How to Hire Great Engineers for Your Startup

Last night I had the pleasure of attending the latest Startup2Startup on engineering management with Yishan Wong, an early director of engineering at Facebook.

The area we spent the most time discussing, both during the presentation and during the discussion that followed, was how to hire great engineers for your startup. I thought it was a particularly appropriate topic given that I receive weekly requests from colleagues asking me for help on their quest for engineers. So I thought I'd take a moment to post on some of the most actionable take-aways from the discussion.

The fundamental insight was that a transition has occurred in the last couple of years causing the core problem of technical recruiting shifting away from being a filtering problem to now becoming a marketing problem. The reasons are obvious: the growth in tech fueled by access to capital coupled with the declining engineering graduates continues to widen the supply and demand gap. Startups need to now spend more of their recruiting resources not around improving the filtering process of selecting candidates that have applied for positions, but mainly the marketing process of finding interested candidates in the first place.

With that, let's talk about 5 practices you can put in place today to improve your chances of finding great engineers.

Leverage your network.
We have all heard that the best folks to hire are those that are already in our personal and professional networks. The first thing any of us do when looking to hire is try to recruit folks that we know or have met at some point in our career. But Yishan took it one step further by talking about specific practices that you should be employing to maximize the value of your networking for recruiting. The biggest one was not to simply reach out to folks once and see if they were interested in your opportunity. But instead to hit them up every 3 months. Circumstances change and they change especially fast here in the valley. You want to make sure that not only are you reaching out to them when it may be a good time, but more importantly that you are top of mind when they do decide it's time for a change. The other key strategy is to not simply think of people in your network that are actively looking. Some of the best hires are those that are not looking, yet still decide to jump when they find a much better fit at another company.

SHAMELESS PLUG: You might want to try out my latest product, Connected, as a great way to leverage your network for recruiting.

Become a magnet.
Yishan also talked a great deal about the need for a company to find a way to become a magnet for great talent. In the early days, Facebook widely distributed technical puzzles that they often asked during engineering interviews. While many people thought the puzzles were used primarily to asses technical talent, they were in fact used mainly as a marketing tool. They were eager to find engineers that enjoyed solving and discussing these kinds of technical challenges and wanted to convey to engineers that Facebook was the place to go to tackle them.

Similarly, we talked about how Netflix did a fantastic job of putting together an astonishing culture deck that certainly caused a boost to inbound recruiting with the company. It very clearly laid out what Netflix believed in and how they were going to win in their market and made many people feel like this was an exciting company to work for.

There are a variety of tactics that can be employed to achieve this, but the goal is to find a way for your company to become a magnet of technical talent. Only then can you expect a great pipeline of candidates.

Hire H-1Bs.
Unfortunately the immigration process in this country is still so painful and while there are efforts to resolve them, they still persist. However, many companies simply overlook foreign candidates because of all the hassle associated with the visa process. This can be a real mistake. It turns out that for certain countries, the process really takes no more than a great lawyer and some up-front legal fees. Being open to doing so gets you access to a whole new pool of talent. And frankly, these employees will be more likely to be loyal to you since you have gone through the process of getting them their visa on their behalf. I know several companies that have successfully hired many folks this way.

Contribute to open source.
Early in a startup's life, it can be difficult to justify contributions to open source projects given the limited resources the team has. But it turns out that there are two reasons you may want to reconsider this stance. First, many engineers love giving back to the community and contributing and it can be a real carrot to offer prospective candidates. More importantly, the open source community is very tight knit and having serious contributions to projects can be a great way to market your company to other open source contributors, who are often some of the finest tech talent available.

Prioritize what you need.
Given how difficult it is to hire, it's unrealistic to expect to find someone that matches all your ideal criteria. The key is to pick the few attributes you are really unwilling to compromise on and let that guide your recruiting process. While hiring the right people is paramount to success, so is making forward progress in your company. So make sure you are truly discerning in your required list of criteria. And realize that often attributes like having the right attitude end up being more important than straight technical skills or experience.

I hope that gives you some good ideas on how to super charge your startup's own recruiting process. If you come across other techniques that work, please do share!
Want to accelerate your product career?
I've finally distilled my 15+ years of product experience into a course designed to help PMs master their craft. Join me for the next cohort of Mastering Product Management.
Are you building a new product?
Learn how to leverage the Deliberate Startup methodology, a modern approach to finding product/market fit. Join me for the next cohort of Finding Product/Market Fit.
Enjoyed this essay?
Get my monthly essays on product management & entrepreneurship delivered to your inbox.