[Seedcamp Firsts] How to Build Your Early Engineering Team: Selecting Engineers

In Part II of his piece on building your early engineering team, our Expert in Residence, David Mytton, walks you through the five stages of selecting engineers. If you’ve missed Part I on sourcing engineering talent, you can read it here

Once you’ve sourced candidates, the next part is the selection process. I’ll break this down into five separate stages:

Stage one: Application

The best people never apply for jobs because they already know people internally, so they skip that process. However, that tends to be lower volume and you will still want to have brand new applicants applying through a normal process.

People applying will be sending their CVs through so you can do some very basic screening. A lot of companies just ignore the CV or only use it as a simple filter. Something that I used was to have a keyword that I required all applicants to put in their cover letter, even if there was nothing else in the cover letter at all. The keyword was in the middle of the ad, and that tested to make sure that the applicant had actually read the full advert. It allowed us to screen out most people who apply using a shotgun approach of sending applications out to hundreds of companies.

Stage two: Writing exercise

There is a direct correlation between the ability to write prose and the ability to code. The next stage that I always used was to have a short writing exercise. I asked them to compare MongoDB to MySQL or some other relatively easy technical analysis. 

Ask candidates to write a couple of hundred words and spend 20-30 minutes putting together a short article on the comparison. With this, you are checking for the ability to explain and write without mistakes. If you can’t write a couple of hundred words without making grammatical and spelling errors, then the quality of your code is also going to be poor.

Stage three: Coding exercise

A coding exercise is a good way to test whether someone can actually do the job. It should be very short, just a couple of hours (so someone can do it in an evening or weekend), and it should be compensated with a reasonable fee. It is important to make sure that you are not just doing random tests. It also needs to be representative of what they might do in their day job, which could be building a simple client for your public API or fixing an issue in a open source repo – something relevant and easy to do.

Stage four: Meet them in person

After you assess their technical ability, spend a bit more time by actually meeting them in person. This is a good way to assess them for cultural fit, but also just to see what they’re like to work with. Even if you have a remote team, doing this in person has significant value. Some kind of pair programming session on a call is an alternative to that, but really try to do it in person if possible.

Remember that you’re still selling. The person has applied to you, but you still have to sell them on your company and why they should join. Make the process very smooth. Show candidates that they’re completely looked after – any travel is organized, and it feels like they’re a VIP. Showing that you actually care about them is a good way to persuade them to join!

Stage five: Have a quick response

Then, finally, have a quick follow-up. You don’t want to rush a decision, but it shouldn’t take more than a few weeks to run through the entire hiring process. 

Avoid puzzles and tests. Whiteboarding a theoretical technical architecture might be acceptable, but writing code in anything other than a fully set-up editor with the internet is a waste of time and not representative of real-world development. So is anything that is going to take more than a couple of hours to half a day. Remember, people have real jobs, they have families, and they have other things they would rather be doing.

Going through a very lengthy process is something you want to avoid. Also, don’t ask about salary. Ensure you have a realistic market salary range decided up-front and in the job ad before people even apply. 

Conclusions and key takeaways

The selection process must be well-defined, representative of real-world development, and lead to a quick follow-up. 

Meet the candidates in person to see what they’re like to work with and assess the cultural fit. A pair programming session on a call is an alternative if meeting in person is impossible.

Remember, you are still selling, even though the candidate applied for the job.

If you’d like to learn more about hiring engineers, read David’s additional notes here.

Check out our growing Seedcamp Firsts Library here.

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