Building from the Fountain of Youth

A few months ago, I opined on that hiring not just A-players is a legitimate strategy; the gist was that, for most jobs and business models, “A players” simply were not required for all positions. (and oftentimes, any position) Within the tech community, the cost of time and money in attracting and subsequently retaining top talent probably isn’t worth it for most companies, and in reality it’d be mathematically impossible for all companies to hire the best people available.

I read the same point made – somewhat self-servingly – by the Dean of The Flatiron School, a program that teaches Ruby on Rails to non-engineers and junior developers. They recognized that hiring senior developers is becoming prohibitively expensive for cash-strapped startups, so the alternative is to target less impactful but cheaper talent. Again, when most ideas and business strategies don’t need the best people to succeed, the most logical hiring plan would actually be to get people who can barely do the job1.

Interestingly, the missing part of the inexperienced-hiring strategy are in fact the experienced. The energy, eagerness, and thrill of a job in an exciting industry can be leveraged, but I feel like they need to be focused, mentored, and guided by wiser folk who do have the experience. Just as lines of code is a poor metric for programmer productivity, unfocused energy by itself is not enough to execute on a revolutionary idea or a groundbreaking product.

In the three startups that I’ve been a part of, the early hires were almost all exclusively senior engineers2. It wasn’t just because senior people themselves require less direction and intervention; as the company grows and begins to tap into more junior talent, the senior employees serve to onboard and grow the new hires, and in doing so advance their own careers as well.

Is it possible to build a successful company without experience? Can naiveté become an advantage and defy conventional thinking?

  1. On a more pragmatic level, hiring vastly overqualified talent will cost a lot of money, and smart people who aren’t intellectually stimulated tend to quit anyway.

  2. Though “senior” isn’t automatically synonymous with “best”.

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