How to recruit engineers at a startup

, 513 words

How to recruit engineers at a startup

Finding good developers or technical staff is difficult at the best of times, but if you're new to working with them, or are pressed for time or budget, it is particularly tough. Over the last ten years it hasn't got any easier.

I've hired an awful lot of IT, operational and engineering staff over the years. If you're going it alone, here's what I've learned:

  • At least 95% of the programmers on the market aren't good programmers (see "Grand Master Programmer" if you're interested to know more). Spotting the difference is hard unless you're technical yourself, and even then it's still tricky. Development patterns and understanding of abstraction are good to explore with candidates, as often it's the principles of software development that matter. In most cases you're better off hiring the excellent Java developer over the middling .NET developer, even if you do use .NET, as a smart developer's skills will translate and bring extra insight.
  • Test candidates carefully. Ask them to write you a program in a language they've never used before, in 30 minutes. You might have to test fifty developers before you find one who can do it well. Often you can find an experienced CTO who can help develop your test or vet candidates.
  • Recruiters are not easy to use effectively. Most of them do not have domain experience, so even if they were in a position to evaluate candidates properly, they couldn't. Recruiters will ask for anything up to 25% or 30%. If you absolutely must use a recruiter, bear in mind that most will work for 12.5%. Of course, they won't tell you this, but once you've made clear you have agreements with some of their competitors, they'll come around after making all sorts of disclaimers. That said, in competitive spaces it can be helpful to incentivise them more than this.
  • Good technical staff aren't always expensive. Recruiters have a tendency to ask for at least 25% over the going rate for anyone with any experience. With a good enough network, there's no reason you can't find a strong performer for much less than the recruiters' headline figures, even in Central London.
  • There are lots of niche sites for technology recruitment, but Gumtree has been working well over the last few years, and it's not particularly expensive. Monster are not only particularly expensive, but when using them before, I've only received CVs from foreign candidates, none of whom were cleared to work in the UK. Arranging permits to bring technical staff over used to be fairly quick and relatively inexpensive (<£1,000), but changes in legislation this year have made it much more difficult. Monster continued to bombard me with promotional mail after unsubscribing and deleting my account, so I'd stay well clear.

Assuming you've sorted out your recruitment, remember one more thing. If you haven't worked with technical people before, you may find them hard to manage if you lack technical skills yourself. Get lucky with a good communicator, or find someone with the experience to help and work with you.