of time and resourcing trying to figure out. Save yourself some time and meet with technical founders Paul Klein and Anne Solmssen, and technical recruiter Hudson Brock. The trio shed light on their successful experiences attracting and hiring engineers to early stage startups. From different approaches to sourcing candidates to what to look for and unlearn, the conversation is a resource you’ll want to bookmark and revisit often.
Between the great resignation and the economic downturn, getting to a position where your new company is ready and able to hire its first engineers is half the challenge. The next piece you'll have to figure out is how to attract and retain brilliant developers in this climate. Here, we asked experienced hiring managers and recruiters to shed light on the approaches they've seen success with.
Hudson Brock, founder of boutique recruiting agency Allo Hire, shares why it’s important to prepare for the current market. Good engineers in your interview process are very likely to get a counter offer from their current employer or receive multiple offers from other companies. But engineers are not a monolith and what is motivating for one is not going to be motivating for the other. Start-ups have the opportunity to offer exciting tech, the promise of building something from the ground up, high growth potential, and healthier working environments.
The current environment is an opportunity for founders and hiring managers to end outdated practices and to develop transparent and honest hiring processes that can help hire dedicated engineers who will level up the work. We spoke with Hudson to learn more about his experience as a recruiter and working with high growth teams from seed stage start-ups to Fortune 200 companies.
We also chatted with Paul Klein, Engineering Manager at Mux and Anne Solmssen, Founder & CTO of Ethena. Paul brings his experience as the Founder and CTO at Stream Club, a video streaming service that was purchased by Mux. He’s been an engineer his whole life and has hired engineers at big public companies, smart start-ups and a Series D startup. Anne's compliance software company is scaling rapidly with high growth in engineering teams and is able to share some lessons from hiring very quickly.
Different approaches to sourcing engineers
Anne Solmssen, Founder of Ethena shares that when you have a small team, candidates are betting on the people you have already hired. Using referrals from the networks of your current employees is powerful when “you don’t yet have a lot of evidence of traffic or revenue and/or haven’t raised significant venture funding. So personal trust and respect is an amazing tool to get someone excited to join a journey with you.”
In Paul Klein’s experience building Mux, working with contractors is a good way to get to know potential employees. They are clearly looking for work and you get to learn about their ways of working, strengths, and growth opportunities that you could support.
Paul shared: “Three of our emplyees were converted from contract to full time. We were their best client, we gave them interesting work, they ended up wanting to work with us full time to get equity in the project they were building.” Even if a contractor doesn't end up coming on full time, you get to have built up a talent pool for future reference. “If you’re building something interesting, contractors are going to want to stick around. They want one consistent client, they want equity and health benefits. We found one on Hacker News, but there’s not one recruiting agency that has the best contractors. Your best bet is asking around in spaces like Propel and with the contractors you know about the agencies they’ve worked with.”
Whilst referrals create a high level of trust among the team that you hire, it can also create a status quo. Relying on an existing network often means recruiting more of the same types of people in terms of education, background, geography, race, sex, gender, and much more. Continuing to recruit in this way for too long could compromize your ability to grow your company with a diverse team.
Given that your early hires are going to be an integral part to establishing company culture, prioritizing diversity from the get-go will help foster an environment that is supportive to people with different backgrounds and identities.
According to Felicia Jadczack, CEO and Head of DEI at She+Geeks, “organizations that take the time to be thoughtful about building DEI into the very fabric of their foundations and processes from day one have such a leg up on other companies, because they can provide meaningful answers to these types of questions, and they’ll grow in a much different way, with different ideas, voices, and people at the table.” She recommends incorporating DEI into the interviewing process and sharing the long term DEI goals (and of course, having concrete plans to take action), beyond just hiring someone who is from an unrepresented group.
What qualities and competencies matter in early hires?
Languages and Frameworks are the least important thing. - Anne Solmssen, Founder & CTO @ Ethena
Anne: You are looking for so many skills in early engineers coupled with someone who is willing to take a chance on you and your dream. If you are too particular about framework or language, you are going to unnecessarily limit your hiring pool and often really flexible, proactive, generalists can teach themselves as long as there is at least one person on the team who can serve as a subject matter expert for the particular stack that you're using.
- Self-management: can they see the direction your company is headed in? Can they propose work that’s going to help get you there?
- Prior experience at a startup: They know what they're getting into, especially for an early stage and they're going to come in with some ideas and an experience of seeing how it was done.
- Smart generalists: They are the core builders that get you started and build momentum. They’re going to be doing this across the stack and can cover most of the surface area you need. They might not be experts in any or everything, but that’s ok because we can bring in outside experts, contractors or consultants to help with specific areas.
- Proactivity: if you can take the initiative, it’s amazing what you can learn through Google and Youtube. With just a few hours a week and some senior level mentorship, you can run a new language.
How do you excite engineers about your company?
Anne: Be honest about what you are and what you aren't, and ask questions to understand what candidates are a fit, and then it's way easier to get them and keep them energized about what you’re doing. All engineers are not motivated by the same things. So it's incredibly important to understand what value you and your team bring and what value you and your team don't bring. So, uh, to give an example for us, we are a highly collaborative engineering team and we've been that way since we were tiny and we know that we're going to stay that way as we grow. And so it's really important to us to have folks who are really energized to spend time working with each other and not to spend time in silos with headphones on as can sometimes be the case with engineers. And so we love to ask candidates, does that excite you? And if it does, we have an amazing value proposition for them.
Paul: if you're energized about what you're building, it's contagious. Candidates feel that. When you're hiring, it can be a bit of a slog talking to a lot of candidates so it's hard to bring the right energy every single time. The pitch you bring needs to be something that people can connect with and get excited about. If you're not excited about your own thing on the call, it's going to be hard to get someone to want to work for you. So just remember that they're betting their future career on your company, they are going to want to feel motivated and interested. Try to make a strong first impression.
Hudson: As a recruiter, for any client we're going to work with, I want to meet the founder or a leader on the team, and I want to assess how excited they are. We’re emotional creatures at heart. Stories are what people will really cling to and they will remember how you make them feel. Being aware of your energy level when you’re doing different tasks is hugely important.
How do you update the interview process?
Paul: The process will differ greatly depending on the number of candidates you’re talking to. We have a consistent interview that doesn’t take a lot of time because our candidates are going through multiple offers and we’ve got to be efficient. But in higher-level situations, like for a first or early hire, you can think about creative ways to feel out a collaboration, and how the candidate communicates issues or problems. Early on, we would invite a candidate to work (paid) on a Saturday to program together, and we’d spend the day on a project, checking in throughout the day. It’s time expensive, but we were making big bets on these first hires.
Anne: Make sure you can answer 1. What does the candidate get excited about and why are they going to work with you? And 2. What skills does this candidate have that you are excited about? Assessing what you have, what you need, and what they want to see if it’s a fit, there’s no single best profile.
Hudson: Transparency! Letting engineers know the standard process for interviewing, how long it's going to take, is there going to be a technical assessment. Be transparent about the compensation and make it more of a dialogue, always with the disclaimer it's commensurate to experience because we’re committed to getting the best person. If you can actually back that up with the numbers you’re asking, that’s a different story. Also, explaining the holistic compensation beyond salary. There's so many companies they'll just throw terms out there, like “huge opportunities for growth” and “meaningful equity.” What in the world does that mean? If you get like X number of shares, How many outstanding shares are there, what's the estimated value of those shares all this, is it going to get crazy diluted? Be able to answer questions on the front end.
Keep the conversation going in Slack. Are you a developer job hunting? Or a hiring manager looking to build out your engineering team? What have your experiences been finding your match in this climate?
We’re currently welcoming applications from aspiring and current founders. If you identified with any of the goals shared earlier and feel excited to support your peers as you build, we would love to meet you. Apply now and we’ll be in touch to schedule your interview.