(By Kevin Galligan)
“So how do you talk to a developer? Be honest about what you’re looking for, but don’t turn every conversation into a transaction. Explain your basic idea, and ask them how they’d approach it from a technical perspective. Once they’re building it in their head, they’re a whole lot closer to wanting to build it in real life“.
As a startup founder, hiring your first developer will be one of most crucial decisions you ever make. And if you can’t tell the difference between PHP and Python, the decision will be one of the most precarious, too. Without any tech game of your own, how do you know what kind of developer to look for? How can you find someone who’s going to do the job right?
I’ve been on both sides of the developer hiring process. Over the course of my 15 years in web and mobile as a developer and a manager, I’ve been pitched quite a bit. And now, as CEO of Touch Lab, an Android dev shop, I’ve had to seek and find my share of quality coders.
The reality right now is that every time a company like Instagram blows up, thousands of startups emerge to follow in its footsteps. There aren’t enough quality developers to meet this demand, so competition is steep. Here are a few tips to help you find one.
Figure out what you really need.
If you’re a true coding n00b, you can spend months learning about the different languages — never mind how to actually develop. To avoid getting bogged down in infinite research, first pause to take stock of your needs.
Two pivotal questions to start:
1. What do you need your website to do? Having a site doesn’t necessarily entail hiring a developer. Are you simply publishing info about your company, or does your site “do” something? The minute you need it to interact with your users, it’s wise to at least talk to a developer.
2. What are you trying to build? Is your big idea a mobile “thing,” a web “thing,” or both? If the answer isn’t 100% “web,” you need to find somebody with demonstrable mobile experience. Otherwise, you’ll be paying for that web developer to learn mobile on your dime.
Find someone to do your vetting.
Unfortunately, it’s impossible to tell a good developer from a dud based on a resume alone. I’ve interviewed people with 10 years of development experience at brand name companies who shocked me with how little they actually knew.
Coding isn’t a field that requires a license or peer review, which is why you’ll need somebody to help you vet your candidates. This step is mandatory, because even if you do your due diligence, you don’t know everything you don’t know.
Like in most industries, good old-fashioned face-to-face networking goes a long way. Ask for recommendations, or find a tech friend who’s willing to review your candidates for a few beers (or, you know, money). If there’s no one on your radar yet, introduce yourself to the local developer community by joining a co-working space or attending meetups — you can figure out which ones are worth your time by looking for lots of recent activity and positive reviews.
Understand a developer’s psychology.
The best way to attract a top developer is to think like one. Most developers, especially the best ones, are in love with what they do. (I’ve been obsessed with it ever since my mom showed me the ropes in BASIC when I was 8.) Coding is, well, art for nerds. We do it because there’s nothing else we’d rather do than solve puzzles all day. Think about it: how many business administration hackathons have you heard about lately?
So how do you talk to a developer? Be honest about what you’re looking for, but don’t turn every conversation into a transaction. Explain your basic idea, and ask them how they’d approach it from a technical perspective. Once they’re building it in their head, they’re a whole lot closer to wanting to build it in real life.
Get real about money.
Developers may dress like they’re delivering food to your office, but they’re professionals who demand respect.
When recruiting, it’s important to be realistic about your company’s position and what you can offer. If you have a demonstrable path to success — for instance, VC funding, industry connections, and a prototype — it’s likely you can attract solid talent with single digit equity percentages (note: these figures are for your very first tech hire).
If you have nothing but an idea and a smile, you’re looking for a full partner — and it had better be the best idea of all time. One thing to keep in mind: during this process, you will get emails about offshore teams. Unless you know the locale or a native who’s willing to help you navigate it, this is a risk you probably don’t want to take.
And while money matters most care more about what they’ll actually be doing. If you can demonstrate that you’re equally passionate about your own projects, you’ll be on your way to startup success. But if you’re just looking to fill an empty slot in a spreadsheet, it’s going to be a lot harder.