3 Secrets To Recruiting Tech Talent In Tough Markets

Running a tech company and looking for Ruby developers? Got a "great idea" for a startup, and all you need is a programmer? Congratulations! You’ve just joined the 10,000 other geeks in the same coder-starved boat, especially if you live in a technology hub like Silicon Valley or New York City.

Many founders mistakenly believe money or perks are the answer to hiring programmers. Fortunately for the cash-strapped startup, that’s not the case.

Hunch founder Chris Dixon (one of the investors in my company, Contently) writes that the most important thing about recruiting programmers is understanding what motivates them: interesting challenges, talented coworkers, and working on software that gets used by a lot of people. Money and free Cheetos are great, but they come last.

But even if you can motivate, the fact is, good programmers are in high demand. Competing with the Googles of the world doesn’t make it any easier.

With a fresh $50 million, Foursquare’s 80+ person team just moved to New York’s Soho neighborhood, into an office seven times the size of its old one—and no doubt, they intend to fill it up. There go the rest of the city’s programmers. 

But maybe that doesn’t matter.

Despite the developer gold rush in New York, my own, cash-conscious company, Contently, has managed to hire the tech talent we’ve wanted, when we wanted it. Every time.

Here are the three secrets we hire by: 

Target Out-Of-Staters Willing To Relocate

Of Contently’s core team, only one of us actually lived in New York to begin with. One came from Vegas, two from Philadelphia, and we’re continually pulling in developers from Chicago, the Carolinas, and Washington, D.C.

The bottom line is this: Not every talented programmer in the world is from a city with "Silicon" in its nickname. But many of those programmers would love to live in one.

Getting to them is easier than you think. We post job descriptions in local markets, big cities with good universities but no big tech scene. We advertise in Forrst and StackOverflow Careers, specifying interest in people willing to move. We work our out-of-state college and friend networks, and offer to pay for relocation.

When you find good people, contract them remotely for a couple of weeks, then fly them in for a week in person. This tryout before commitment creates goodwill with your future employees, and reassurance that the relocation is a good move.

The best thing about the out-of-towner strategy is market salary in a place like San Francisco is a big upgrade compared to Boise, Idaho. Even with increased cost of living, a pay bump is a nice psychological reward. 

Train Junior Devs Through Paired Programming

Startups are incredibly conscious (or should be) of the impact their hires make on the company roadmap and culture. They want A players who are motivated and autonomous.

Consequently, many companies interview dozens and hire zero, then complain about a lack of available talent. The self-taught coder with six months of experience rarely makes the cut. But those Level 1 developers can become your easiest source of talent yet—if you’re willing to be patient. 

Josh Knowles, managing director of the Ruby on Rails shop Pivotal Labs, employs some of the most sought-after developers in New York City. His dev teams code in agile development-style pairs, two programmers sharing a computer and coding together. That’s not only how he increases productivity and reduces bugs, but it’s also his secret to building an army.

Rather than spending months searching for a white whale, take those eager, ubiquitous junior developers you’d normally pass over and pair them with your senior developers. In three to six months, Knowles says, they’ll start adding value, and you’ll be able to rotate them out into autonomous roles. Cycle in more junior devs to keep the factory growing.

Use HireLite To Speed Up Interviews

The final method I use for finding tech talent is a site called HireLite, which accelerates our interview process by an order of magnitude, and helps us find remote programmers who don’t suck. It’s essentially speed dating, only it’s okay to talk about shards and NoSQL databases.

HireLite aggregates job-hunting coders and puts them in front of hirers in rapid succession via Skype. There’s a pre-screening questionnaire, then 10-minute webcam interviews. There are HireLite sessions for local markets as well as for "remote," U.S.-based programmers, whom you can hire from a distance or lure to wherever you’re located. 

Rather than spending hours scheduling appointments, making applicants sit awkwardly in your waiting room clutching a resume, and wasting time on pleasantries, you get down to business with a dozen developers in one evening.

And pants are optional.


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[Image: Flickr user Stefan]

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  • jordan

    as a web 1.0 founder it was much simpler to hire engineering talent. With web 2.0 it is virtually impossible to be an entrepreneur without having the ability to write code. If you are a non engineer looking to build a tech company, all I can say is, "good luck with that!"

  • Mario Zorica

    This is quite true. A non-tech employer will really have troubles hiring a tech employee. I believe he cannot estimate accurately the candidate's development level, the only thing he can really estimate is a cultural fit. Also the pair programming seems promising, but to my understanding this should come after you have your backbone, core dev team and for most start-ups this is enough. I believe non-tech that are interested in build a tech company should hire a tech help that would estimate the developers level for them. For example an approach that I once stumble upon was that the first step was taking an online test: http://www.testdome.com/ After that these tests are reviewed by the hired tech professionals. And after that the chosen participants are invited to an interview which does not focus on tech discussion.

  • Susan Strayer

    Great points here--especially on the tactical side. Having tools to manage the process is key especially when so many start-ups are in such a nimble growth phase they want multiple leaders involved the evaluation. It's not saying you have to become corporate--but there are great, easy ways to streamline the process and manage risk at the same time. 

    I also want to encourage a focus on differentiation. I work on talent strategies for start-ups and so many know inherently what differentiates them but they don't communicate that. Shipping great code fast and doing cool work are great value propositions but that describes pretty much every tech start-up that exists. 
    You've got have some clear core values and culture so you can help talent self-select. I can't tell you how many companies hire someone in early stages that does great work, but doesn't fit the culture. (Remember Tony Hsieh's first start-up?). You have to have people who do great work and fit the culture and the brand.  But you have to be clear about what that is. Don't assume everyone knows or that current press or even your current employees are communicating that consistently.

    Susan Strayer | Founder, Exaqueo
    @SusanStrayer:twitter | www.exaqueo.com