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Photo: Brenda Gottsabend
Photo: Brenda Gottsabend

Recruiting developers to a startup is hard.

The market is tight. That’s compounded by the fact that it takes a special type of developer to work at a startup — someone who is comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity, and digs the culture.

I spend a lot of my time recruiting. Recently, in order to get a better sense of the ups and downs of the hiring market, I’ve been talking to people about how they find talented staffers — what’s working and what’s not.

You Can’t Teach an Old Dog New Tricks

David Aronchick
Hark’s David Aronchick

The first thing I’ve learned is that there is no silver bullet. People are trying everything and anything. Traditional job postings. Contingency recruiters. Aggressive networking. Sensational giveaways. I’ve tried most of these things as well — without great results. It turns out I’m not alone: These tactics all yield only mediocre results because the market is so tight.

Beyond that, there’s a conventional wisdom that we can just go hire developers away from Microsoft or Amazon. “There are rumors of billions of people who are ready to leave their secure jobs to take huge leaps into the unknown, but it’s just not true,” says Hark CEO David Aronchick.

Econ 101: Supply and Demand

Madrona’s Greg Gottesman says that finding engineering talent is the biggest challenge for a startup, one of the reasons the venture capital firm hired an experienced executive from Amazon, Robin Andrulevich, and Hakon Verespej, a former engineer, to support their portfolio companies.

“The reality is that it’s not like there’s just a bunch of great developers hanging out on the corner waiting to be picked up…you gotta go find them,” says Gottesman. “And, of course, the best developers are currently employed, and since they’re the best developers they’re getting the best projects, so they’re challenged too.”

On the other end of the spectrum, angel investor Andy Sack is trying to address the problem with Code Fellows, a program to train more engineers. Sack says we’re not going to solve this problem by recruiting developers away from each other. We need to increase the size of the pool.

Rock, Paper, Scissors? Experience Wins

I appreciate what Sack is doing, but that doesn’t really solve the problem for someone like me. At Rover.com, I want to hire experienced senior developers. Those are the most important developers that a startup — which is trying to solve problems quickly — needs. Developers with experience can work more independently, with less supervision and recognize patterns sooner.

Estately's Galen Ward
Estately’s Galen Ward

In addition, senior developers have the experience to manage and negotiate the inherent uncertainty and ambiguity that comes with a startup.

Estately CEO Galen Ward agrees: “Self-directed, motivated people who have some product management skills do far better than junior folks,” he says. “We don’t write specs and the product changes as we go, so we need people who can identify unplanned problems and adjust as we go.”

Robi Ganguly of Apptentive added that Seattle needs more developers who want to develop.

“I’ve been noticing around here that there are a LOT of talented technical people who want to move away from the technical side of things,” he says. “It feels like it’s happening at exactly the wrong time — when the need for more technical talent is exploding.”

On the other hand, Joe Heitzeberg, an entrepreneur-in-residence at Madrona, has gotten great results from UW students.

“Fresh grads might not have the years of practical experience, but they can be as productive as the most senior engineers, usually more amenable to startup culture and sacrifice, and often more in-tune with newer technologies and, especially consumer, trends,” he says.

Dog Years are Startup Years

adamtratt1-300x287
Haiku Deck’s Adam Tratt

Here’s my personal experience: Aggressive networking yields some of the best recruiting results. No doubt, there are an endless stream of meetups and hack nights to attend, and the most engaged developers tend to participate in these events.

Yet, the best developers have jobs, so this type of recruiting is akin to planting seeds that might not sprout for months or years. “It’s time-consuming to build a pipeline of qualified candidates,” says Adam Tratt of Haiku Deck. “And the biggest challenge for us is that every minute we spend recruiting is one less minute we’re working on Haiku Deck.”

Unfortunately, to find experienced developers, spending time is simply the cost of doing business. “We have successfully hired some great folks, but each person takes dozens if not hundreds of hours to recruit,” notes Estately’s Ward.

Some Lucky Dog’s Gotta Win

This all begs the question: What do you do when you need developers, and need them NOW?

Recruiters are one answer, but they get a lot of knocks. They’re expensive. And startups complain that their interests aren’t aligned — that recruiters just want to feed candidates with the right acronyms, but aren’t a good fit.

case-scott
EnergySavvy’s Scott Case

“The true art of recruiting is combining knowledge of the company’s unique culture [to the candidate’s personal goals] so that both parties succeed and prosper together,” says one Seattle recruiter. “What troubles me the most is seeing great talent ‘chase the dollar’ of the big guys, or are afraid to take the risk and join a startup, even though it aligns closely with their life goals.”

Some startups have offered sensational giveaways as referral bounties. SEOmoz and EnergySavvy offered bonuses of over $10,000 to any person who refers a candidate that gets hired. More recently, EnergySavvy offered a new car as a bonus.

SEOMoz’s Rand Fishkin and EnergySavvy’s Scott Case said that the giveaways have been effective at generating interest. “We feel like this turns all of our extended networks into recruiters for the company,” Case said.

These aren’t just publicity. Each company has paid out multiple times.

Fight the War with the Army You’ve Got

One startup CEO who asked to remain anonymous said that startups need to compromise when it comes to finding A+ talent.

“Hire fast, fire fast and always be working to “hire up”, to raise the average smart/get-sh**-done quotient of the team. Always be networking. Finding that unicorn could take months and months which is a multi-digit percentage of the life of a startup.”

That type of approach can be tough on team morale. But, in this market, that might be the best option.

It’s a Dog’s Life

One cultural thing that a startup can offer which bigger companies can’t is the chance to have an impact.

Liz Pearce
LiquidPlanner’s Liz Pearce

Developers at larger companies often grow frustrated that their work doesn’t matter. They complain that they’re working on a feature within a feature within a feature…and often it never even ships. Feeling small and insignificant doesn’t make a developer’s work feel meaningful. At a startup, everybody has a material impact every day.

“As a bootstrapped startup, we compete primarily on culture,” says LiquidPlanner CEO Liz Pearce. “It seems like there are a decent number of talented people that are just done with the big company scene, and they want to have more influence in a smaller, close-knit environment.”

At the end of the day, a lot of developers feel that it’s safer to have a job at a big company like Microsoft, Amazon or Google.

It’s a mistake to think that. You’re safe, if you’re a good developer. The market is so tight that developers “don’t realize they’re not going to go hungry, should wake up and be excited about what they’re working on,” says Gottesman.

Scott Porad leads product development at Rover.com, a Seattle startup that helps people find pet sitters for their dogs.  You can follow him on Twitter @ScottPorad or on his blog.

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