You Are Doing it All Wrong! Tips for Entrepreneurs on Finding Great Developers

On Tuesday, February 5, 2013, OLC attended NYC Tech Startup's You Are Doing It All Wrong: Tips for Entrepreneurs On Finding Great Developers. Aleksandr Yampolskiy moderated the event, which featured six panelists: Josh Weinstein, CEO of Youare.TV; Sloane Barbour, Division Head of Jobspring; Seth Lopez, Director of Engineering at Cinchcast; Brandon Kessler, CEO of ChallengePost; Will Koffel, CTO of Thumb.IT; and Raj Singh, CEO of Tempo.Ai.

Aleksandr Yampolskiy started the conversation, saying the recruiting is not easy. "There's a lot of tips and tricks to help you," he said. When I was looking for developers—we were hiring in India because we were creating a base of operations there—and found a perfect match. We interviewed him over Skype, he answered all of the questions and gave perfect answers. We flew him out the New York, but it snowed and he missed the first day of orientation because he was scared of the snow! So we waited for the snow to melt and we were hyped to meet him. It turns out he was a different person from the person we interviewed over Skype. He had a beard, spoke little English and was a complete fake. So, what's the worst lesson learned when interviewing developers?"

Josh Weinstein answered first. "I had just come from Palo Alto and I hired a VP of Engineering from a promising startup. We recruited him to be a CTO. Our team was struggling, but I thought, 'Wow, this is the perfect guy.' We had him call the shots and I moved out to California, but at the last moment, he was like, 'Nevermind,' and pulled out."

"There's a perpetual mistake we make when we hire," Will Koffel said. "We act naive on purpose or on accident, hoping everything comes out alright, with financial gains as a motive. Stuff comes out from the woodwork, so bring up candor at the beginning so you save time on your and their end."

"My experiences are on the other side," Raj Singh said. "One thing I've gotten better at is figuring out if the hire is working out or not vs. trying to go through a series of programs or goals to try to make it work. I've found out that gut instinct is usually right."

Sloane Barbour picked up the microphone and said, "One of the things I touch on is instinct. I've hired a lot of sales people and I feel like there are three major problem points that need to be taken into consideration: the actual process, the approach and instinct. The approach needs to be consistent with every people you meet. You need to approach it the same way every time. Trust your instincts too. Understand the differences from between not moving too quick and moving with urgency, moving too slow and being thorough."

"I agree with everything about instinct," Brandon Kessler said. "I was about to hire a wonderful developer and he backed out at the last minute. The biggest question for an entrepreneur is the chicken or the egg question. How do you develop a product without a developer, how can you pull in a developer in without a product? It's about hard work. When you hire, you need to make sure they're a right fit for startups."

"The thing we learned was to look for the engineer's code," Seth Lopez said. "That's what they're going to be doing. Without looking at what they're producing, you're not going to know what they're going to do for you."

Yampolskiy took the time to ask the panelists how they found their best recruit.

"Linkedin," Weinstein candidly said. "But seriously, it's not easy. In terms of what to look for, how to proceed is to try to find a brilliant person, but I don't know the likeliness of it is."

Kessler said, "If you're not a technical founder, you need to find someone you trust to look at prospective CTO code."

"The greatest developers—engineers—I've recruited were high school or college graduates. The biggest challenge I faced was recruiting people I hadn't talked to in years or people I've never worked with," Singh said.

"If I look at engineers I've hired over the last couple of years, they're all from my network of from a second degree of it," Koffel said. "The best sourcing I have is surrounding myself with good people and they'll eventually need a new job—I'll wait for good engineers."

Barbour said, "All of the great engineers we get are from referrals. Without question, they are the best people. From a pure trust perspective, nothing can top that."

Regarding the making of a good engineer, Kessler said that traits he looks for in engineers include teamwork, "do they have the right processes down, do they have good judgment," he said.

Lopez said, "I found the best through Stack Overflow. If you don't have a network to leverage, Stack Overflow specifically has a lot of information for you to work with. Even Github is moving towards this direction, giving engineers an opportunity to provide more information."

Yampolskiy said, "Recruiting great engineers, we used a recruiter—you need to hire a recruiter that understands your company culture very well, but that is rare. We use LinkedIn to hire as well, but put in keywords for technology that you care about." He asked about outsourcing and what the panelist's opinions were for outsourcing.

"I wouldn't recommend outsourcing," Weinstein said. "Do your own coding, build it—it will pay dividends. You want to build a culture—look how we're passionate about technology, but you don't know how to code? That speaks volumes."

Lopez, however, defended outsourcing, saying that outsourcing does work. "If you treat the [outsourced team] like they're your internal team, it shouldn't matter—it can work," he said.

"I think people who have not worked hard to find a technical founder fail without outsourcing," Koffel said. "I think it works, but you don't want to end up in the middle. If you know exactly what you need, outsourcing works. Make sure you know the expectations of the product, though."

"I think outsourcing is pretty hard," Singh said. "In the early days of building your idea, I find it hard to convey or message your idea because you need to be in the same room with a whiteboard, but when it comes down to it, time zones are a big issue. If you're going to do this, make sure someone on your team has experience with it."

Yampolskiy said, "For other countries in the same time zone, it's worked out very easy for us." He gave an example of hiring developers in Argentina, which shares time zones with the United States, facilitating communications. "What do you think about external recruiters," he asked.

Lopez tackled the question first. "The most important thing to remember is that they're working for you. There's a tendency when recruiters want to run things their way, but you want to make sure you're running the show."

Kessler said, "Every time I get a candidate, I send a note to the recruiter detailing the pros and cons of the candidate and from there, they can work on finding that perfect potential hire."

"Let's emphasize two points here," Koffel said. "Recruiters are the middlemen. We as entrepreneurs are trying to cut middlemen out. What that means for recruiters is that 95 percent of resumes are not worth the time for you. Find a recruiter that you can trust. Just make sure you're working with the right ones."

"The important thing is that feedback loop," Barbour said. "If you're under five people, you don't need a recruiter. Spend the time to find people yourself. You'll find people you trust and feel confident in far easily. It's expensive to hire a recruiter."

"Also," Koffel added, "remember that a recruiter is an opportunity to sell your company. I ask potential hires if recruiters are selling my company well, and if they're not doing a good job, I replace them."

"Finding engineers are good, but them coming to you is better. How do you make your company visible?" Yampolskiy asked.

"We leverage Siri and SRI and our company is Tempo.Ai," Singh said. "If you brand your company as interesting, people will come to you. Something we do internally is interview people with the exact same way. We realized after eight or nine times that you begin to find a pattern..."

"Being involved with the community is the best thing out there," Lopez said. "Buzz and word on the street is something you can't create easily yourself."

"Nobody wins if you convince someone that you're something you're not," Kessler said. "You have to make your company interesting from the inside out."

"We hosted the Boston Ruby Group and it was a great way to spread the company name while helping out the Ruby community in Boston at the same time," Koffel said.

Yampolskiy asked if there was a shortage of good engineers, or if it was just hype, to which the panelists all agreed was true. "There were interesting recruiting pipelines Facebook set up to find and hire hidden developers. Another thing was longtailing apps and getting in touch with the developers," Singh said.

"Money doesn't solve a lot of issues. Potential candidates aren't necessarily attracted to what you think they are," Weinstein said.

"Okay," Yampolskiy said, "to wrap up, what is the most useful interviewing question?"

"I don't ask any hiring questions," Koffel said. "And instead ask algorithm questions. Also, watch someone code—look at the engineer's code. I also ask what's the most exciting thing you've developed and if they can educate me on it. I'm looking for someone who can teach and have passion about what they're doing."

"I ask what their reason was for leaving their previous job," Barbour said. "If they can expand on the answer, it can show their longevity, dedication and how much they are invested in the technology."

"It's not just about technical questions," Kessler said. "It's about judgment, team, want to ask open-ended questions and crafting your questions to get to what you want the answer to."