How To Hire Hackers: A Realistic Guide For Startups

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How To Hire Hackers: A Realistic Guide For Startups


The following is a guest post by Iris Shoor. She's a co-founder at Takipi, a new startup looking to change the way developers work in the cloud. Previously, she was co-founder at VisualTao, a B2B startup acquired by Autodesk.

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Call them hackers, ‘ninjas’, or ‘rock stars’ if you’d like. Other than being very talented developers, they all share one thing in common -- it’s unbelievably hard to bring them on-board your company. And as if competing with other companies for the same talent was not enough, being a startup just adds more challenges to the equation. Your startup may be the next Google/Facebook/Instagram, but until then - how can you convince the best developers out there to join a company where the CEO’s office is an IKEA desk? Here’s one answer -- recruit like a startup, in a creative and agile way, doing things the way big companies can’t. During the last 5 years I’ve interviewed over 250 candidates and recruited dozens of great engineers. The first interviews took place in our tiny office’s kitchen, and we still managed to convince some of the best candidates to join. There aren’t any magic tricks involved, but here are some tips and methods which helped us get ninjas, rock stars and other highly talented people on-board.

You’re a startup -- have the founders make the first contact.

We lose many potential candidates even before the starting line - we fail to bring them over for a first interview. Some are already talking with too many companies, or decide after a brief visit to your web-site that your startup just isn’t their thing. That’s the point where you can make a difference. Our co-founders (including myself) are in charge of sending the first e-mail to potential candidates. We’ve kept this habit even as we’ve grown. At first, I was worried some candidates may think we have too much free time on our hands (sadly, we don’t). I soon found out that when candidates receive a personal and flattering e-mail (important when it comes to star developers) from a co-founder, it sends a message that this startup is all about its employees. Here are some helpful points for writing the first email:
  • Link to your online profile (personal blog, an interview with you, a YouTube video) when introducing yourself. Once there’s a face behind the email you’re more likely to get a positive response.
  • Add a personal touch. Have other employees who went to the same college? Mention it. Grew up in the same town? Write it down. It might sound irrelevant, but it creates the first hook, enough to have them come over for a meeting.

Interviewing: It’s not just about the role, it’s also about who they will have lunch with.

While we tend to tell candidates everything about the role, the managers and the company, there’s one part that’s usually missing - who will they work with? One of the most common answers I get when asking people why they've chosen one job over the other is knowing other employees there. Let candidates know who'll be sitting next to their (IKEA) desk and sharing their 9GAG jokes.
  • When candidates come for an interview we try to have them meet at least one future co-worker. A candidate asks a good tech question during the interview? Refer him to the engineer working on it instead of answering yourself. Found out the candidate has something in common with one of the employees (skydiving, growing up in Ohio, have a thing for ASCII art)? Introduce them. It’s not something we plan ahead, but given the opportunity, having the candidate stay at the office after the interview chatting with other employees, is considered a success.
  • Don’t interview too early or too late during the day, when the office is empty. If the only time your future star can come in for an interview is 8:00am, make sure some people come early. You want to paint a full picture of what it will be like working at your startup.
[You don’t need a fancy office to make good impression - the small details do the job. Our entrance door has code on it and these are our meeting room custom coasters ]


Interviewing: Choose carefully which opportunity to pitch.

There truly are great things about joining a startup - new technological challenges, opportunities for moving up the ladder more quickly, learning about the business side of things, stock options and more. Don’t sell them all at once. Pitching becoming a manager to an engineer who just wants to experiment with new technologies? Bzzzz -- wrong move -- which might send her elsewhere.
  • Look back - When we first started interviewing we used to ask candidates what they’re looking for. Instead of sharing their true motivations, they answered with what they thought was the ‘right’ answer -- “I just want to work on interesting stuff”. After a while we discovered the magic trick; instead of asking what they’re looking for now, we began asking how they've made previous job decisions. When asked about past decisions, people tend to share what really matters to them.
  • Don’t pitch, give examples - You can’t really promise someone that he or she will become a manager in the future, or only work on interesting stuff. Instead, I tell candidates what talented people who've joined the company a year ago are doing now. This could be how an engineer with no previous management experience is already heading a small team, or how a developer straight out of college is doing such a great job we’ve put her in charge of some very key algorithms.

Signing: How to make candidates sign an employment agreement more quickly.

You've reached the homestretch. The candidate you really liked said yes, and now all is left is to sign the employment agreement. This can turn into a very risky period. The current employer is likely to come with a counter offer and so can other companies.
  • Important: Avoid having your future star waste time on legal issues. To help with this we've decided to have the exact same employment agreement for everyone in the company. Other than the terms themselves, everything is the same - from the number of vacation days down to the small letters. It’s a super friendly agreement and we never change it. Once I tell candidates that everyone -- the CEO, the engineers and myself have all signed the exact same contract, and therefore we can’t change it, it usually takes them only a day or two to sign it. There’s much less need to re-read every part.
  • Scott Weiss from A16Z shares a great tip about the pre-signing period with the ‘Welcome basket’.


How to hear ‘No” and how to say ‘No’

  • Hearing No - Stay in touch with good candidates who chose a different company over yours. When a candidate I really like accepts a different offer over ours I always get the feeling I was dumped. True, I can’t honestly say I don’t understand how can someone pick a great job at Google over a small and unknown startup, but it still hurts. While the easiest thing to do after hearing a ‘No’ is, well, nothing, I try to make one last effort to stay in the picture. There are two main reasons for it : 1). Startups grow quickly. You might have a good candidate who decided a 10 employee company is not for him/her but a year or two later as your company grows it will become much more attractive. 2). Receiving a negative answer usually means you've reached second place. Sometimes, the first choice doesn't turn out to be the dream job they were hoping for. Some candidates don’t feel comfortable getting back in touch after they gave you a negative answer. By making the first move you’re saying that everything is fine and we’re still interested in you. Yes, it’s very much like dating. How to keep yourself in the picture? I like to send FB friend requests to candidates, and that’s something that you can do only as a startup (it can get pretty awkward when done by someone from a large company). Facebook is a great platform to share how well your startup is doing over the years. I also like sending an email once every 4-6 months, sharing how we’re doing and asking how’s everything going. I found out that most people find it friendly (and somehow flattering) rather than annoying.
  • Saying No - giving a smart negative answer will help you reach other great engineers in the future. I often ask myself how I would have liked to receive a “No”. My answer is that I would like to hear the truth. Instead of using the default answer of “we've decided to continue the process with someone else”, I write the (sometime hard) truth- “You didn't pass the technical test’, ‘you don’t seem like a startup kind of guy’, ‘it seems like you’re more interested in managing and that’s something we can’t offer right now’. I also make sure to write some of the things I liked about the candidate. True, there are some cases you can’t write the real reason, but in most cases you can. I was terrified when I sent the first 100% sincere email, but I soon found out that candidates embrace this, and usually agree with the reason. Now comes the interesting part - instead of feeling rejected, most people rightly feel they interviewed for the wrong role. Once you don’t ‘break-up’ with them, you can ask them to recommend friends or co-workers they think could fit the position. Yep, it sounds crazy, but it’s true. Even if you don’t get a new lead, rest assured you’ll have a past candidate saying good things about your company, and that’s something great in itself.

How about you? Any lessons you've learned while trying to hire great developers for your team? Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on Thu, Nov 15, 2012



posted on Thursday, November 15, 2012 at 10:16 AM by Dan Howard

I think described method will better work for younger (20+) developers. Older developers usually become more pragmatic.  
New technologies most likely will be more interesting in Google (read "self driving car", "Google glasses") than in some small unknown startup. Salary will be better in some government contractor shop. If you don't like red tape, you can easily go to 50+ employees company which is still quite flexible.  
Generally speaking, startup can provide three things which other companies can't: equity (which is almost not applicable for 10+ person startup), opportunity (probably this is the biggest one. However, it's not guaranteed) and smart co-workers (definitely nice to have). 
I am absolutely not again startups (heck... I am in a startup right now). I just want to point out that from experienced developer point of view small startups are in the gap between very opportunistic super early startups and well established bigger companies.

posted on Thursday, November 15, 2012 at 12:22 PM by Victor Ronin

I wish more co-founders decide to be bold enough to tell why the candidate was not able to make the cut. Otherwise we just keep wondering what went wrong!

posted on Thursday, November 15, 2012 at 1:13 PM by Shobhit Bakliwal

good stuff. I am myself looking for a startup to join and this is a good guide !

posted on Thursday, November 15, 2012 at 1:17 PM by knockoutjs

You don't want hackers.  
Hackers write hacks. 
You want solid engineers that will build you systems that will be bullet proof and survive potentially rapid growth and scale out. 
Cowboys just create messes that you will spend more money to clean up later.

posted on Thursday, November 15, 2012 at 1:22 PM by Jeff Kesselman

2Jeff Kesselman: 
There is a good case for hackers/cowboys. It's rapid prototyping, putting something together for a demo and so on. However, I completely agree with you. In the long run, you better have solid engineers (vs cowbows).

posted on Thursday, November 15, 2012 at 1:27 PM by Victor Ronin

Absolutely don't call me a ninja code-fu rockstar or whatever. Oh my god. That works on the people you don't want. To everyone else, it sounds like "here's a condescending buzzword in lieu of compensation".

posted on Thursday, November 15, 2012 at 2:07 PM by Yves

Hi All,  
The use of the terms 'Hackers' or 'Ninjas' is meant to emphasize the problem of bringing the best people on board. The engineers I'm working with are definitely not typical 'hackers'. The article is about convincing good people to join a small startup, not about how you call them.

posted on Thursday, November 15, 2012 at 3:35 PM by Iris Shoor

India nigger

posted on Thursday, November 15, 2012 at 3:38 PM by Terry A. Davis

I'm impressed

posted on Thursday, November 15, 2012 at 5:01 PM by Shloime

Good programmers or hackers, they decide on how good other programmers are in the startup and what technologies they r working on. For most programmer it's a matter of personal satisfaction, which comes out of technical challenges and the sense of importance of their work.  
I experienced, the candidate decides based on his interaction with the interview panel, how they paint the picture of company, how smart questions they ask, how technically smart they are, it's always good to have hacker/programmer on the interview panel.

posted on Thursday, November 15, 2012 at 8:10 PM by Samar

Good ideas. Thanks. 
Joel Spolsky has some very good blog posts on this topic as well.

posted on Monday, November 19, 2012 at 1:09 PM by Mark Gavagan

Thanks Mark,  
I agree, even though it's over 10 years old, Joel Spolsky's "The Guerrilla Guide to Interviewing" ( is the best post I read about interviewing developers. I've been using these principles successfully for years. 

posted on Tuesday, November 20, 2012 at 4:05 AM by Iris

This is quite pertinent as we ourselves are looking for awesome developers/hackers all the time. Found it quite helpful

posted on Thursday, November 22, 2012 at 11:55 AM by Rahul

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