Hiring for a Startup
Vice President of Engineering at CommerceHub
My career goal is to be a rock star VP of Engineering for startups, which essentially means creating engineering organizations for startups. Hiring is perhaps the most critical aspect of creating engineering organizations in startups. However, hiring for startups varies tremendously depending on the phase of their growth and popularity. While it is immensely difficult to find the talent in the early days of a startup, people will rush to join as soon as it becomes more popular.
Yet, most startups cannot compete with companies such as Google or Facebook, starting from base salaries to bonus structures and equities. But autonomy, dynamic environment, and opportunity to make an impact will drive a certain type of engineers toward startups. To be able to hire fast, which is sine qua non for fast-growing startups, engineering leaders should be able to source the talent, create a seamless interview process and close the deal in no time.
Nurturing relationships with a great variety of people is key to sourcing. That includes being part of platforms like Plato but also attending different types of meetups, conferences, tech events, etc. I also find it useful to keep the Rolodex of all the people I have worked with and maintain regular contact with them. I am still in touch with some engineers from my first job, which makes those quite long relationships. Moreover, one should nurture good relationships from within the company, particularly with HR/recruitment people.
I would also reach out to the best external recruiters and have them help me find the talent I need. Choosing between internal networks and external recruiters is barely a dilemma -- you will likely need both depending on the phase of growth. Currently, I am in a situation where I can’t hire fast enough and am relying on both. Of course, starting in-house is more cost-effective, but that works in earlier phases of growth. After that, one needs to open more to external connections and people who would be pipelined by recruiters. However, it would be safe to say that things in startups are always done in parallel.
Preparing for an interview
For starters, I would spend sufficient time defining the role. I would deliberate on what skills I am looking for and how I am going to evaluate them. Then, I would develop solid metrics that would track candidates coming in, going through the pipeline, and monitoring their success rate. If not enough people are coming your way, you should ask your talent acquisition team to increase its capacities, which may take a while. In the meantime, you should intensify your attendance at events and meetups and count on your ability to develop external relationships.
I am trying to be flexible and creative when hiring. I often shuffle people around if I notice that they have some exceptional skills but are not fitting the open role. Then, I would try to convince those people to join us and help them grow in the area we need.
I find a candidate’s journey to be the most important part of the whole process. One can bring the most incredible candidates in, but your sourcing will be in vain if the pipeline is not up to your needs. You should be able to efficiently validate if someone would be a good fit, but their hiring experience would be critical.
You should know how you would approach evaluating every single characteristic or skill that matters to you. That should include creating scoring sheets, establishing a hiring committee, training the committee, developing a question bank, etc. Training should remove any potential bias and ensure that the pipeline is frictionless. Finally, debriefs should be done in the aftermath to collect feedback and have a frank exchange of opinions among the hiring committee members.
The whole process should be rather quick. The talent acquisition and engineering team should act fast, be available and execute promptly without having candidates waiting in the pipeline for too long. Decisions should be ideally made during debriefs, be evidence-based, and be communicated with candidates promptly.
Closing a candidate
Closing a candidate starts much earlier since you have started your relationship with a candidate before the interview. Understanding their career goals and expectations should help when it comes to negotiating or convincing. A hiring manager should be in close communication with a candidate, have multiple conversations, and inform them thoroughly of the process. A positive experience with a hiring manager can be a decisive moment for a candidate to accept an offer.
- Startups are growing at great speed, and what you needed to hire for yesterday won’t be the same as today. The requirements are changing quickly, and you have to be flexible and adjust to those changes. If requirements were changing extremely fast, I would prefer to go with generalists who would be able to grow in their role.
- Many engineers applying won’t have any startup experience. You should highlight the difference between startups and large corporations and be clear about what candidates should expect in a startup. Many things are much fuzzier, and clear expectations play a central role. Be honest and open and answer all questions about startups in general and the company in question. You don’t want people to go through the pipeline to learn that that is not the stage or pace of growth they would be comfortable with.
- It is important to understand why a person wants to join a startup. Startups typically attract certain personality types that like a bit of chaos, are keen on moving fast, and are comfortable with uncertainties. Other, somewhat trivial things could also be important -- they had just purchased a large house and have a mortgage, or are a sole breadwinner, etc.
- Prep work pays off. Rather than just jumping into doing interviews and hiring people, you should sit with your team and discuss what roles you need and what you are trying to accomplish. If you are impatient to hire, you may end up doing more harm than good.
- Companies should invest in developing solid metrics to track how many candidates are coming in per week, what is the success rate in the pipeline, how many offers were made, and how many of them accepted/rejected. At every stage, there is a learning potential. For example, if you are inviting too many candidates to an onsite only to eliminate most of them, something is inefficient in your early hiring stages. If only one out of 10 people accepts your offer, you are most likely not competitive enough. Metrics can be helpful to give you some company-specific information and can help you remedy those shortcomings.
- In the earliest days, most startups have a rather strong culture that gets diluted as new people are coming in. Make sure that the interview process includes a cultural component; you should ask people specific questions that could exemplify that culture. Being a cultural fit is something to be seriously discussed during debriefs. People are often too focused on technical competencies that they would rush to hire someone who is not a cultural fit.
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Vice President of Engineering at CommerceHub
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