[Seedcamp Firsts] How to Build Your Early Engineering Team: Sourcing Engineering Talent

Our Expert in Residence, David Mytton, shares his hard-won insights on how to build your early engineering team. Previously, as the CEO at Server Density, a SaaS cloud monitoring product (acquired by StackPath in 2018), he ran product engineering in a team of around 300 people before leaving in 2019. In January 2021, he launched, a free weekly newsletter for experienced engineers to find the best devtools and jobs.

How do you branch out and source candidates outside your personal network? What are developers looking for, and how do you stand out? How do you know whether someone is good or not? Do degrees or specific tech experience matter anymore? What are market salaries?

These are some of the key questions David will guide you through in his two-part article focused on sourcing and selecting engineering talent in early-stage startups.

Hiring developers is hard. Hiring good developers is even harder.

When building your first engineering team, as an early-stage company, you’ll go through two main stages: 1) Sourcing and 2) Selection. 

Before sourcing, essential preparation is answering some of the key questions a developer or engineer wants to know before they consider applying:  

  • What are the company values?
  • What are the standard benefits and the compensation package (e.g., health insurance, pension, etc.)
  • How do you work? What’s your development process? How does code land onto main? How does that get into production?
  • Who is on the team, and in particular, who do they report to?
  • What tools are you using internally? 

It’s not sufficient to think about them and write them on a private Notion page. You actually need to get them online and start the selling process before you even put job ads out and start speaking to engineers. Good candidates do a lot of research into the company. The best engineers are rarely on the market, but when they see an interesting company, they want to learn all about it.

In Part I, I focus on sourcing engineering talent, from writing a compelling job ad to defining your selection criteria and identifying the right channels to reach out to potential candidates. 

Sourcing Engineers

Finding good engineers in the first place is challenging. Start by figuring out what you are going to put in your job ad. 

The question that you’re trying to answer with this is, What will I be doing?”. 

The areas to focus on are:

 1) Putting in real numbers 

 2) Publishing what your selection criteria are

If you don’t have a product in production yet, then putting real numbers in is a bit more challenging. This was a good way that we used to promote what were doing at Server Density, my previous company, because we were processing huge volumes of monitoring data. 

We were processing over 150,000 writes per second into the database. These numbers are interesting to developers because it shows you’re operating at a level where they’re going to have to solve interesting problems. If you’re not at that scale, then you can think about the challenges that you’re solving in the product. UX challenges are interesting if you’ve got a product that is doing some innovative things on how your users interact with it; interesting things that you’ve done in the backend to deal with large volumes of data or transforming data; anything where there’s an interesting technical challenge, whether it’s at scale, whether it’s interesting algorithms using interesting tooling and technologies, those are all things you can highlight in the job ad.

Next, it is essential to think through the selection criteria because it’s how you assess candidates in an objective way. Putting these into the job ad shows that it’s going to be a place that is thoughtful in how it evaluates candidates and is relevant to their current experience.

Also, be aware of what you shouldn’t include in the job ad: a long list of detailed requirements (e.g., very specific technologies, excessive numbers of years of experience in those technologies, and things that really are nice to have rather than actual requirements). Otherwise, it rules people out. If you put too much, people just won’t apply. 

I would always prefer to spend time filtering more applications to find an outlier who might not otherwise have seemed like a fit than have them not apply because they didn’t hit all the requirements. In particular, this applies to university degrees, which are generally irrelevant for startups. Unless you’re doing something in a very deep tech, scientific sector, there’s some regulatory requirement that means you have to have certain qualifications, or you truly need the algorithmic background that computer science brings, having them just rules people out. I’ve yet to find a startup that actually needs people with specific degrees.

Once you’ve sorted out the job ad, the next task is actually sourcing engineers. Below are some of the best places to start, broken into three levels with different frequencies of use:

Level 1: Everyone uses these recruiting channels

Your network: The first step is using your network – people you know, your friends, and people that your investors and other founders know who might be interested in joining the company.

This can scale for a surprising number of people. Once you’ve got a couple of people in, having them bring their friends in is a good way of building that initial team. The caveat to that is that you are more likely to be hiring people who are similar to you, which is generally fine at the beginning but starts to introduce diversity challenges pretty quickly. Having diversity of thought in all sorts of different ways is really important for solving those difficult problems later on. 

LinkedIn: Despite the fact that it’s not very effective, it is something that you have to do. Developers tend not to use the platform, even though they might have a profile. However, it is a way of finding people by company or job title and then using that to locate them in other ways.

GitHub is a very good way of doing this. A startup I know used the GitHub API to find a large number of profiles and do a lot of filtering to go out to make individual contacts with the developers on there. Often the email address is in the profile. If you want to be really cheeky about it, you can clone the Git repository and look at the Git log to get their email address, but you have to be careful with this because just spamming developers with generic emails is not going to put your company in a good light. Make sure the email is customized and relevant.

Jobs boards are another option, depending on the type of engineers that you are looking for. The best engineers don’t really use job boards because they already have good jobs, and if they want another job, they’re going to be able to find one very easily. They’re good for less experienced developers. There are job boards that specialize in certain areas, but they tend to be pretty low yield in terms of the success rate but very high volume in terms of the applications. It’s something that’s worth doing because it’s not particularly expensive, but the success rate is particularly low. 

Level two: Things that lots of people do, but not everybody

Candidate search platforms Hired and AngelList (now Wellfound) are options that work. There are profiles on there, but they suffer from the same problems as job boards, even though they are a bit more specialized. AngelList has a reputation for being good for startups, which narrows down the filtering quite a bit. However, they are also high volume and low yield.

Depending on the type of person that you are looking for, universities can be quite good. They tend to work on the university term cycles. There’ll be more people who are interested in jobs as we get into the summer term compared to the beginning of the academic year. This makes it more of a longer-term source of inexperienced candidates, but don’t forget the graduate students as well – they may be taking a career break and could have just the experience you’re looking for. Universities are very keen to engage with potential employers because it’s all part of the statistics that they publish about how their graduates go to get jobs afterward. 

Recruiters are another option, but you have to really think about the incentives and for which roles those are particularly important.

Unless you are headhunting an executive or you are recruiting just one or two people, recruiters tend not to work very well because the incentives are misaligned. If they’re on a retainer, then there’s no real incentive for them to find anyone quickly. And if they’re on a success fee, then their profit decreases the more time that they have to spend searching.

So the only real way to use a recruiter is when you’re hiring five to 10 people or more, and you have someone in-house, either as a contractor for six to 12 months or on a permanent basis. They are then incentivized to hire good people because they’ll be working alongside them.

Level three: Few people do these things, and they certainly don’t do them well and consistently

Blogging is probably the most effective way of hiring people, but it takes a lot of time, and you don’t see the results right away. If you’ve ever read anything on the Cloudflare or Fly blogs, then you’ve read a recruiting blog. Their primary purpose is to hire engineers from technical blog posts. You can see the type of quality of blog posts that you need to write. 

These blog posts also serve as a great way of raising the awareness of the engineering organization. You have to write technical blog posts. You have to get technical people to write them, and they have to be very high quality. The problem is that engineers want to be writing code rather than blogging, so this often requires dedicated teams of marketing engineers. In the early stages, that will just be one of the technical founders – it’ll be one of the highest-yield tasks you can do.

There are often other communities that people are part of as well. You can mine these by actually just being involved – not scraping the participants and spamming them, but being involved in a way that raises your profile. Within this, open source is another way of finding people to hire. If you’ve got open-source projects, then hiring your contributors is a good way to get people on board.

Conclusions and key takeaways 

Before even publishing your job ad, make sure you answer the key questions every talented engineer would have before applying, from company culture to how code is shipped:

  • What are the company values?
  • What are the standard benefits and the compensation package?
  • What’s your development process? How does code get into production?
  • Who is on the team, and in particular, who do they report to?
  • What tools are you using internally? 

Putting in real numbers and publishing what your selection criteria are essential in the sourcing process. They provide candidates with specific insights into how the engineering organization operates and also help you filter the right profiles. 

Stay tuned for Part II, which will guide you through the selection process for building your first engineering team. 

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