5 Tips for Recruiting Top Engineering Talent in Startups

March 12, 2021

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“Two of the most important things as a CEO of a company are to make sure you have money in the bank and recruit amazing people.” - Venkat Venkataramani, CEO and Co-Founder of Rockset


We hosted a Clubhouse event with VPs of Engineering from Gusto and Robinhood, Nimrod Hoofien and Adam Wolff, on their tips for recruiting top engineering talent in startups. We captured a few of the takeaways to share with other engineering leaders looking to grow their teams.

The FAANG Challenge

The FAANGs have more money, better stock options and a cadre of experienced engineers that candidates can learn from. It may seem daunting to compete with the FAANGs of the world. In these scenarios, focus on what you have to offer as a startup: the ability for engineers to have a big impact on the trajectory of the startup. Engineers have autonomy at startups that they just don’t have at larger companies. The scale of the FAANGs mean that the scope of work dedicated to a single engineer is usually smaller. Ie: You think you will work on the gmail team but you will end up working on tweaking their logging framework or work on a small feature that will take 1-2 years to roll out.

If you have a highly sought after candidate with 10 offers in hand, you may also want to walk away and focus on engineers that are a little less economically focused and value autonomy and larger impact in a smaller organization.

Not Robotic Recruiting

Not everyone codes the same way. Building highly templatized interviews fails to account for diversity and also reduces the number of signals for the hiring team. Individualize the experience; you’ll build a more diverse team and company culture.

You can also reduce bias by creating a strong feedback loop in your interviews. Give interviewers the chance to write down their feedback and then discuss it together as a group. Always do candidate debriefs even for "no hire" candidates. If often ends up as a great training ground for interviewers especially when there is a lively discussion on borderline candidates.

Visualizing Fit

Remote recruiting has resulted in more interviewing. Startups are realizing they can move candidates down the funnel faster without taking considerable time from the team. Candidates are realizing they can fit more interviews into their weekly schedule. One recruiter estimates that candidates are increasing their interviews 4x.

One of the challenges in the remote environment is getting candidates to visualize themselves at the startup. Many startups relied on quality in-office interview experiences for candidates to work on coding projects, interact with the team, attend standups to visualize themselves as part of the team. In a remote world, many startups have not found a replacement for the in-office interview experience.

This makes it more critical than ever to have teams speaking towards the same mission, values and work environment. The consistent story as to why engineers should join your startup needs to stand out and align across the entire interview process. It also helps give candidates a sense of the culture even by joining remote company events, providing 15 minutes at the end of the interviews for them to ask questions, and taking the time to customize the experience based on the candidate’s background and interests.

Getting to the Source

One of the ways to source candidates is to increase your network. The more meetings you take with engineers and leaders to provide helpful advice and talk about your startup, the more likely they will come back to you with introductions to friends in their network. Your goal in building your network should be referrals- tap into those network effects.

There are generally two types of recruiting funnels: the main funnel and then a separate funnel for top-notch technical talent. These can be director-level positions or senior, rockstar engineers that will define your tech and company. These engineers need a really big playground where they can have room to define the technical space. When you talk to these engineers, you’re not having a conversation around monetary compensation but rather around how the mission and tech will redefine the space and what their role will be. Start building the relationships with these senior engineers early; you may even need to cultivate these relationships over years and multiple jobs.

The Intern Experience

The real success to having a great engineering University Recruiting function is to have a great engineering internship program. Internships enable new grads to visualize themselves at the startup, work on technically challenging projects and experience the culture firsthand. Focus on helping these interns to convert into full-time hires rather than spending a lot of energy competing on new grads.

Thanks to all of you who joined our Clubhouse event and hope these tips for recruiting in startups are helpful to you and your team. Best of luck in your technical recruiting efforts!