Hiring top quality software engineers is a fiercely competitive process. Our Head of Talent, Natasha Katoni, shared some tactical advice in a recent video interview for early-stage companies looking to find and engage with engineering talent. In particular, Natasha offered replicable, data-driven frameworks for assessing and closing top candidates during the interview process. Read on for her key take-aways.

Start with a Plan  

Hiring engineers is super competitive and many early-stage companies blindly dive in and start recruiting as quickly as possible. To avoid wasting valuable time and money, it’s vital to establish some sort of hiring plan before taking action. When drafting your plan, be sure to:

  • Define your hiring budget. You’re likely not going to be able to afford to hire several engineers with the same skillset, but if you have a clear budget, you can make a plan to hire complementary engineers. 
  • Outline the core competencies for each hire. Especially when working with leaner budgets, it’s crucial to be specific about how each engineering hire will impact your business.  
  • Map out how each role will develop. One of the biggest mistakes early-stage companies make is hiring for the short-term. If you only hire engineers to solve immediate problems and 6 months later no longer need them, you’re going to create a culture of hiring and firing that will make it harder to recruit down the line. 
  • Draft a compelling pitch. Advertising that you are a well-funded, VC-backed company isn’t enough to attract top talent. You need to differentiate your company in objective terms. What makes you weird? What makes you special? Experiment with pitches in the wild and get your most accomplished friends to give you ruthless feedback. 

Engage Systematically

Once you’ve established a hiring plan, it’s time to find and engage top engineering talent. Rather than messaging thousands of candidates at random, use a data-driven approach that’s repeatable and debuggable. There are different channels you can rely on for your outreach, including:

  • Your Network — Your company’s existing network is probably a lot deeper than you think and there are tools you can leverage to mine that network systematically. Covey, Drafted and Teamable are all solid resources, but at Amplify we especially like Covey as it covers both network and cold outreach (see below). 
  • Cold Outreach — It’s tedious, but it’s necessary and important to build this muscle early. Tools like Gem and Covey apply a data-driven approach to your cold outreach. Set up campaigns with automatic follow-ups and experiment with different types of content, senders, subject lines, and timing. 
  • Active Marketplaces — The advantage of marketplaces like Hired, Triplebyte, Underdog.io, and Interviewing.io is that engineers are actively looking for job opportunities when joining these platforms. The disadvantage is that it can be hard to differentiate your company amongst the sea of competitors also engaging on said platform. To maximize productivity, time box your marketplace efforts. For a 1 month period, note how many candidates you’ve made offers to and how many you’ve closed. If you’re only getting phone calls and not actually closing, move on.  
  • Recruiting Partners — This channel is really important for early-stage companies, despite the associated costs. Look for external recruiters who use a data-driven approach and can calibrate based on your specific hiring needs. Don’t be afraid to spend money here – you pay for quality and often the contingent based searches won’t get you what you need. 

Evaluate and Mitigate Bias

When evaluating technical skill, build a process that will help you create the most efficient, effective pipeline. Companies will often prioritize getting the signal they need from the interview process in the manner that works for them. It’s critical to remember that a candidate is also interviewing you and you need to accommodate their preferences. I often see companies insist, for example, on time-consuming take home assignments. While it allows the hiring team to gather deep signal, it can be difficult for the candidate to find time to complete. Give candidates an option – create a 1 to 2 hour take home assignment that they can opt into if they find that it’s more comfortable for them to code on their own. Build a pair programming interview as an alternative. You’ll see higher conversion rates if you create a process that allows the candidate to prioritize their needs. 

Evaluating engineering candidates’ behavioral characteristics is equally important to assess. Your company’s values should drive what you look for, and prioritizing these 3 characteristics can help ensure you hire engineers who will be successful:

  1. Focus on Business Impact — There are a lot of great engineers out there who are motivated by shiny new technologies and hacking on the latest thing. In VC-backed companies, engineers need to focus primarily on growing the business and making a demonstrable impact.
  2. Strong Career Trajectory — Hire engineers who show increasing ownership as they move up in their career. A focus on ownership (whether they take a manager or an IC track), will lead to increasing company impact as the engineer grows. 
  3. Capable of Self-Reflection — Startups are a team sport and early-stage engineers need to be capable of self-reflection. Ask yourself – can they talk about where they’ve made mistakes in the past? Can they share how they overcame those mistakes and learned from them? Can they show humility and receive feedback?

At the early stage it’s easy to hire candidates who are similar to you. Actively mitigate this bias by building a simple rubric for your interview process. It doesn’t have to be overly detailed, but record the same, core questions to ask for each position and level. Map out qualities of a great versus subpar answer. Establish an internal debrief process so you can have structured, objective conversations about candidates post-interview. 

Recruiting as diverse a team of engineers is crucial. It’s not, however, a task you can delegate to recruiters. Diversity, equity, and inclusion must be a company-wide priority and supported from the top down. Incorporate DEI into your company’s annual planning, goals, and resource allocation. 

Close the Deal

After finding and evaluating engineering talent, early-stage companies often find their job offers in competition with the likes of Facebook and Google. Systematically create compelling offers by asking candidates tactical questions such as:

  • What are your motivations? 
  • What do you want to learn? 
  • Who are your personal Board of Directors and/or mentors?
  • What other companies are you talking to? 
  • What’s your current compensation? 

Use these questions to create a tailored sell plan. 

Timing is critical to creating an effective closing plan especially when competing against bigger companies for engineering talent. Figure out when the candidate is going to make their decision and work backwards to time your sell plan. Recency bias is powerful, and you want to come in with your heavy hitting closing moves and numbers as close to the end of their process as possible. You also want to learn how the candidate’s motivations develop as they continue in their conversations with other companies. Always be ready to pivot. 

Equity can also help close the deal, but waving a wand and claiming big exits in the future won’t cut it. Treat your candidates as you’d treat your investors. Give them a mini-pitch that outlines your potential market and your plan of attack for said market. Model out specific success scenarios for the candidate based on real things your company is already doing.

If your company has any learnings or questions about hiring engineering talent, feel free to drop Natasha a note at natasha[at]amplifypartners[dot]com. For a full recording of this interview with Natasha, click here.