How To Hire A Software Engineer At A Startup

There’s a reason software engineers are the most in-demand employees in the technology industry and, arguably, anywhere in the working world: There are simply not enough of them to go around. From senior iOS engineers to Python full-stack generalists, software engineers generally have their pick of the available positions.

With Glassdoor estimating some 99,000 software engineer job openings in the U.S., many companies are struggling to hire the software engineers they need to really succeed. For young startups in particular, the hunt for venture funding, generous valuations, and public validation can hinge on one or two capable and confident engineers.

Where better-funded and more established companies can afford a trial-and-error period with software engineers, startups need to make the right decision the first time around. And while there is no exact science to luring software engineers to your burgeoning team, there are certain guidelines startups can follow to source the right type of engineering talent. At the end of the day, though, it’s all a matter of speed. Software engineers are going fast, and you need a plan to catch them before they’re gone.

Zero in on Your Targets

Once you’ve established an opening at your startup, the first thing you need to do is determine the ideal engineer to fit that position. For example, engineering A-listers — your first hires, your team leaders — will command the highest salaries and as a result need to be highly experienced programmers who can innovate, lead, communicate, and problem-solve with the best of them. The junior- and mid-level engineers, meanwhile, are the gap-fillers and can be convinced with fewer dollar signs. If you are on a budget — as most startups are — consider beefing up your offers with stock options or looking into less in-demand regions for talented engineers willing to work remotely.

In terms of technical skills, senior developers must be versatile. It’s less important that they be well-versed in your specific framework, since their knowledge and experience should allow them to pick up its elements rather easily. For more junior engineers, it’s the inverse. Since these employees lack experience and on-the-job know-how, they should already know your stack.

When sourcing software engineers, the amount and variety of their skills can be overwhelming. Typically, though, how engineers self-identify on resumes, sites, or hiring apps — what they emphasize as their preferred or most recent job function — translates well into the kinds of positions they’re looking for.

Lastly, and perhaps most obviously: It is a plus when an engineer has experience working in a startup. While the hands-on daily responsibilities may be the same whether you’re at a company with 10 employees or one with 10,000, but the cultural requirements will be entirely different.

Never Cold-Recruit

There is little software engineers dislike more than inbound cold emails, or worse, phone calls. As in-demand workers, engineers are constantly bombarded with correspondence from inside and outside recruiters, which has caused many to toss out cold recruiting job opportunities en masse. The spray-and-pray approach simply does not work.

While LinkedIn may seem like your friend in sourcing engineering talent, many engineers have moved away from the service as it has become a hive of recruiters, many of whom pay to access their data and send those cold emails. Even if you steer clear of the recruiting services, InMail and its ilk should remain an area of last resort.

Your best bet is a warm introduction facilitated by your network in the industry or you yourself. Even something as small as a referral from a friend or colleague could do the trick.This triggers a series of concentric circles — a social solar system. If those engineers in your company’s immediate circles aren’t interested, they may have friends or former colleagues who are open to a switch. Even if prospective engineers are a few degrees of separation away, they will be of better quality — and better vetted — than with the cold-email route.

Pitch Perfect

Pitching your startup to prospective employees — particularly experienced, qualified software engineers — is just as important as pitching vision to funders and value to users. How does your startup set itself apart from the crowd? How stellar and ambitious is your team? How is your company angling to change the world? And, finally, how does the engineer fit into that vision?

Answering these questions before you start pitching the engineers will give you a much better chance of luring them away from comfortable careers and convincing them to take a chance on your startup.

Whichever type of engineer you’re looking for, you should not change your screening process. Don’t forego a coding test to accommodate an all-star programmer, and don’t cut any corners interviewing junior engineers just because you need to hire someone quickly. Even as the initial application process may be different for the two types — for one, you will be pitching them, and for the other, they’ll be pitching themselves — your ultimate standards should remain just that: standards.

The Final Gauntlet

For neither type of candidate should the coding challenges ever be something you are building for your app; it’s tacky, and good engineers will sniff it out. Nor should the coding tests or puzzles be of the stock variety; many colleges even offer classes in nailing these generalist quizzes and won’t provide an accurate view of that candidate’s ability.

Different startups have different ideas about this final interview vetting process. Apple won’t let you into the building until you’ve landed the job, while smaller up-and-comers may have an engineer spend two or three days working alongside other engineers and meeting with the entire team. Whatever you choose, be sure you keep it consistent no matter the candidate or the position — an equitable approach to hiring always pays off in the end.