How to Recruit Engineers in 2016

Blake Bartlett, Partner by

Editor’s Note: This is the first part in a series covering best practices for building a great product & engineering team featuring advice from Yoav Shapira and Craig Daniel.

Earlier this summer I had the opportunity to sit down with two amazing product & engineering leaders – Yoav Shapira, Engineering Manager at Facebook, and Craig Daniel, VP Product at join.me. Combined, the two have decades of experience building out product practices at companies including Jana, LogMeIn, HubSpot, CarGurus and others. Our conversation covered everything from maximizing productivity to retention and recruitment – the latter of which I’ll cover here.

What Works Today

To build a great team, you have to hire great people. And often times – especially when recruiting engineers – that’s a lot harder than it might seem.

Yoav Shapira notes that, “Any kind of quick shortcuts just don’t work. People try to do a variety of, ‘Oh, maybe if I just have the perfect recruiter then they would send me an infinite amount of candidates that fit my position and I can just cherry pick.’ But, sadly, that hasn’t been my experience – especially when it comes to developers.”

Craig Daniel agrees. “The only time recruiters have worked well is when they’re internal recruiters and they’re part of the culture already. They live and breathe what we’re looking for. But at a startup, you don’t often have that luxury.”

“What does work,” Shapira says, “is getting to know your audience. You have to develop a clear understanding of who exactly you want to recruit and then learn where they hang out, what they care about, and how you can get that share of mind.”

Meetups

To gain that visibility, Shapira has found meetups particularly helpful. But not just any generic meetup or conference – Shapira zones in on a particular technology or framework specific to his tech stack. “Odds are there’s a meetup for it,” Shapira says, “And if there’s not, you can organize it. You’re probably only going to get 10, 20, 30 people, but each person who attends is going to be a viable candidate.”

At Jana, where Cassandra and Angular are both part of the tech stack, Shapira sought out meetups specific to those frameworks. “It’s a lot of hoodies, not suits – people you want to chat with,” and most importantly, who might one day join your team.

And, if you’re looking for a specific in, Shapira points out that these smaller groups are constantly looking for presenters. “You do a ten minute presentation about the cool stuff your company is doing – it’s the perfect recruiting pitch. You don’t have to pay for it. It’s free. In fact you usually get dinner out of it.”

ROI positive in many ways.

Network Referrals

In addition to presenting and attending smaller meetups, Shapira has long relied on referrals from his network. “Regularly canvass your engineers, product people, designers, sales and marketing,” he says. “Ask them who’s the best engineer they’ve ever worked with. And then, ‘Why aren’t they here?’ and ‘How can I contact them?’”

That last bit is a tip Shapira picked up from Paul English and so far he’s seen great success. So much so that it became part of Shapira’s quarterly review process at Jana. “I would ask, ‘Did you refer anyone this quarter? Do you have anyone in mind now?’ It really scales as the team grows.”

For Daniel, networks have served him extremely well, especially at smaller companies. “When I was at a startup, the hardest thing was getting one or two awesome engineers in the door. But once you’ve established that talent and you’re keeping them happy with hard problems and a good environment, they’ll refer other great people.”

Authenticity Above All

Regardless of the tactic, Shapira notes that above all you have to be authentic. “I’m a big fan of authenticity. If it’s an engineering meetup, send an engineer, not recruiters or HR folks. If you’re trying to recruit designers, send designers.”

A simple rule of thumb? Send the same kind of function that you’re trying to recruit. It’s going to be better networking and better connections for everyone.

And, when it comes to competing with the Googles of the world, Shapira again recommends authenticity. “Don’t claim to be something you’re not. You’re not going to have the brand of Facebook, Google or Amazon. And that’s fine. You’re not going to out pay them either.”

So how do you compete in that case? “Be honest about what you do, who you are and what you care about,” recommends Shapira. “And emphasize that unlike at those other companies where there are thousands of engineers, new recruits won’t just be a small cog in a big machine. Engineers that go to smaller companies have the opportunity to make a real impact. Show and tell them how.”

When it comes to recruiting engineers, Craig Daniel takes the authenticity factor one step further. “Engineers want to see where they might one day work. Like Yoav, we’ve found meetups to be very impactful, but when we host them in our own space, they’re even more successful.”

“When I was at a smaller company, we were able to host about 30 people and sometimes we would even check in on developer status meetings during these events. Literally open up the laptop and show potential recruits the stuff you’re working on. It goes a long way.”

Setting Expectations

Once you’ve gone to great lengths to recruit the best and brightest, it’s important to set and maintain expectations, especially for younger team members. So, how do you avoid shiny object syndrome and keep young engineers focused on the task at hand while maintaining creativity and ambition? Walking that fine line is tricky, but not impossible.

Shapira and Daniel agree that maintaining transparency around goals and the product roadmap is extremely helpful.

“Treat young team members like adults,” Shapira elaborates. “You have to explain the company’s priorities and show the team how they’re being set. That tends to work really well as long as your team understands.”

As for creativity? That’s where hackathons and ‘FedEx’ days where code is shipped in one day come in handy. But Shapira notes that maintaining creativity might not be that challenging afterall.

“I’ve found that – and hopefully I haven’t tried too hard – you can’t kill creativity or ambition. If you do, you probably hired the wrong people to start with. You don’t actually need to worry about it too much.”

Recruiting great team members is just the first step to building a productive team. But it’s perhaps the most important step. It’s not an activity that can be brushed aside or taken for granted. Being authentic and open with potential recruits will go a long way to your team’s ultimate success.

In the next post, we’ll cover recruiting practices for Product Manager. Have your own recruiting tips? Share them in the comments below.