What To Look For When Hiring Developers

IndustryInside Interviews

Reading Time: 7 minutes

You may have noticed that we’ve chatted with a lot of really smart people through our Inside Look interview series. As we wrap up 2015, we’re revisiting some of the sage advice we’ve encountered from these founders, CTOs, and engineers.

Today, let’s close out the year with tips about what to look for when it’s time to add new talent to your team. What should you keep your eyes open for when you’re hiring developers?

Peter van Hardenburg, Founding developer of Heroku postgres

Interview with Peter van Hardenberg (founding developer of Heroku Postgres).

I think what we really look for is grit, the ability to learn, and gallows humor. I think that gallows humor is highly correlated with the ability to survive in a high-energy startup. You know, you need to recognize that everything is miserable, and it’s unlikely to get better; but that, ultimately, that’s what we’re doing for our users. We suffer so that, hopefully, other people won’t have to. I think that if you can’t laugh at that, you’re really going to have a hard time. Databases in particular are miserable, you know?

One way we talk about our goal internally is to just try and claw back the misery of using databases just a little bit. Databases are still terrible to work with, but I think we have managed to make them more approachable and more joyful for developers to use. And, ultimately, that’s what we’re in the business of doing.

Morten Primdahl, CTO of Zendesk

Interview with Morten Primdahl, CTO of Zendesk

I think it’s important when you hire remotely that people have drive. They need to have some ‘startup DNA’ in them so they can thrive when things get turbulent. So they can be proactive even when communication isn’t optimal and always ask: “What can I do?”

I think it’s vital to get the right people early when you have remote offices.

Madison May, CTO of indico

Interview with Indico CEO, Madison May

Good communication skills are crucial, perhaps even more valuable than technical aptitude. We’ve interviewed quite a few individuals who are clearly extremely technically competent but who have had difficulty clearly communicating the reasoning behind their decisions. They very well might be able to churn out an absolutely brilliant solution if they are left alone for a long period of time, but that’s not necessarily valuable to us.

Collaboration is key, and code written in isolation is code that’s liable to become a problem. It’s difficult turning down people who are very technically qualified, but we feel it’s best in the long run.

We are also just looking for passion, like every company. One of the strongest indicators is when someone comes in and communicates how they think indico could be made better. That’s a huge positive indicator.

Dan Kador, CTO of Keen IO

Interview with Dan Kador, CTO of Keen io

We look for really entrepreneurial folks. We have people who are independent and don’t need a central authority figure to tell them what to do, because we don’t have that. And then there are some specific values that are really important to us — things like introspection; humility; honesty; not shying away from difficult conversations, but understanding that difficult conversations can be had with grace and with empathy.

On the engineering side, I think all that applies. There’s lots of different problems here, so sometimes we’re looking for folks to help out with specific pieces of our stack. So, we certainly hire (have hired and are continuing to hire) some of the best distributed systems engineers in the world.

We’re also hiring people who just want to be one of those someday. You don’t need to already have all the answers to be here. We want people from all walks of life. So, we do a lot of distributed systems engineering. We do a lot of data engineering. We do a lot of amazing visualization work. We do a lot of amazing front-end work. It’s full stack. There’s lots and lots of pieces to work on here.

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Elliot Cohen, CTO of PillPack

Codeship Interview - Elliot Cohen, CTO of PillPack

We don’t have product managers, at least not today, at PillPack. So we expect all of the team members to participate across the spectrum of product development. Our product team is a combination of designers and engineers. We believe strongly that you have to get close to the problem that you are trying to solve.

Therefore you need engineers and designers that can collaborate together on the user research, requirements gathering, and ultimately the creation of new product experiences. When you silo these activities in different disciplines like design or product management or engineering, you end up requiring a lot of handoffs and subsequently losing much of the context critical to designing and building great experiences.

So when we’re hiring engineers, we look for an aptitude to participate across this spectrum. It’s important that they write great code, but it’s also important that they write the right code.

Brendan Schwartz, CTO of Wistia

Interview with Brendan Schwartz, Wistia CTO by Codeship

We look for people who are really curious. It’s pretty easy to gauge curiosity based on someone’s responses in an interview. When we start talking about different aspects of the business, do they ask thoughtful questions? It’s really telling what questions people ask.

Sometimes engineering candidates are only curious about technical things, but we look for a broad curiosity. Some people ask about the business side of things because they’re genuinely interested — that’s great. I’ve also talked with plenty of people who got burned working for a company because the business model was bad and they now recognize how important it is to understand that. It’s not great that they got burned, but it’s amazing they have that newfound motivation and excitement to get involved in more parts of the company. Motivation and curiosity are what matter to me when hiring.

Brian Sierakowski, CTO of Teampassword

Brian Sierakowski interview

Maybe this is basic. But I think a key is to have really well-thought-out job descriptions. What do we expect this person to do, do we expect this person to get critiques, what outcomes are we expecting? We need to figure that out. I want someone to know they’re being measured and what sort of metrics they’re measuring against and making sure that those are within their realm of influence.

I’m a fan of putting the KPIs in the job description. Letting people know exactly how the success of a role is going to be measured. I’ve been told, “Well, that’s kind of heavy for a job description. Maybe we should have a conversation about that.” But, regardless, you should know that if I’m hiring you for this role, this is how we’re going to tell whether or not you’re successful. And if you don’t feel comfortable being measured on that, obviously we can talk about that if you still want to apply for the job. But also maybe it’s not a good fit.

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Leave us some comments on what you think about this topic or if you like to add something.

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  • yycexplorer

    I came hoping to read something interesting yet after skimming all the way to end, may brain thinks the title should’ve been “What to look for when hiring Caucasian developers”. I’m not disputing the content but wish there was more diverse set of people were included in the research work.

    • Hmm. I didn’t even notice that until you pointed it out. Way to notice what people look like.

    • gwhosubex

      What this actually tells you is what to look for when being INTERVIEWED by Caucasian CEOs, if anything.

      Caucasians are pretty diverse too.

      There are aggressive and passive white people. There are smart and dumb white people. There are introspective and oblivious white people. There are risk averse, and risk-seeking white people.

      If you throw accusations of racism without evidence or reasoning to back it up, or are wrong about it, congratulations. You’re the racist.

      Can we just stop pulling the race card? You wish for things to not be racist, yet you focus the discussion on race, instead of focusing on actual traits or skills. These people are talking about traits and skills. You’re talking about race.

      What’s even more racist is you assuming that the common racial trait among these people nullify, or are biased, or negate the traits they say they’re looking for. What evidence do you have for this?

      By assuming this, you are basically calling these people liars or unwittingly biased. Do you think their entrepreneurial experience, or general experience don’t actually take effect? Or that their race overshadows their entrepreneurial wisdom?

      You are also not evaluating the statements made on their merit, and instead jump to a cause like race. So what this also indicates is that you don’t know what to look for in a developer, and you don’t know how to think about knowing what to look for in a developer. Otherwise, you’d be able to critique what was said on their own merits, or talk about experiences or logical conclusions that counteract what was said.

      All of these guys have hair. That’s another commonality. Why not blame things on hair? Are you Don’t be hair-ist. None of these people are albino. Are you saying you’re melanin-ist? Focusing on race when there is no reason likelihood to be causal to the subject at hand, is ridiculous, since you could focus any trait that’s not common. Just because skin color is most psychologically noticeable, doesn’t mean it’s causal. Culture is more causal.

      By alluding to race as an objection, what you’re also implicitly saying is that CEOs of other races would look for different things, since you assume that the entrepreneurial experience and wisdom wouldn’t win out over their skin cover when it comes to what they say they look for in a developer.

    • gwhosubex

      So you’re saying it wasn’t interesting because all of the speakers were white.

      Bye, not racist person.

  • Nicole Sibley

    Coding tests, my friends. They’re a great way to evaluate skill level prior to the interview. Coding test platforms are easily available online too, so there’s little excuse not to use them. This is a vital first step in the screening process, don’t skip it, hire smart.

  • Billy Gym

    Great article showing different points of view from cool guys! Really interesting!
    There is also cool trick in case you have a big number of candidates with lack of time. You can try use programming test before inviting guys to interview. Thus you will save a ton of time.