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I’m Stack Overflow’s COO—Here’s How To Hire (And Keep) Great Developers

Despite the pressing need for developers, one tech veteran says too many companies “still treat them like glorified typists.”

I’m Stack Overflow’s COO—Here’s How To Hire (And Keep) Great Developers
[Source photo: Flickr user hackNY.org]

As commencement ceremonies wrap up across the country, throngs of new grads are revising resumes, networking—a few might be prepping for one last summer of travel—but they’re almost all thinking about the same thing: jobs. That means recruiters will soon have a new crop of young talent to sort through.

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Of all the roles they’ll have to fill, developer jobs can be one of the trickiest. Developers have more power over most of our lives than we tend to think. Sometimes it’s something tiny, like the way “snooze” works on your smartphone’s alarm clock; sometimes it’s something bigger, like the stories Facebook’s algorithm puts into your news feed. Yet despite developers’ hidden influence, most businesses, especially outside of Silicon Valley, still treat them like glorified typists.

But developers don’t have to make for such notoriously difficult recruiting targets. Over my career in tech, first as a software engineer, then as a startup CTO, and now as COO for Stack Overflow, I’ve learned a thing or two about what it takes to hire (and hang onto) talented programmers.


Related: Your Degree In Scandinavian Mythology Can Still Land You That Tech Job


1. Build (And Promote) A Developer-First Culture

Thousands of developers out there are being deprived of the opportunity to put their talents and coding prowess to use. They’re sitting in open office plans, unable to concentrate with someone yammering on the phone next to them. They’re struggling to use decade-old computers, coding in languages they don’t love for companies that don’t love them back. And worst of all, they’re being spammed by recruiters who don’t know the difference between Java and Javascript—often for jobs that are poorly defined to begin with.

If you want to attract tech talent, don’t just advertise open positions. Focus on the careers you can offer and the types of experiences you can give developers. Developers care about learning and growing, so talk about your training programs. Let employees attend conferences, facilitate internal tech talks, and above all, encourage new ideas. If your culture doesn’t reflect the values and preferences of the developers you’re looking to hire, you can’t expect to succeed in hiring them.

2. Rethink Your Org Chart

Programmers want to report to programmers—or at the very least, to recently promoted ex-programmers. They can’t stand having to explain technical issues to non-technical managers. They’re always going to be happier in organizations that respect, train, and promote developers to lead other developers.

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You’ve also got to make sure your developers aren’t shoved into some other department where they’re stuck reporting to someone who’s never written a line of code. Explain how your dev teams work and who manages them. It’s the day-to-day experience that’s going to make the difference, so you have to make sure your company’s management structure offers the right one.

3. Highlight Independence

Every programmer can tell you a story about a time they were miserable because they had to do something in a way they considered stupid. Developers want to feel like they have control over their work, and that means actually giving them some meaningful level of autonomy.

I’ve run into this many times in my own career, and it’s usually come in the form of technology standardization: “Here at company XYZ we’ve standardized on the Javascript language and the Linux Operating system. Because, well, standards are good, right!?” Sure, maybe—but it’s kind of like saying, “Here at company XYZ we’ve standardized on hammers and screwdrivers.” Yes, they’re both useful for many things, but if I’m trying to drill a hole in sheetmetal, there are better solutions than hammering away at a Phillips head.

4. Tap Your User Base

It’s essential that your developers actually care about the work they do as least as much as the people they’re doing it for. No matter what you produce, you have a group of users out there who love it. So use the tools at your disposal—Twitter, Facebook, user groups—to find your superfans. Even if they don’t come work for you, they’ll send their friends.

At Stack Overflow, we’re lucky enough to have a built-in resource: our user community, which is where just about every programmer on the planet goes when they get stuck. We mine our power users for new developer hires all the time. But even if you don’t have a huge base of knowledgeable tech users you can constantly tap, remember this: If somebody is asking good technical questions about your products, they’ll likely make a great developer for those same products.

5. Provide The Right Tools

When your job revolves around technology, it’s incredibly important to have the right tools. When it comes to computer monitors, two is better than one–ideally, 30-inch monitors. This might sound like a minor issue, but it’s not. Buying programmers the tools they need to do their jobs will show that you respect their work and value them.

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At Stack Overflow, we do our best to give our programmers what they need, whether that’s a high-end keyboard, three monitors, or the ability to work remotely. We also have an open-door policy for new ideas and feedback across the organization. We’ve found that this combination of tools and transparency make all the difference.

The bottom line is that if you can’t treat developers like critical stakeholders in your company’s strategy, they’ll find another company that will.


Jeff Szczepanski is chief operating officer at Stack Overflow, where he leads the definition and operation of revenue-bearing products and services. Jeff was previously founder and CTO of Allworx Corp, which reached a successful exit in 2007.