TL;DR: Engineers are a scarce resource. For recruiting tech talent for your startup, even if you don't have a technical background, follow this 4-step guide: 1. Prepare: be in the right mindset, know your audience, get curious, define who you're looking for, nail the job description, and learn how to win against more well-known startups;
2. Source: use your personal network, make outreaches, and access job boards and boot camps;
3. Evaluate, from resume screening to the evaluation committee;
4. Close the deal the right way.
Finding and hiring engineers is an old problem that just keeps getting harder and harder. Every startup founder is recruiting tech talent in a world where the demand for engineers is higher than the supply, and there's no end in sight for the scarcity of talent in tech. Latin America's not an exception: the region will need 2.5M more ICT-related professionals by 2026 (IDC).
As you must have heard, "software is eating the world". Not only are technical startups growing and will then need tech talents, but traditional companies are also getting more aware of software. Propelled by the Covid-19 pandemic, competition from international companies hiring remotely and becoming "borderless" is also on the rise.
Even so, your startup still needs these engineers to succeed. To help you in finding, sourcing, attracting, and hiring tech talents, I put together a 4-step guide for recruiting tech talent that will help you even if you don't have a technical background.
The guide was created through the lessons I've learned through thelast 20+ years I spent around engineers. I conducted hundreds of technical interviews at both startups and scale-ups during my time as a technical manager and a CTO. And at Latitud, I continue to help early-stage founders source and interview technical hires.
There are no silver bullets: hiring tech talent is hard and takes a lot of time. On average, Y Combinator says that companies only make offers to 2-8% of engineering applicants and only 50% of those offers are actually closed.
We're looking at pretty slim numbers here, so get into the right mindset before you start. Have realistic expectations about how much effort you'll have to put into the process and what conversion rates you'll be getting. (I'll share some ways to increase conversion later on in this guide.)
In terms of how much time to dedicate, I'd say that 50% is a good target to spend your time on hiring.
This varies by phase, of course. If you are in the very early stages and don't have a lot of capital, you won't have the resources to spend a lot of time on hiring. As you get traction and raise your initial round, you'll start having more aggressive hiring targets. They'll get even more demanding after your Series A or a Series B. So, you have to learn how to do this well to keep up.
2. Know your audience
Understand the motivators for engineers
In his book Drive, Daniel Pink shows that these three aspects are key motivators in creative jobs – and software engineering is definitely in that category.
Mastery refers to continuous learning. Engineers love to learn and this is an industry in which if you don't learn anything new for about 6 months, you're already behind.
Engineers love the autonomy to get things done. Explain to them the vision and what needs to happen and let them figure out the solution.
Purpose is about doing something meaningful and seeing your impact. It is very important for engineers to see this occurring through their own contributions. Even though it's last on this list, if you have to pick only one, choose the purpose. There is nothing more powerful than people joining your startup because they're passionate about your mission.
Notice how money is not one of the motivators. Engineers are more often driven by purpose and challenge than by business metrics.
My friend Jair Verçosa, who was an Engineering Director at Carta and is now CTO of Flieber, summarizes this in a simple task: have a technical pitch.
Have a technical pitch when hiring
When you're honing in on your pitch, optimize it by keeping these motivations in mind. Then, reflect on and communicate the following:
How are you challenging the status quo in your industry?
What data/interfaces/integrations are required?
How will your users interact with your product?
What is the main technical challenge you need to solve?
What are your international benchmarks?
Words matter. Know what they mean
First, you will need to understand the terminology to properly communicate with tech folks. Engineers solve hard problems, while programmers write code. You will want an engineering profile for a modern dynamic startup, especially in the early days.
At Escale, we applied UX research techniques to study engineers and we mapped these two main engineering personas:
Hackers: people that are more purpose-driven and value speed and business impact when doing their work.
Architects: people driven by technical excellence and who prioritize the quality of their work.
Below are some examples of how they would look on a LinkedIn profile, for instance. Can you tell which is which?
Engineers, like ice cream, come in many different flavors. This is a list of the main engineering profiles, from generalist to specialist types:
Whether you need a Hacker or an Architect/a Full-stack or a DevOps is going to depend on your objectives and stage. However, generalist profiles are typically better suited for early-stage startups. (More on that later in this guide!)
3. Get curious
Ben Horowitz's The Hard Thing About Hard Things advises that when hiring someone outside your area of expertise, you should act in the role. However, this is really hard to do for technical roles.
You could spend upwards of 6 months just to grasp basic software engineering concepts. Therefore, your best substitute is getting curious. Read, attend online events, and get familiar with the terminology and the types of technologies that are top of mind for engineers.
A good example of this comes from Mercado Libre. When I joined Escale, we went to Buenos Aires to meet the Kaszek team, who are also the founders of Mercado Libre. They mentioned their very specific decision to double down on technology a few years into the journey, as they saw that this was going to be the future.
Marcos Galperin, Mercado Libre's CEO, then literally took his desk and moved it to the technical area, spending a lot of time with product and technical folks, focusing on building out the technical team and infrastructure. By the time the competitors caught up, they were already light years ahead of everyone.
There are many resources out there for you to satisfy this curiosity. Companies like Google, Stripe, and Twilio have great technical blogs with a wealth of information on the topic.
Another great resource is the StackOverflow developer report. They release it every year and there's a lot of information about which technologies are coming on board, which are being phased out, and specific details on engineering profiles around the world.
4. Define who you're looking for
It's really hard for you to find something if you don't know what it is. Here are some suggestions that I think you should consider when recruiting tech talent as an early-stage founder:
A quote by Ben Horowitz that resonates with me is, "You must hire the right person for your company at this particular point in time." People often ask me, "but what about two years from now, when this CTO needs to manage a team of 20?" I answer that, truth be told, you may not get there. If you don't build your product and solve the problems that need to be solved now, you may not have a "two years from now."
Prefer hackers over architects at this stage (with very few exceptions).
Go for senior over junior. It's really difficult to give attention and mentor/develop a junior developer when you're early in the game. Startup life is already hard as it is. Make sure the people you hire can stand on their own two feet.
Consider your business, but try to go for Full-stack and/or Backend engineers. I recommend them mainly because of the cost. If your product is really 10x better than everyone else's, you should be able to get away with a simple frontend in the early days.
Be careful with people driven by financial gains. Find a person that will join you for your mission and will stick with you through the hard times, instead of someone that is just joining you because you pay them 15% above the market average.
5. Nail the job description
It's not a manual, it's a love letter
I get a lot of dry, very boring job descriptions that are mainly just a list of things you'd like the person to have. You should be trying to present yourself through your job description and aim to touch the candidate on an emotional level. Invite people to join the big mission!
Be aware of the fact that you won't attract everybody. But no worries there: you want to attract the right kind of people. These are people who'll pick up on the keywords that you mention about your culture and mission.
Benchmark against the best but also consider your DNA. If you're not really Google or a heavy engineering company, be upfront about it and sell other things. If people join you because of the technical challenge, they won't stick around if you don't actually provide it.
The anatomy of a job description
About the mission
About the tech challenge
Showcase your unique culture
Detail skills and expertise
Expand your technical pitch
Borrow from your benchmarks
Be creative with benefits
List non-monetary benefits
Offer cool equipment
Be CAREFUL with technical terms
How to win against well-known startups?
Remember mastery, autonomy, and purpose? Those are usually off the charts at early-stage startups! Make sure to sell these points as strongly as you can. Here are some examples of how the engineer's motivators usually apply in startups:
Able to learn a ton of new skills by wearing many hats.
Interact directly with founders, investors, and advisors.
Real responsibility and no hierarchy to hold you back. The founders won’t have time to micromanage you.
You’ll see the real impact of your actions, solving important problems for the world and your users.
Other ways to win against well-known startups when recruiting tech talent:
Career growth is an easy sell, and simple to explain to the candidate. If you're in a large company, they have checks and balances in place and a maximum number of promotions per year. That will slow down your growth. At a startup, you can grow as fast as the company grows.
Provide amazing candidate experience. Speed and personal attention during the hiring process are your main advantages against big companies.
Make it challenging but not difficult. The smartest people love to be intellectually challenged and learn something during the process. Teach them something you know about your business model, market, etc.
Play the long game. Don't just do interviews, but build relationships as well. You'll need more engineers in the future.
Make diversity a priority. Many companies are still terrible at this, especially in tech. If you do this right, not only will you be doing the right thing but you'll be able to attract amazing talent.
Consider fully-remote positions. Engineers love this. If you can offer it, it will greatly increase your candidate pool.
Step 2: source when recruiting tech talent
In order to provide tips for sourcing candidates for your A+ tech team, I decided to list them in order of their effectiveness for early-stage companies:
1. Personal network
Spend most of your time on your personal network. If you remember, I said in the beginning that for a standard funnel, companies only make offers to 2-8% of engineering applicants, half of which are actually hired in the end. Well, when using personal networks, these numbers are much better.
For this tactic, pick your biggest network. For example, don't share most of your things on LinkedIn if your biggest network is on Twitter.
Then, work your network exhaustively. Build a list of people that may be able to help you and reach out to every single one. Make the ask and sell yourself, so that they'll put in a good word for you.
If that person knows you, they'll listen to you and hopefully make connections. If they're not the right fit, you can ask them for other recommendations on who to contact.
Also, make it easy for people to help you. You can search other people's networks on LinkedIn. But if you know another CTO and want their help, don't reach out to them and say, "Hey, I need some engineers! Can you help me?"
That's a very generic ask and makes it really hard on the person you're asking. My advice would be to go to that person's network, use the filters to select your top five candidates or so, and instead say, "I've seen these people from this company you worked at and they seem amazing. Here's my challenge: insert your challenge here. Could you please do the intros?"
That's a much better ask, that will make it super easy for the person to help you out.
This is a second option and more work-intensive. But if you don't have an established personal network, it's still great and works.
My recommendations here are to personalize your message and review your own profile.
Yes, your profile matters. It's the first thing the person you reach out to will check. Make sure to mention your most impressive previous company or experience.
How to expand your search
If you want to expand your search when sourcing for recruiting tech talent, you can generate hundreds of applicants by doing some very simple things:
If you find someone you like on LinkedIn, for instance, you can look at the right-hand side and find some look-alike profiles to reach out to.
If you find a company from which you like two or three candidates, just go through the company's profile and make sure you hit everyone there.
Conferences and meetups are also great. You can reach out to speakers at specific conferences to tap into their networks.
How to craft an efficient outreach message
Use bits from your job description header
Mention a person/company you’re both connected to
Find your hook
Impressive founder background
Stand out: what’s unique about you and your startup?
Make it personal: what’s unique about this candidate?
Offer a quick call/coffee first to reduce friction
Don’t sound like a recruiter!
Examples of outreach messages
3. Job boards
Here, you're reaching the "not so effective" techniques, as you're opening up the funnel a bit more.
Still, job boards can be quite useful to fill the pipeline quickly. Check some tools such as LinkedIn and StackOverflow, adapting your research to your location.
4. Boot camps
Companies such as Academlo, Resilia, Rise School, and Trybe help produce junior engineers. Maybe these are not the best hiring option, but all of these have larger communities. You might be able to find a senior engineer that has gone through a boot camp like this some time ago and is still reachable through the community.
So try to reach out to these companies! They are usually more than willing to help their students and alumni.
Step 3: evaluate when recruiting tech talent
Keep this step simple and quick for early-stage companies. Notice how some of the steps that are last on this list will come first at larger companies.
Resume screen (founder): you're promising time with the top people in your team in your job description, so you can start on that promise by selecting and evaluating the resumes yourself. Don't delegate this task if you're still early-stage.
Screen call/coffee (founder): see if that person may be a fit and sell your company's vision and purpose. Create a clear process and some questions to evaluate their background, skills, motivation, and cultural fit.
Meet the team: if the candidate is responsive, have them meet co-founders and the team remotely or on-site. Show them your pitch deck and explain to them your business and the challenges you face, getting them pumped about the opportunity.
Tech screen: this is the hard part when you don't have technical experience. You will not be able to evaluate the engineering skills yourself, but there are some proxies that can be used:
The best proxy is using a domain expert. It could potentially be a friend, an investor, or you can even hire someone to review the candidate for a very specific skill, such as data engineering or machine learning.
You could also use platforms such as Codility and HackerRank, which have prepared tests the candidate could take, being auto-evaluated by the platform.
Getting references is probably the weakest out of these three. But if you know someone that has worked with the candidate in a technical context, ask them for information. It's still much better than nothing.
Evaluation committee: anyone that spoke with that person should get together and discuss and share their perceptions. This is a great tool for aligning selection criteria with your team and sharing details on the candidate. Come up with a simple ranking system (e.g. no hire, hire, strong hire) and make everybody choose a clear score. Then the founder responsible for the tech area should make the final decision unless you have a very high-rank position, in which buy-in from other founders/investors is healthy.
Step 4: close the deal with the tech talent
You've gone through all these tough steps. Now, it's only a matter of closing. How do you finally hire that tech talent effectively?
Meet the investors/advisors: this is a very underutilized tactic but super effective. Use this only for the best candidates, especially if they're not engaged, to protect people's time. Ask your investors or advisors to sell your vision and potential, telling the candidate why they're backing/advising the company. If you pick strategically, you'll find folks that have some experience at taking a risk in the early stage and succeeding. Having them share the upside of joining startups can be super important for a candidate to make the jump.
Make the offer:
The offer should be made by the founder(s). Show them that you believe they would be a great addition to the team.
Craft a personal and compelling offer letter. Use everything you've learned about the candidate and what you think would resonate with them to personalize it. People will likely read it multiple times and reflect on it as they're considering the offer.
Reflect on the titles (CTO, VP of Engineering, Head of Engineering, Tech Lead). Be aware of what these terms mean/require and how people perceive them. Also, it's all a matter of adapting to the situation. For instance, if a senior engineer is coming from Google to join your tiny startup, maybe they could be your CTO. However, if someone's coming from another company (maybe a consultancy shop) and you're a top-notch venture-backed startup with a much more challenging environment, it's okay to give them a lower title and explain why, highlighting the opportunity to grow.
Balance salary, equity, and risk. What I like to do is to make multiple offers. You could have an offer that's higher in terms of salary with a little bit of equity and then the other way around, while explaining the risks involved. You shouldn't treat equity as something that has a concrete value, like a dollar amount. Instead, tell the candidate that this could be one of those 1 in a 1000 startups, like Uber or Stripe, and that they should join because they believe in the upside.
Explain the cost of opportunity. People are often scared of leaving their job at a large company. There are always a ton of large stable companies to work for, including the one the candidate is at right now. Ask them, "Hey, 6 months from now, if this doesn't work out, wouldn't your boss gladly hire you again?". Most likely, the answer is yes. In fact, they'll likely hire them back at a higher salary, given their startup experience! The real risk is not leaving a large company for a startup, but missing the unique opportunity of joining you on this mission. Not everyone gets the chance of building an early-stage startup, being part of the founding team, having a leadership role, etc.
Send follow-up materials on anything related to equity, your market, and specific startup terminology, so that the candidate can study it deeper.
Stay in touch! If you just leave things hanging without having a conversation for a couple of days, that person could be having an existential crisis and making up their own conclusions. Avoid that. Be part of the dialogue.
Final thoughts on recruiting tech talent
I see many founders working on similar startups with similar funding. Some have no problems hiring engineers, while others do. Building your dream company requires having a dream team, and those A-players will need you to be at the top of your game to convince them.
Hiring the right people takes time and effort, but don't hesitate to also make it fun for you (and for them!). Also, remember that you don't have to have everything figured out: paint a picture and invite them to build it with you.
Now roll up your sleeves and get to work. That top of the tech hiring funnel won't fill itself!