More On Recruiting Programmers To Your Startup

Chris Dixon had an excellent post yesterday titled Recruiting programmers to your startup. The post, and the comments, are full of super useful stuff that every entrepreneur should read carefully.

I sent the link for the post out to the Foundry Group CEO email list and it generated a great discussion thread, including one of the companies sharing their full day interview / evaluation process which includes a four hour coding exercise. Among the feedback was a great short list of four addition things that Niel Robertson, the CEO of Trada (and an amazing programmer in his own right) has learned over the years.

  1. Be careful who you pick to do the interviewing. You want to showcase your best engineers in the process balanced with those who are good interviewers (which can be wildly different)
  2. Have an awesome engineering process that you are pros at and can showcase in the interview. We lost a great candidate because our process was in flux and he sussed out our eng management wasn’t committed to the new way
  3. Program with the person live. You can do this on a whiteboard or on a computer. We’re going to move to the on a computer version. Over and over I’m hearing this is the best way to learn someone’s skills
  4. Reference check – oh man how many times do I have to learn this lesson.

Trada, like many of the companies we’ve invested in, had spectacular growth (both revenue, customers, and headcount) in 2011. They, and others, continue to aggressively search for great software developers to join their team – when I look at the Foundry Group Jobs page I see well over 100 open positions for developers across our portfolio and I know this list undercounts since not all of the companies we are investors in are listed there.

It’s an extremely tight hiring market for software developers right now. I expect this to continue for a while given the obvious supply / demand imbalance for great people. So – if you are hiring – read Chris’s post and be thoughtful about how you go about this. And, if you have comments for him, me, or Niel about how to do this even better, please offer them up!

  • I can attest to #1 (Be careful who you pick to do the interviewing), the last time I was out seriously interviewing in Denver there was one company who had me interview with some less than stellar engineers (I wouldn’t have hired them).  Some of the others were great, and if I had to judge the interview by the good engineers I may have entertained their offer.  Instead I dismissed it out of hand.

  • Brad: Confused by the “great discussion thread” link in the second paragraph above. Safe to assume it’s the wrong URL/a bad path? Or did I miss the context?

    • Sorry – I wasn’t as clear as I could have been. The discussion thread was on the email exchanges via our internal CEO list.

      • Ahh, the link is just an example of a “suggested reading list” shared with your CEOs. I was surprised that at discussion thread among your CEO list would be shared, but thought that the link implied the thread was interesting and appropriate to make public. I was interested in the exchange. 🙂

        • It was a very good exchange, but a private one. I asked Niel Robertson (Trada CEO) if I could share his email that was part of the thread and he said yes.

          • I certainly understand. Just got caught by the wording and the link. 

            It’s a great topic and Chris’ post was excellent as well. 

            Happy New Year, Brad, to you and yours. 

          • Back at ya for a great 2012!

  • Phil Swenson

    I think a 4 hour coding exercise is a terrible idea.  Asking for some ad-hoc code snippets is fine, but expecting someone to spend a full day interviewing + intense coding is over the top.  Who has time for this unless you are unemployed?

    • Phil – I disagree. For companies like Oblong, that are only interested in hiring serious, extremely capable developers, it’s actually not that imposing. And, many tech companies have full day interview processes, although a lot of them are endless meeting / interview type experiences.




        • I completely agree with this! It’s an easy filter for people who are going to be super committed to building great things. If the recruiting / interviewing process is rigorous and the person doesn’t want to engage, they probably won’t be a good fit with the company.

          • And there is a secondary benefit to a rigorous process – what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance” – the harder it is to “earn” something, the more we value it.  

            If the process is easy it is harder for the new joiner to truly value her position.  Ancient and modern armies, successful banks, consulting companies have developed harsh on-boarding processes that result in dedicated, loyal people.

            The feeling that the person hired beat out hundreds of others, and chose to suffer to earn their place goes a huge way towards developing commitment to the company.

      • Phil Swenson

        Another issue: is coding with “someone looking over your shoulder” for 4 hours indicative of real world performance?  Remember grade school when you had to go up to the board to solve math problems?  I don’t know about you, but I had brain freezes.  When I got back to my seat and could chill – no prob.

        So perhaps this screening problem is good for finding people who can code while many others are watching/being under intense scrutiny.  If that’s important – fine.  I don’t think that reflects real-world scenarios very well though.

        Perhaps a better approach is looking at previous work.  Bring in code snippets.  And some ad-hoc problems.

        • The best “four hour coding exercises” don’t include people looking over the developer’s shoulder. Rather, it’s a four hour “problem set”, using the tools and core code of the company, to solve a particular set of problems (that get increasingly harder.) The results of the four hour problem set is what’s most important.

          All of the companies that I know that use this approach send out the instructions and problem set in advance. It’s not a pop quiz – you can spend as much time as you want in advance getting up to speed.

    • my first reaction to that was similar – but then i thought back to when i have been the interviewer and i only had 1 hour with a candidate that came in from a cold stack of resumes.
      Now i think would rather have the candidate for 3 or 4 hours for some coding.

      On the flip side, better to get to know people over time who are gainfully employeed and try to pry them away from their jobs for your awesome new project. This is hard.

  • re #2 – i found this post by Ted Dziuba to be an interesting ( and fun read ) counter point to “engineering process”





  • so i just clicked on the link in #2 for “awesome engineering process” …and it goes to a post that mentions agile but talks mostly about hackathons.

    Hackathons dont immediatly come to mind when i think of engineering process ( probably because im a corporate drone ) …but hell, thats actually a fairly awesome thing to integrate into a company’s regular “engineering process”. zesty!

  • I am in awe of the talent in the field of programming and people who understands applications and code.  I do see a flaw in the recruitment process of this talent.  There is only one recruiting challenge for programmers and that is recruitment itself. 

    Why not inverse the process and make the challenge to code for recruitment – set the challenge as one of how the programmer would go about dealing with the whole recruitment process.

    It would inevitably lead people into a dead end alley and the winners of such a process will be the ones who are smartest at gaming the system, but the recruitment process is a game in itself and its byproducts are nearly always absorbed by the organization. 

    The way my simple mind works, I see that we breed the animal we feed but we don’t create the human we really want.  Programmers like all skill sets do have one thing in common, they all start off in a human form, before organizations seemingly find ways of marrying them to their machinery.

    So I ask myself is this really a local problem or is it endemic to a larger degree of how we collectively view technical talent.  We seem to have various versions of open everything except it seems a singular system that can self-organize itself into open source recruitment.

    People who have acquired great skills and who cannot afford to sit on their haunches, and so are constantly re-learning those skills seem to be commoditized by those who don’t, in IMHO, in many cases have the same technical know-how, never mind a need to constantly learn and re-learn. 

    I don’t think Nicholas Carr was right about technology being a commodity, I think his thinking applies to the recruitment process which apparently treats talent as a commodity that can be screened, rather than a talent that can be expressed.

    When we entrust people with code, we entrust people with the heart of a business – that doesn’t sound like commodity to me, that sounds like a transformational strategic relationship.  In other words the way and methods of recruitment in one source, should be a flow into a greater source and the ultimate end of that is a self-managing and self-organizing talent pool that organizes itself through code.

    Then there isn’t a hunt for talent but a respect for it, then there is an opportunity to placing human code around machine code, and that code becomes the most open thing imaginable – open capability, changing the way organizations relate to people. 

    All talk of transparency often is nothing more than a beeline to the worth of the share of wallet it achieves, true transparency I believe is a function of capability, and in transforming the underlying nature of that capability, it gives rise to the kind of connection which are higher forms of relationship.

    At the end of the day, we all bank on the relationship with the client but the client banks on the capability of the organization. 

    If that capability is locked in, not shared, not a community that can self-organize itself, using its own prowess to code an emergent recruitment system that benefits all – then there isn’t in my view any value in me considering how to improve a lock-in system, a proprietary hunt for talent, which is subordinate and dehumanizing process at the least and in the long scheme of things, not a 21st Century way.

    The day that happens, transparency will acquire a whole new level of meaning for me, because such a state of self-organization can only come about because trust is real.  Otherwise transparency is just code word for distrust as far I conceive it. 

    We have therefore, in my mind, a long way to go before we really achieve any semblance of meaningful transparency, not that one we celebrate because I give out all my personal data, but one where a part of organizations absent of fear. 

    The day we stop day trading on data and skill and allow capability to develop and flourish for the long-term through open systems, is a great vision to aim for.  On that day we are open source, because the source that then opens is within us, not in our machinery.

    Of course I say all of this in such great naivety as is my want and exploration, after all, I am no where near any immediate interview room, so I am simply learning here for my vision is incomplete.

    “viktor ovurmind” @thoughtspaces:twitter

  • Anonymous

    The supply / demand problem can be fixed by adjusting the price.  This means start-ups that are not well funded (a market signal),  and don’t have a great story to tell instead (social signal),  won’t get developers — and they don’t deserve them if they lack both. Another way to look at it: There is an over-supply of start-ups.

    • I disagree that there is an over-supply of start-ups. I think there is – and has been – a chronic undersupply of GREAT developers. I’ve
      got empirical evidence of this from my work at NCWIT ( and it’s one of the drivers to getting more women involved in computer science early in their life (junior high) so that in a decade there will be a much larger pipeline of great software developers.

      • Anonymous

        Hi Brad, I agree — I don’t actually think there is an over-supply of start-ups, I’d be as “guilty” as anyone adding one more to the pool 🙂 

        I think the more fundamental reason is economies of expansion go through a boom-bust stages, whereas especially in knowledge intensive areas human capital tends to scale “linearly” (hard to do a quick fix) / slower compared to demand for certain services / goods. 

        It is also very difficult to hire genomics specialists (which I have open positions for btw),  due to similar reasons:  industry is booming but people & education is not scaling fast enough.. need more labs & professors with that focus.  One company is offering 20K bonus + their full genome sequenced!  That’s my competition. 

        I am merely objecting on purely “economic” terms.  supply-demand can be viewed in two different ways in any mismatch situation, but either normative viewpoint “developer shortage” / “startup oversupply” needs to keep the price in mind ..  There’d be more demand for other professions if the prices were lowered, creating a shortage as well.  Start-ups benefit from “investments” in all levels of society in education & training when the overall pool expands enough/quicker relative to demand; to pull down the price of developers to the price points comfortable to those start-up.  Thus the costs are only shifted.

        But, I’m in fact for this investment.  I’m for investing in mathematics education, in increasing participation & diversity through all the subfields of software engineering, and increased funding & capacity for generating good engineers of all kinds. 

        • I guess my fundamental issue with this line of reasoning is that it’s not “price driven.” Price is not a barrier for the companies I’m an investor in – we have seen market price for great developers (in both cash and equity) increase dramatically over the past 15 years and it hasn’t materially impacted supply, or demand.

  • Rob Yoegel

    Great information here. We just published some information on the same topic, taking the approach of what engineers should be doing. You can check-out our infographic here:

  • Phil

    another take on this from DHH (Rails/37 Signals guy)

  • hegde

    I feel better way to recruit a programmer is to ask him to write program on the spot. Just by looking at the coding style, design you can easily identify the right candidate. I recommend questions little harder than FizzBuzz. Either setup environment in your office or use online service like NvnTest

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