How to get engineers to work for you instead of Facebook or Google

Perks aren’t everything.
Perks aren’t everything.
Image: Reuters/Edgar Su
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It might seem self-evident that of course the best engineers in the world go to work for tech giants like Google and Facebook. Why should they go anywhere else? A small company operating from a studio apartment could never compete with Google’s unlimited free food or with Facebook’s gratis on-site barbershop, let alone the name brand cachet that goes along with working for an instantly recognized company.

But this mentality ignores a secret hidden in plain sight—these celebrity companies that offer crazy perks and huge bonuses started out as understaffed, underfunded David’s doing battle against Goliath’s in their own right. They are as much a part of bootstrapped startup culture as any other little guy out there today, because it’s built into their DNA. It’s where they came from.

You already have all the tools you need to recruit the best engineers for your startup. You just need a plan. These are the methods used by the little guys who compete (and win!) in the war for engineering talent.

Put your best and brightest engineers on public display

Good engineers only want to work with people smarter than they are, so show off both what your engineers can do and have done. It is on you as a business leader to create inbound engineering interest in your startup. This means nothing more than “make engineers think you’re cool.” You need street cred, not free carwashes and food, to pique the interest of worthwhile tech minds. For your team to be attractive, it doesn’t need to be the biggest or best-paying. It mostly needs to offer a good challenge.

Chris Rill, co-founder of Canary, puts it best: “Smart people follow each other.”

Consider the engineering team at realtime website analytics company Chartbeat, which built a custom database from scratch called Memoryfly. It solves a technical problem while also selling its engineering team as being hardcore. You know what? Others took notice.

You no longer know what LinkedIn is

These days, cold-calling and LinkedIn aren’t viable means of attracting tech talent; recruiters have ruined these methods for the rest of us, hammering engineers non-stop in their scrounge for candidates. Smart companies take a different tack, they go to hackathons and meetups, ask tech friends if they know anyone working on interesting things and find ways to get involved and add value to the engineering community. Short of someone approaching you with a list of reasons you should hire them, your best recruiting avenues are those that are comfortable and organic. How many more times do you really want to copy and paste another message to someone on LinkedIn?

“The two biggest challenges in hiring are access and sourcing of worthwhile candidates,” says Matt Koidin, CTO of Pocket. “We’ve taken advantage of the Google Ventures recruiting team for sourcing candidates. Why not learn from the giants to compete against them? AngelList has been a good place. There’s also the Bridge program run by Designer Fund. They do a lot of sourcing of high quality candidates. Working together on this, we can get a good flow of candidates.”

Another very effective strategy is when a company offers training classes (sometimes free!) on open-source technologies to engineers in their local community. It shows that the company is generous with engineering knowledge and it can turn into an incredible lead generation machine that attracts engineers who attended the course into full-time roles at the company.

Everyone, meet everyone!

If yours is a smaller team spending 40 to 50 hours or more working together every week, you better make sure you somewhat enjoy hanging out with them.

“Cultural fit is important. Being able to grab a drink with someone is important,” says Canary’s Rill. Arrange a casual meal or hangout time to see how a potential new hire might fit into the mix of personalities you already have on board. “Can this person interact and socialize with peers before being brought aboard? We have lunch catered and we like to have a candidate come through for that. We always invite candidates and friends for drinks.”

This gives you—and everyone else—the opportunity to get a vibe for this person.

Personally, I’ve also discovered that diversity in tech hiring is a crucial focus of top teams. As a founder myself, I’ve learned that one’s team is never too small to focus on ways to create mentorship or internship opportunities for students, or ways to signal that a company is a friendly environment for female engineers.

Not everyone will accept your offer, and that’s okay

It can happen for any number of reasons. If you’re attracting someone who’s in talks with major tech companies at the same time, there’s a lot to compete with.

Dag Liodden is CTO at advertising and content delivery startup Tapad. He said that “people are drawn to companies like Google and Facebook because they know the engineering teams by reputation. These companies offer lots of career paths, and if an engineer is fresh out of school, they might see working there as a quality stamp on themselves.”

Pocket’s Matt Koidin said that his company just isn’t for employees looking for free laundry and haircuts. Instead, they need to buy into Pocket’s vision. “If you’re someone wowed by the perks, Pocket probably isn’t the right place for you,” he said, explaining that the most important thing is that the candidate has used, and loves, Pocket’s product. “If you want to be part of building the thing that gets there one day, this is the place.”

The fact of the matter is that you need to convince prospective employees that yours is the company solving weighty problems of consequence, not that you have more appealing resources—the famous companies will beat you every time on this front. “We had one example where we lost out on one great candidate,” said Koidin. But this is what it required: “The CEO of Twitter called him to say he wanted to work with him.”

Trust that you’ll eventually attract the grade of talent you want

It won’t necessarily come easily or quickly, but you’ll know it when it does. Tapad’s Isaac Ahdout recently joined the company after more than 10 years of experience at Google and Microsoft. He breaks down his decision to do so like this:

“I got the feeling that the Tapad team was one I could fall in love with. They told me about the technology and the chance to work on cooler, newer stuff. There’s nothing wrong with Java, but you can do so much more with Scala. Tapad offered me more challenges and the chance to grow with a company that’s growing really quickly. It’s smaller, there’s less bureaucracy, it moves faster, and it still beat my expectations. There’s a do or die culture, which means you can have enormous impact if you do your work.

“There are two ways of making a decision—what looks good on paper versus what feels right. Both need to work out. Tapad felt right and looked good on paper to me.”

Rounding it up

To assemble a hardcore team of brilliant engineers, sell your company’s culture as one that not only takes its engineers seriously, but flaunts their successes. Give them amazing problems to solve and the latest, up-to-date tools to use. Make sure they are people you don’t mind spending many, many hours with every week, because if you’re working on the right challenges, you’ll want to tackle them obsessively.

Find your Isaac. It’s entirely possible for a small tech company to make the brand name giants wish they had found him or her first.