How to Hire (and Keep) Your Best Engineers

How to Hire Your Best Engineers

There’s a big challenge in the startup world. Engineers leave their teams… frequently. A poll by Glassdoor found that 25% of engineering hires begin looking for a new position a mere 3 months after signing on with a new company. 

With big companies on the hunt for new hires and the talent war raging, the task of attracting and building your best engineering team can feel daunting, to say the least. 

But great engineers are just like any other pro employee (or anyone else for that matter) – they want to be motivated, to have the autonomy to accomplish great work, and to have the proper resources to meet (and be badass at) their goals. To shorten it up, they want Purpose, Ownership, and Growth (POG)

To help you create your biggest, baddest team, we compiled the baseline “musts” for attracting and supporting great engineers.

How to Hire Your Best Engineers

The hiring process for an engineering candidate can either be exhilarating and exciting or frustrating and ill-focused. You want the former. 

In the article “How Stripe Built One of Silicon Valley’s Best Engineering Teams,” Stripe’s CTO boils successful hiring down to a two-item list:

“Candidates should walk away knowing a) your company is building something big and b) they’ll be really happy.”

Here’s how to ensure you’re hitting both a) and b).

1. Define what a successful engineer looks like on your team

Communicating your metrics for success starts as soon as you post the job listing – make that initial posting count. After analyzing over two years of job listing data, the engineer Q+A site Stack Overflow found “that the best-performing listings yield an average apply rate of 31%, compared to only 3% for the lowest performers.” 

Here are a few similarities they found in their best performing listings:

  • “Job listings that link back to a Company Page receive 40% more views.” 
  • “Mention the main technology for the role, which gives job-seekers a sense of what type of work they will do and can increase the apply rate by up to 25%.” 
  • “ Explain how this job matters in the bigger picture of your company and give candidates a reason to get excited about your mission."

In a separate study, Stack Exchange compiled a few of the “nays” for job listings. 

Three stood out:

  • Too many “bullets (46% of the low apply rate listings vs. 7% of the top)” 
  • Including “TL;DR (31% vs. 0%)” in the job description 
  • Posting an opening with a “generic title (46% vs. 40%)”

So what does a good listing look like compared to a bad listing? Here’s an excerpt from an engineer approved job listing:

The above is from a posting for “Junior Developer (Full Stack) by Vodori listed on Stack Overflow’s career site. Clear, compelling, and click-worthy. Compare that to an example of a listing that would reliably be passed over: “Seeking rockstar ninja unicorn engineer.”

2. Use feedback from your existing engineers to inform your hiring strategy

Your team is an open source for hiring feedback. Remember: while you may see the forest, they see the trees. Your team will tell you what’s missing, where they need help, or their thoughts on a new hire – but you have to ask them first. 

A few questions you can consider asking to get the conversation started:

  1. If you were the CTO, what’s the first skill you’d add to the team?
  2. What’s the number one challenge on the team? What quality in a hire would help solve that?
  3. What’s a quality we don’t want added to the team?

3. Always be networking. Yes, always.

You’ve heard it before, but networking is hands down one of the best ways to acquire new talent. Max Levchin took the networking approach as he built PayPal's pioneering engineer team:

“Levchin and the early team at PayPal limited the number of agonising hiring decisions by bringing in people they knew. The first 10 engineers at PayPal went to school with Levchin.” - The Trick Max Levchin Used to Hire the Best Engineers at Paypal

Note that Levchin’s initial hires were contacts that he’d made years previously. Networking isn’t a one and done kind of deal – plan to network even when you’re not actively hiring. 

Here are some ways to keep your network strong and connected:

  • Schedule regular outreach emails to old co-workers (tools like Boomerang offer an easy way to send yourself email reminders)
  • Ask your current engineers for hiring recommendations (birds of a feather)
  • Attend hackathons
  • Participate in hiring events
  • Scope out Junior developers (they’re often overlooked!)

And fear not the social network. Twitter or social channels help spread the word when you are hiring.

4. Avoid the number one hiring mistake: confusing great experience with great team fit

Engineers with a long list of experience and a great company history  are extremely valuable. That doesn’t, however, mean their talent correlates with great team fit. 

Even engineers with the experience of a tech veteran may lack teamwork skills. Hunter Walk summed it up in his post, “For Startups, Your Culture Starts With Your First Hire”:

“Which do you think will build a stronger company over time? A technically competent team of people who share no collective set of motivations, styles or goals – or – a technically competent team of people who are united by a clearly articulated set of values and expectations the CEO has both described to them and tested for during the interview process? It’s not a trick question.”

Choosing fit + talent over talent alone might mean saying “no” to a phenomenal looking hire. Saying “no” to talent is hard. But if nothing else, remember – a genius engineer who drives other excellent engineers off the team is a bad hire.

OK So You've Hired, Now How Do You Keep Great Engineers?

Of course, hiring a happy and efficient engineering team is an entirely different beast from keeping a happy and efficient engineering team. With the cost of replacing a skilled-employee averaging at 400% of their annual salary, losing an engineer isn’t only stressful, it's costly. On the more personal level, it’s a big bummer to lose the people you want to work with. 

To avoid engineer churn, here are 7 critical steps for keeping your engineering team happy.

1. Make the first 3 months count for each new hire

How an engineer enters onto the team will largely inform how they think of your team, and on a broader spectrum, your company. Proper onboarding of an engineer (this includes how you intro new hires to the existing systems) is crucial. 

Think about it this way – there are entire YouTube channels built around the hobby of unboxing. A new work environment is the shiny new product to your engineer. If your engineer were to “unbox” your team and share their first impressions on YouTube, what would they share? 

First impressions mean a lot. It’s up to you (the leader) or the company to keep good on your initial promises (more on this in the following point) and provide your engineers with something they can get invested in early on.

2. Be (very) clear with your expectations

One of the biggest upsets for any employee is to feel like they’re living up to unclear expectations (or that they lack any expectations to begin with). Engineers are no different. 

If you as a manager or a leader can provide crystal clear expectations while also providing the resources or motivation to help your engineers meet these expectations that’s huge.


Clear Expectations

Unclear Expectations

3. Follow the MIE (Make It Easier) Rule

Developing is hard enough – make it easier for your engineers to excel. Removing friction points is one way to do that, even if that means outsourcing tools or product rather than building in-house. 

For example, our HelloSign engineers like easy debugging. We know other developers like easy debugging, too. So we built our HelloSign API Dashboard. We followed the MIE Rule. A dashboard is just one example of what extra developer support and good developer experience looks like. 

A few examples of the MIE rule showcased by other companies:

Chrome’s DevTools
The Netflix Tech Blog
Twilio’s How-tos and example code

4. Build creativity into your engineering team’s schedule

Side projects = happiness. Just ask employees at LinkedIn, Google, or Apple.

“LinkedIn has InCubator, a program that gives engineers time away from their regular work to work on their own product ideas; Apple has Blue Sky, which allows some workers to spend a few weeks on pet projects; and Microsoft created The Garage, a space for employees to build their own products using Microsoft resources.” – Fast Company

A good way to encourage creative thinking and innovation is by supporting side projects. If your engineers use your code to create that side project, all the better. A few ways to build creativity into your team:

  • 1-day hackathons
  • Hack weeks
  • Ask your engineers (as per the “open source of feedback” point)

The benefit of offering time to work on side projects goes beyond netting warm fuzzies from your engineers. Creativity also encourages a sense of freedom and ownership.

5. Say it with me, “Management matters.”

You know the mighty Google? The same one that was once a startup? The founding engineering team once worked out of a single room filled with Mountain Dew and dreams.

They’ve changed a lot over the years. And as the company’s grown, they’ve implemented new management systems as a way to be a more empathetic to their engineering teams. 

Here’s what they found about their best managers:

The above is excerpted from "How Google Sold Its Engineers on Management." 

Notice that most of the qualities have less to do with showboating hyper-talent and more to do with empowerment and effective communication. 

Making management a high priority is no joke – you have to be an inspiration to get inspiration. Don’t let poor communication or lack of transparency stand in the way of building that fantastic team of yours.

6. Personalize mentorship – people are motivated by different things

What are engineers inspired by? Is it growth? Is it working with other talented team members? Is it creating something meaningful? Is it the option to code all day? There's no one right answer. 

Learn early on what your engineers are individually motivated by and use that to cater your mentorship. Empathize and speak to the individual instead of throwing around “blanket motivation.” Preferences and sources of inspiration indicate strengths and potential.

7. There’s no “end point” when it comes to building a great team

Buffer’s CTO compares hiring a great engineering team to that of coaching a successful professional sports team. In his article “What College Basketball Taught Me About Hiring At Buffer,” Sunil Sadasivan had this to say about building a successful team: 

“After watching coaching inspirations, like John Beilein, be successful over the years, I’ve come to realize that building a good team or organization is all about continual learning, development, and growth as a group and much less about individual contribution and expertise.”

Success comes from a continued dedication to growing the team and making it better. Every day is training day.

TLDR: If nothing else, stay true to POG

At the end of the day, there’s no silver bullet for building and keeping your best team. But if nothing else, remember this simple and memorable equation – POG (remember when we brought that up in the intro?):

Purpose – give your engineers something meaningful to work on. 
Ownership – empower them to do great work by offering the autonomy and resources to get their work done. 
Growth – regularly offer opportunities to improve.

What’s your take? What have you found to be the best way to attract great engineering hires and support a happy and fulfilled team? Engineers – What attracts you to a company? And what keeps you there?

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