How to Attract Talent to a Startup

Dale Cook

VP of Product Engineering at Stack Overflow



I joined a small New York startup at the time when some heavyweight industry players started to intensify their hiring in the New York area. Our startup was providing an innovative and flexible digital English language learning solution, and while our mission was inspiring in many respects, we could not match corporate competition in terms of salaries or benefits.

We were only four engineers at that time, but with an ambitious plan to grow to 20. Surrounded by the competition that could pay engineers three times more than we could, we had to rethink our approach to hiring. How could we attract great engineers and have them come and work with us? What could we offer that large corporations couldn’t?

Actions taken

We knew that we had to approach the problem creatively. We all sat together and started to brainstorm: What would make us stand out throughout the recruiting and hiring process? We didn’t have a large recruiting team that could go around making inquiries and actively looking for engineers. We had to rely on advertisements we would post and inbound resumes. Therefore, standing out in those job ads seemed critical.

To start with, we studied and compared our job ads with those of other companies. They were much alike. At first glance, they all looked dull -- with extensive requirements and without any mention of who we were and what we were doing. We decided to make our mission -- who we were and why what we were doing was important -- a centerpiece of our ads. We create a story around being proficient in English and how that affects a person’s work-life. We illustrated the impact of our work with a vivid example. Nurses in Brazil who speak English make double that of nurses in Brazil who don’t speak it because of the large-scale cosmetic surgery industry with a sizable foreign clientele.

Next, we got rid of the requirements. At the same time, we highlighted our practice of extreme programming, an engineering-centric, and vastly exciting software development methodology, back then not all that widespread. We ended up our ads by inviting people, regardless of their experience, if our mission and practices resonated with them. Going with a rather unconventional job description brought us people with similar interests both in terms of values as well as development practices.

However, because we didn’t set up any parameters, the triaging of candidates was difficult. We attracted many people who we would not consider in the past, people who were not bound by the restrictions typical for engineering jobs. For example, we ended up hiring one self-taught engineer without a CS degree who would otherwise stand no chance in the market. Of course, many were not the right fit, but those who were, came outside of our typical sourcing sphere.

With all restraints, we knew that there was one thing we could have absolute control over -- the hiring experience. We wanted to make it truly exceptional, the one that you go and tell your friends about. Most of the competition had a long and complicated hiring process that could take a month or two, with one interview following the other. As a small team, we would establish much faster if a person would fit the team, and thus could move much more quickly. We decided to set a couple of SLAs for ourselves. Between the time we would receive a resume and the time we would give an offer to a candidate, no more than a week should pass. That is, of course, an aspirational timeline that was not always working. Within 24 hours of receiving a candidate’s resume, we had to reach out and tell them if we were interested or not. We would schedule a 30-minute sanity check asap to get a sense of who they were and if we were properly aligned. We wouldn’t ask any technical questions or try to gauge their technical ability. If that went well, we would have them come in for one full day, for which they would be compensated for.

They would join us in standup, where they would be assigned a one-point ticket. The idea was that they would be able to put that one-point ticket into production by the end of the day. Since we did extreme programming based on pair programming, we would pair them up with another person. In addition, during lunchtime, they would get to meet the rest of the team, around 10-15 people, on an average day. We would never put those tickets into production, but the idea was to see if they could understand our working practices, how they communicated with their peers, performed in stressful situations, etc.

After they would leave, everyone who got a chance to interview or interact with the candidate could have a vote, and we would collectively decide if we were going to give them an offer. If there were some ‘maybes,’ we would have a brief conversation to figure out the problem and have another round of voting with thumbs up/down as the only possibility. It was a team decision; I had no say in it, nor could I override the decision. Whatever we would decide, we would let the candidate know by the end of the same day.

Our approach became wildly successful. People to whom we said ‘no’ would ask us what they should improve to try again or ask if they could recommend some friends. We had people to who we said ‘yes’, but who said ‘no’ to us; for example, people who didn’t like pair programming. They would get to see how our team worked in real-time, which one never experiences in interviews.

In the end, using this approach, we were able to hire and fill up the team in New York but also in Sao Paulo, Brazil. We did manage to get from four to 20, but 12 we were in six months.

Lessons learned

  • If you are a startup that rapidly grows and needs to hire people, you should frame your offer around things no one is doing. You should ask yourself: What can we offer that no one else can? We knew we couldn’t compete with the salaries and benefits of the competition, but we found our comparative advantages. For example, we could offer a 38 hours working week, which was in stark contrast to what most corporations offered. We could back that up with multiple studies that confirmed that knowledge workers cease to be productive after 40 hours, so we didn’t compromise our work ethics/standards.
  • We were open about who we are and what we do. Rather than telling candidates that, we gave them an opportunity to see that firsthand. As a small company, it was easy to be not only transparent but genuine about who we were. That is something most people would appreciate immensely.
  • Empower your team to own hiring. Let them collectively come up with a solution on how to outsmart the competition that was outspending us. The hiring became the whole team’s responsibility, and that empowerment was translated into other areas where the team started to exhibit more commitment.

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Dale Cook

VP of Product Engineering at Stack Overflow

Organizational StrategyCulture DevelopmentLeadership Roles

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