The Difficulty of Hiring Non-Senior Developers

Posted in Engineering, Hiring, Work

I’ve worked, so far, for:

  • A mid-sized financial software firm,
  • Two small startups
  • One multinational and global technology firm, and
  • One big startup

The work aside, I always made myself willing and available for interviews and hiring discussions; beyond shipping code, the next most valuable thing I could do was to grow the company, even if it meant drudging through endless interviews and spending time selling candidates who had no chance to get job offers.

And after a while I started noticing the correlation between the size of a company and its willingness to look beyond hiring the magical unicorns of software development[1]. Startups, in their infancy, are understandably looking for experienced folks: the really productive and self-driven and jack-of-all-trades engineers who are likely expensive but who can take an idea all the way to a product’s v1.0. All of the startups I’ve worked in concentrated on hiring most if not all senior people, some for multiple years after releasing their MVP.

The hard part is transitioning from hiring people with 5-10 years in industry, to hiring engineers with maybe only 1-2 years of experience or new grads or even interns. True, these junior engineers are cheaper and are usually full of energy and uncurbed enthusiasm, but getting them through a growing startup’s door takes a ton of up-front work, and keeping them for the long haul requires an even greater investment from the company and its senior people.

When I worked for the mid- and huge-sized companies, I saw that they were successful in tapping the nascent labor market on college campuses. Setting up relationships with the schools, the honors societies, the alma mater referrals and network, plus their branding and reputation allowed them a reach that smaller companies could not replicate, which provided a steady stream of smart engineers. In fact, the strategy employed by my first company involved college hiring almost exclusively.

On top of setting up a perpetual motion college hiring machine, once startups commit to student recruiting, they also are committing to weaving an onboarding process for employees who may have never worked a full-time job before, plus career definition and guidance and growth for these fresh young faces. It’s a wholly new set of people management challenges that some startups defer for a really long time, as taking on the cost of revving up and maintaining college hiring classes doesn’t likely pay for itself for years, but seems to be necessary to counteract the inevitable slowdown in industry hiring after the firm reaches a certain size or bureaucracy.

Maybe a startup can figure out how to put a student hiring plan in place.

Footnotes    (↑ returns to text)

  1. Though every company believes it’s hiring the very best the market has to offer, a fallacy of numbers from a system tilted towards the happily employed.