How to hire and attract “10x” engineering talent to your startup or business

Why your company culture and work principals are the only way to recruit top talent

Engineers who can manage periods of sprinting and planning to prioritize high-level business goals in tandem with technical requirements and best practices produce the type of “10x” output that makes many of the top software engineering companies in the United States so valuable today.

In this article, I’ll explain how to recruit people who I consider “10x” engineers (a phrase that’s a misnomer in the industry which I’ll discuss in future posts).

The most talented engineers at any company are usually those who are able to strategically weave business and technical objectives: a particularly important skill at early-stage software startups. These engineers also expand their coding knowledge through a mental reference library of tools and frameworks that allow them to code faster and more efficiently and they’re generally difficult to hire for a number of reasons.

For recruiters, these engineers are rare outside of a few obvious big companies, but it’s possible to retain this type of exceptional talent if you focus on a strategy of attracting rather than recruiting.

When it comes to recruiting these individuals to work at your company it’s not about going out and finding them, it’s about creating an environment that promotes this long-term learning and career growth that will attract engineers to come to you.

Building this environment is not something even the most tenacious or talented in-house recruiter can do. Instead, it’s about doing the hard work of building a culture at your company that provides people who want to learn and grow with plenty of incentive to come and work with you. This hard work is crucial because it’s the most effective and really only way to recruit talented software engineers.

Culture is actions not words

Culture is how you describe the average person that works for your company including the ideals and values they demonstrate in their daily work. Company culture is not a strategy you can set. It’s a result of many different strategies and decisions coming together that culminate in the daily habits and ways you make decisions among your team.

The subjective nature of culture building is why so many startups and companies fail in their attempt to attract tech talent.

As DHH, creator of Ruby on Rails, Basecamp, and Hey, has reiterated over the years of practice in leading exceptional and remote software teams:

“You don’t create a culture. It happens. This is why new companies don’t have a culture. Culture is the byproduct of consistent behavior.”

You can’t immediately control company culture if it flies off the rails, and you can’t fabricate it out of thin air.

To build a culture that attracts top engineering management, you must be an effective leader who truly lives and practices the ideals of pursuing industry knowledge, individual career growth, and solving truly worthwhile problems for customers and the business.

How to build a culture around solving fascinating problems

The company culture you create is how the stories about the challenges you’re solving are told and exceptionally skilled individuals are attracted to exceptionally interesting challenges.

If top engineering talent is not being challenged enough, they’ll feel boxed-in, stagnant, and sort of a hopeless after a while. People who are bright and exceptionally talented tend to also be good at hiding these feelings, so it’s the responsibility of a manager and also the larger culture set by other leaders in the company as a whole to spot or encourage discussion of this issue or others before it’s a problem.

The way you present the problems you’re solving and gaining momentum on with your team is company culture. If you want smart, thoughtful engineers, then you have to give them fascinating problems with the support they need to get the job done every step of the way.

Ultimately, a culture of constantly pursuing new knowledge in software engineering creates an environment where the talent of one team or individual will start to rub off on many others, in turn also creating more attraction around your company culture and future recruitment prospects.

6 strategies for building an exceptional engineering & company culture

There are many granular strategies you can use to build the type of company culture needed to attract smart, talented software engineers whose work will scale as your company grows. I suggest a focus on growing:

  1. Company content marketing about your work from an internal perspective on social feeds and company blogs that depict real team members working on real problems, not a scripted or posed versions. This also requires an impeccably designed website and aesthetic that shows that you care how your people work, not just their results for the business.
  2. A culture of senior engineers and technical leaders that actively talk about how excited they are to work on the problems they’re solving everyday. Twitter is an excellent tool to encourage among your senior engineering leaders, and an even more valuable tool in attracting talent is a personal website and place to feature your writing, just like that of the legendary Patrick McKenzie (@patio11) where he writes and tweets about software and the Internet often in relation to his work at Stripe everyday.
  3. Discussions about work by developers in non-technical, business terms. When a development team regularly considers the impact of their work outside technical requirements they’ll be better equipped to make decisions for the business and therefor lead it later on. Software engineers who are able to incorporate business concepts into their work provide a valuable connection between multiple environments and honing their ability to see the bigger picture and resulting prioritization or focus.
  4. Discussions with potential hires about what makes them excited for the future of their field, not just their past experience and projects. Discuss the latest APIs, 3rd-party services, or business trends that apply the software you’ll be building. By engaging in an organic conversation about the future of the tech related to your stack and plans to scale, you’ll have a better sense of how easily knowledge and leadership decisions will flow for a potential hire.
  5. Hiring efforts between real people with human connection, not rote job applications or descriptions and resume sorting AI. I’ve seen over three instances of either venture capital firms or software leaders in the Internet industry successfully attract and recruit exceptional technical talent for top roles in tweets in the last week alone. I attribute this to Twitter continuing to grow as an organic center for discussion of many types of software engineering topics in the last 10 years.
  6. Organic press about what it’s like to work at your company. This is even better when the news includes the real perspective of current or former employees and is another reason why you shouldn’t force restrictive NDAs. If you’ve attracted the right person through your company culture, then your teammates should reflect positively on your business even far after they’ve moved on.

How to build culture in 100% remote engineering teams

In my experience as a software engineer in both physical and 100% remote team environments, I’ve found that although remote culture building may take a bit longer the process is almost completely the same.

Virtual environments aren’t all that different than physical ones when it comes to the way people conceptualize or think about their work everyday.

Whether virtual or not, people want to know that what they’re working on matters and that it’s an interesting challenge worth solving. By celebrating wins and supporting your team proactively in your remote communication channels, workers can feel more engaged and responsible for the outcomes of a project or business.

A mentality of recognizing wins is especially crucial in remote companies to make up for lost emotional cues and perception in virtual communication.

What if this culture stuff is just too much work for you?

If this all sounds like too much work, rest assured that you’ll still have a company culture. It will just be the one other people build for you and without you–or even in spite of you.

Further, the type of culture you build matters. And the opposite of an engineering culture that attracts top engineering talent is a world of games and problems that have sunk and will continue to derail even the most promising early-stage companies.

You also can’t “train” someone to practice your company culture if it’s not already an innate part of your team’s professional identity.

As the most exceptional engineering organizations such as Stripe and others show us, building an incredible team is the only way attract and recruit an incredible team.

What are some of the common traits of top engineering talent and companies in your opinion? Where do you find out about their work and how do you think your team can learn from these commonalities to better attract talent to your organization?

Published October 19, 2020