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Startups: Attract & Hire the Best Technical Talent

As recruiters, we get the opportunity to speak to a whole host of hiring managers, each facing their own challenges when looking to bring the best talent on board and grow out their teams. Although even the largest, most resourceful companies are still likely to face their fair share of tests, this article will focus on identifying the key challenges faced by startups when hiring for their development teams, as well as looking into best practices and new ideas.

I’ve chatted to a range of London startup CTOs and hiring manages to get to the bottom of what works, where they went wrong and how they have improved and streamlined their recruitment process. Outlined below are some of the key talking points that arose, which will hopefully provide insight and assist in building a hiring process that works for you. The startups that I spoke to were very tech focussed, operating in markets such as AI, aviation, fintech, e-commerce and much more.

So, what does work? What doesn’t? And what can you do about it?

What to focus on when hiring your first developers?

Believe it or not, a surprisingly large number of hiring managers that I spoke to believed that during the initial recruitment stage (when starting to build a development team), putting too much emphasis on a candidate’s technical capabilities was ineffective. It was an almost unanimous agreement that on reflection, more focus should have been placed on cultural fit and working attitude. Bringing in someone that shares the values of the company, as well as having a positive ‘can do’ attitude can have a huge impact on a startup.

New companies are always likely to hit internal moments of doubt, so having a team of motivators is a sure way to maintain positivity and overcome challenges. Someone could be exceptionally talented in terms of technical ability, however if they aren’t invested and motivated to make things work, they’re probably going to be more of a detriment to the business in the long run. As the saying goes, “one bad apple can spoil the bunch”.

Unlike technical skills, mentality can’t be taught. Startups often require all hands-on deck from their teams, it arose as a shared opinion that cultural fit should take a key role when hiring. So, technical skills vs culture, lets call it even. Hitting that perfect balance of technical prowess and personality fit in a new hire is any startups dream!

Make your interview process more effective

This first and probably most obvious point to mention is that everyone I spoke to agreed that when hiring, candidates should always be given some form of buy-in into the company at the earliest opportunity. This is generally an initial phone call with the hiring/line manager to learn more about the company, the approach to work and what can be gained from the candidate’s perspective. From a recruitment standpoint, I can’t stress enough just how crucial this is for attracting talent (and it only takes 10 minutes). The current tech market is extremely candidate driven, strong candidates are likely to have 3 or 4 other processes going on alongside the opportunity you’re offering. Ten minutes on the phone is all it takes to create a good first impression and make candidates feel like you’re valuing their application and are aware that interviews are a two-way street. If your competitors are implementing this, great, but if they’re not, you’re instantly ahead of the game. Your company will be at the forefront of the candidate’s mind.

Up next: tech tests

After hearing about the interview processes of each CTO/hiring manager, I can conclude that they’re far more thorough than some of the larger companies I’ve worked with, and why shouldn’t they be? The associated risk of every hire is far greater than in larger and more established companies (with much more disposable income). Holding some form of technical test, whether it’s a take home coding task, or a ‘verbal grilling’ in one of the interviews, is a great way to separate the technically strong from the… not so much. Now in my opinion, there are two big noes when it comes to tech tests. Firstly, issuing them as a first stage, without previously giving buy-in to the company (yes, this again). This can be hugely off putting and can give an air of arrogance to your hiring process. Secondly, asking candidates to do ridiculously long tech tests (a few hours maximum would be my recommendation). This can give the impression of a poor work/life balance, whether this is the case or not. Candidates can often be quite reluctant to commit such a long period of time to a test for a job that they ultimately might not land.

During one of my early conversations, quite an interesting topic arose on holding collaboration-based interviews. The way this works is that they get the candidate to sit in on a brainstorming session with the team, focussed on how best to overcome a specific, real problem. The idea behind this session is the test the candidate on how well they collaborate, how confident they are inputting their own ideas and how they communicate these ideas to a wider audience. This also gives a positive experience to the candidate as they get a real insight into what it would be like working in the company environment.

This is something I later discussed in my following conversations and something which was generally regarded as a strong idea which adds real value to the process for both sides.

Finally, something hugely important for all companies, big or small, is responsiveness and feedback. This is so vital, yet a number of companies still don’t list this as a priority amongst the 101 other things they have to do. Some permanent candidates can be on and off the market within a week, due to the competitiveness of the industry. If you aren’t providing constructive feedback on profile submissions or interviews within two days maximum, assume that your competition is, and expect to be left behind!

How does your tech stack correlate with talent attraction?

This was an interesting topic to cover, often prompting the response of “I’d never really thought about it until now”.

I asked each hiring manager; When choosing your tech stack, do you think about how that correlates with talent attraction and current technical trends for when you’re likely to be growing the team further down the line?

Around 90% of the people that I chatted to stated that the tech stack was chosen with the sole purpose of implementing the best tools for the product, without giving a thought to how their choices would affect the future hiring process. Makes sense! However, it was indicated by many of them that keeping talent attraction in mind when discussing technical decisions would be beneficial. Now obviously this doesn’t mean that you should pick a tool unsuitable for the job just because it’s the “next big thing”, but keeping up to date with the latest versions of the tools, languages and frameworks that you’re using is likely to appeal to developers when the time comes to grow out the team.

Being open to implementing new technologies and offering an element of technical freedom to your developers can also be a great way to attract talent and ensure that your hires have the mindset of continuous development (which is the attitude needed in most successful tech startups), but we’ll come to that a bit later on. 

What’s the winning formula when it comes a candidate’s skills and qualities?

This is similar to what we have touched on earlier in the article, with the main finding here being that – culture matters! Now of course, technical skills are also one of the key factors to consider, but what is most important is getting the right balance between the two. When talking to the hiring managers and CTOs about ‘the ideal candidate’, the general consensus was that finding someone with the right attitude/hunger can be as important as finding someone with a strong technical background (as above). Someone with the enthusiasm to learn, contribute and make a success of the company will likely be more invested, perform better and potentially stay at the company for longer.

One of the things I touched on was how hiring managers deal with a candidate that has concerns with the startup associated risk in terms of job stability, progression etc. This question quickly became redundant as it was unanimously and confidently reiterated by all that if the associated risk of joining a startup was a concern, perhaps they aren’t the right fit in the first place.

How do you compete with the tech industries ‘Top Dogs’? And do you need to?

Interestingly, the majority of people that I spoke to didn’t feel as though they are competing with larger organisations on anywhere near the same level that they are competing with other startups. This is due to the belief that the majority of candidates either have the appetite for a startup, and so focus their job search there, or they don’t.

If you have a candidate with their mind set on working in the startup environment, how do you attract them to yours? Many thought that it is more effective to focus on offering the candidate intangible benefits such as technical freedom, ownership over projects, the chance to make a difference on projects and the company as a whole. This would often be more appealing than trying to match the ‘competitive’ financial packages that are being offered elsewhere.

Whilst these benefits will appeal to a startup minded candidate, you must also make sure not to use these benefits as leverage to negotiate a lower salary. Underwhelming a candidate with a job offer is a sure-fire way to put them off!

Thanks for reading and special thanks to everyone that took the time out to chat with me around the topic and help put this article together. If you have any questions, comments or input, please feel free to get in touch with me, Adam – adam@zebrapeople.com.

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