How To Hire World-Class Engineers

Hiring quality engineers is daunting. Demand for engineers is at an all-time high, unemployed engineers are few and far between, and these two facts make finding your next perfect hire incredibly difficult.

Pexels photo

Whether you’re hiring your first or hundredth engineer, you can build a hiring pipeline to discover, interview, and recruit quality candidates at scale. We’re here to help with every step:

  • Background on the current engineering landscape
  • How to build your employer brand
  • How to source top engineers
  • How to screen without turning engineers off
  • How to run an effective (and enjoyable) interview
  • How to close your perfect engineering hire

We built this guide by surveying 1,000+ startups, analyzing data from A-List (our platform for hiring engineers), and reflecting on our own hiring experiences.

What You Need To Know About The Engineering Landscape

Engineers are the most in-demand professionals in the US. Only 1 in 100 engineers are unemployed. Engineers also change jobs a lot – 50% of all software developers plan on switching jobs in the next year.

Fig 1: Software Engineers Plan to Switch Jobs In:

Source: Glassdoor Data

These statistics make one thing obvious. Great engineers have the luxury of picking which projects they want to join. They don’t need a job. This presents an opportunity and a challenge.

The challenge is obvious: competition is fierce. The opportunity, however, is that engineers don’t have to be afraid of taking a risk on your startup. There are always other projects that need talent.

To have a chance at attracting engineers, you need to know what a typical engineer is looking for (beyond compensation):

  • Opportunity — Engineers need to know they’ll be making an impact, and will be moving forward in their career—both in terms of skills and finances.
  • Challenge — Top engineers want to be working on very difficult problems that they can grow from and point to as achievements for the rest of their career.
  • Community — Engineers want to work in a supportive environment where their thoughts are valued by their teammates. Over 50% of engineers say they would take less pay to work for a company with a fantastic culture or brand.

recruiting engineers

With that primer out of the way, let’s get into how you can build your engineering pipeline.

Step 1: Create A Company Story That Engineers Will Want To Be Part of

Most hiring guides begin with sourcing candidates, but there’s actually a step that comes before sourcing—building your employer brand. The truth is, hiring is marketing. Greg Brockman, CTO of Stripe, said it best:

“Consider approaching recruiting the way you approach marketing. The end goal of each is to make your company appear more desirable. You have to build a brand.”

To build your brand, you need to be methodical about documenting and promoting your company’s mission, culture, and philosophy.

Wistia, a video platform for businesses, does a fantastic job of both documenting their higher level business philosophy — like this blog post explaining why they took on debt to buy out their investors — as well as promoting their culture — like this video of one of their “Wistia at the Movies” events:

wistia video thumbnail

Instead of guessing, potential engineering hires can engage with Wistia’s vision, culture, and philosophy instantly. This is quintessential brand marketing, by which Wistia broadcasts their values and plants a flag for other like-minded people to rally around.

Wistia isn’t the only one crushing this:

The easiest way to get started with marketing your brand is to focus on whatever your company specializes in—your passion, in other words. As Nikki Hallgrimsdottir, founder of Algomus, says:

“You have to give them something interesting. In our case, we’re working with really hot technologies. Data science, natural language processing, computer vision, a whole variety of machine learning and AI things. We’ve had a lot of people contact us and say, “Hey, I really like what you’re working on! I’m interested in learning this. How can I become part of the team?”

If you haven’t done any employer branding at all, write a piece titled, “What it means to be an engineer at YOUR-STARTUP-HERE” Explain why your mission matters and how your engineers fit into it. If you don’t have a blog, you can set up a Medium publication in 10 minutes and publish it. If you need inspiration, check out Tophatter’s piece on their interview process.

Once you have an actual branding asset in play, you can finally start sourcing engineers.

Step 2: Never Stop Sourcing

The secret to hiring great engineers is to never stop sourcing. That doesn’t mean you need to hire 30 new engineers this quarter, but you should always continue to engage world-class candidates.

As Coursera’s John Ciancutti — formerly of Netflix and Facebook — said:

“Most engineering managers are introverted by nature — that’s true of me and most. You just have to embrace it. It’s not about loving to have coffee with 20 people in two weeks. It’s about that amazingly talented person that you’re eventually going to work with.”

sourcing engineers

There are dozens of sourcing channels you can use, each with a different set of benefits and costs. We’ve broken down the four key channels for sourcing top engineers:

1. Hiring Platforms

The value proposition for hiring platforms is simple: You pay for immediate access to top engineers. Just having a profile on these platforms is a positive social signal. Wouldn’t it be odd if a startup or business you frequent didn’t have an AngelList or LinkedIn profile?

Key Benefit: Speed and reliability. Sign up, complete your profile, and start engaging engineers.

Main Costs: Price. Different platforms have their own pricing model. For example, A-List, our premium recruiting service, only charges startups after a successful hire.

How To Get Started: Sign up for all the major platforms—particularly, AngelList and LinkedIn. This shouldn’t take more than a few hours.

2. Referrals

As Cat Surane at Lightspeed Venture Partners told us, “If you can tap your own personal network, as well as the network of co-founders and employees, that is going to be the easiest way to start your pipeline.” Almost every founder we spoke with agreed that referrals are low hanging fruit for hiring.

Key Benefit: Trust. Humans trust recommendations from friends more than any other source.

Main Costs: Potential homogeneity. If you’re exclusively hiring friends of your existing team, you can end up with a homogenous and non-diverse team.

How To Get Started: Make a list of every talented engineer you’ve worked with. Now, email them. Tell your engineers and partners to do the same. Give them all language to use in their outreach.

3. Outbound Prospecting

Outbound prospecting is what most people are familiar with – it’s basic recruiting. Look for someone already doing the work you need done, and go get them.

Key Benefit: Candidate quality. You can recruit someone who is already succeeding in the exact role you need.

Main Costs: Time. The key to outbound prospecting is having someone knowledgeable do the outreach. Engineers are constantly spammed by recruiters who don’t understand the tech they’re recruiting for. Having someone on your team do the recruiting will differentiate you, but will also cost valuable engineering time.

How To Get Started: Create an skillset of your ideal engineering hire. What are their skills? What does their experience look like? What companies do they likely work for?

4. Inbound Marketing

Building a world-class employer brand is hard. It’s not just a side project for your marketing team—it’s a second, complete brand. However, success in this channel brings an evergreen stream of quality, inbound engineering leads.

Key Benefit: Reach. Simply put, building a widely-respected and exciting employer brand will drive more top tier candidates than anything else you do.

Main Costs: Time. You have to design a brand strategy. You have to create world-class content. You have to execute an effective media strategy. Companies that half-ass this end up with a sloppy brand that actually keeps the best engineers from ever applying.

How To Get Started: If you’ve followed the directions in step one, you should already have a major piece of your employer brand in place. Build off that by creating more content. Get into the philosophy behind your business decisions. Did you fundraise? How do you structure your equity offerings? How do you envision your startup’s impact on the world?

Step 3: Build Relationships With Engineers Before You Screen Them

There’s a lot of advice out there about running the optimal technical phone screen, but we’re going to recommend something a little bit different: Don’t screen candidates until you’ve spent time with them.

As Venkat Venkataramani, CEO of Rockset and former engineering director at Facebook, explains, this approach:

  • “Gets (engineers) excited because what you’re doing is interesting, hard, and challenging.”
  • “Gives (engineers) an honest and sincere exposure to the actual people they’ll be working with.”
  • “(Makes it) clear what they’re actually going to do.”

At AngelList, someone from our engineering team or leadership team does a 30 minute call with any engineering candidate. We do this for a few of reasons:

  • We want to make sure the engineer knows exactly what we do at AngelList, what they’d be working on, and how the interview process is going to proceed.
  • We want to have good relationships with all engineers — even the ones who don’t work with us. We’ve gotten great referrals from engineers who didn’t end up on our team.
  • We want any engineer considering coming onboard at AngelList to know that we value and respect their time as well.

This process is like engineer speed-dating in that you’ll spend a lot of time with people you might never take the next step with. However, you’re building relationships with dozens of quality engineers, which will pay off in the future.

For the candidates that you decide to advance to the next stage, schedule a follow up and prepare screening questions. Below, we’ve broken down some of the best questions we’ve come across:

  • Prezi asks every engineering candidate, “Why are you taking the time to talk to me today?” in order to figure out what they’re optimizing for in their career.
  • Intercom asks candidates, “What’s your proudest achievement?” to get a sense for what excites them about their work.
  • Auth0 asks “What’s a article/blog post/github repo you found recently that you would recommend we check out, and why?” to gauge how immersed in the engineering world the candidate actually is.

Ultimately, it’s your choice how to structure your screening stage while optimizing for relationship building.

Once the screening is done, we get to the actual interview.

Step 4: Focus Your On-Site Interview Around Problems Your Engineers Actually Solve

The most effective way to conduct a technical interview is a hot button issue, with companies falling into two main schools of thought:

  • Companies that rely on algorithmic, academic interviews for every engineering role.
  • Companies that only test engineers on skills and technologies they will actually be using in their day-to-day role.

What we found is that most companies — at least among our survey participants — fell into the second category, opting to test candidates on the specific tech that they’d be working with.

Almost all companies that required a standard algorithm-driven whiteboard interview were interviewing for roles that truly required it, like machine learning roles. This isn’t to say that the whiteboard interview is completely obsolete, but it seems this more practical interview style is rising in popularity.

Companies approach this practical interview style in many different ways. Some of the most interesting include:

  • CircleCI has candidates pair-program with an actual CircleCI engineer on real problems from their codebase.
  • Lob’s coding interview involves the interviewer explaining a real problem Lob had to recently solve, and then asks the engineer to approach solving it however they’d like.
  • Coinbase has candidates work with the dev team for a day or two to fix real bugs and build features, just like they would in the role.

Our recommendation is to have your prospective engineer work on a project that:

  • Closely mirrors the problems they’ll be solving at your startup.
  • Can be completed in a few hours.
  • Gives a chance to collaborate with an engineer on your team.

Designing a project that fits this criteria is an art, and it will take you many more hours than you anticipate. However, it is crucial to a successful interview. It allows you to accurately assess a candidate without insulting your candidate’s time.

When they are finished, ask them to walk you through their decision making process. Why did they choose a particular design pattern? What was the criteria for each technical decision they made?

At this point, you’ll have completed three rounds of interviews. According to our survey, that’s enough time for nearly 70% of companies to make a decision:

Fig 2: Average # of Rounds per Hire (by Percent)

Source: AngelList Data

Step 5: If All Goes Well, Close As Quickly As Possible

Assuming your team agrees that the engineer would be a great fit, you need to send an offer as quickly as possible. One of your biggest assets is the speed at which you operate compared to a big tech company, and so offering quickly is a big win for you.

Austin Broyles, director of engineering at Primer.ai, actually engages his candidates via text after he sends them an offer. He invites them to dinner, keeps a casual text conversation open, and generally makes himself available for immediate, responsive communication.

The key to closing the hire quickly is to:

  • Discuss compensation openly. No vagueness, no posturing for negotiations.
  • Move as quickly as possible, and stay responsive in your communication.
  • Showcase your passion for the company. Remind the candidate of your company’s story, and why they should be excited to be a part of it.

Even with a beautiful interview process and an effective closer, there is still a chance the candidate says no. This is just the cost of doing business. The important thing is that you do not take things personally or injure the relationship – you might end up hiring them in the coming years.

A Note About Culture Fit

The importance of culture is a big topic in the startup world. When we asked hiring managers to rank the relative importance of experience, interview performance, and cultural fit, 50% listed culture fit as the most important quality.

However, an interesting trend emerged when we segmented our responses by company size. While the overwhelming majority of early stage companies (1-10 employees) listed cultural fit as the most important quality for a new hire, only 37.5% of companies bigger than 50 employees agreed:

Fig 3: Is Cultural Fit the Most Important Quality for a New Hire

Source: AngelList Data

Why are bigger companies less concerned about cultural fit? It’s possible that earlier stage companies have to care more about cultural fit, as early hires can define your company’s culture going forward. However, it’s also possible that many bigger startups have figured out that most “culture tests” don’t work.

It’s often easy to tell if someone would be destructive to your culture, but it’s much harder to tell if they would be additive. In our opinion, it’s actually impossible to know until a person has been part of the team.

Because of this, most “culture tests” are actually designed to test answer a simpler questions: “Do I personally like this candidate?”

When you consider human beings’ hard-wired tendency to like people who are similar to us, you can see how this sort of screening can lead to a team of identical people. In an industry with a well-documented diversity gap, that’s not great.

Our advice is to test a candidate’s culture fit by letting them interact with the team in a meaningful way. Micah Smith from Gooten takes this belief to the extreme, giving each candidate just a short 30 minute call to screen for the basics, and then bringing them on for a one week contract-to-hire arrangement to judge their overall fit at the company.

From Sourcing To Closing, You’re Selling Your Story

If we could distill all the advice we received from our survey into one insight, it would be this:

The key to hiring world-class engineers is to share your story, and help them see where they fit in it. You’re not just offering them a job, you’re selling them on the next chapter of their life.

There is no simple fix for the bottleneck around engineering talent — it’s supply and demand. However, by following this blueprint, you can build a pipeline that will connect you with the right engineers for your startup.

Have a tip for hiring engineers that we didn’t cover? Tweet them to us at @angellist.

More Hiring Questions?

Have more questions about hiring? Check out some of our other guides: