Building the Right Tech Team

Nicole Valentine

Nicole Valentine

by Nicole Valentine, VP of Prod/Technology at Figment.com

You have the idea. You have the vision. Now, you need the team to help you realize your goals. We all know that hiring the right people is necessary in any organization, but it’s even more crucial in a small technology startup.  The hiring decisions you make will have long reaching effect on your business. This core team will not only shape the future success of your organization, but the culture of your company as well.

Your First Engineers are Your Engine Makers

This seems like a no-brainer. That’s what you’re hiring them to do; but never forget the importance of having the right engine under the hood from the starting line. Unless your founding team already contains a Chief Technologist/Architect, these hires will be tremendously influential in making decisions for the future of your organization. You do not want to leave platform decisions up to a handful of new developers.  I’ve seen too many cases of a website built on a platform that will not sustain growth, just because the very first hires loved it as a coding environment.

Changing engines mid-race is costly, both monetarily and time-wise. The weeks to months it takes you to switch may be exactly the time your competition needs to catch up. Assure you have someone in place who is not just a programmer but an architect. Someone who can help you make the right decisions from the start.  You’ll need this expertise both in the planning and hiring process.

I’ve acted as a temporary CTO several times in my consultant career. I highly recommend hiring someone to do this for you if your founding team doesn’t already have a Chief Technologist. It’s worth the investment, especially if you’re still going through fundraising rounds. Look for someone who has years of experience and is willing to accompany you on the traditional “dog and pony” venture capital presentations.  Ideally, this person can help you locate the right backers as well.

Make Sure Your Band can Play in Concert

I had an interesting conversation once on a flight with a veteran music producer.  He was lamenting the new standard of digitization in recording albums.  The way he relayed it to me, you can produce an entire album by just having musicians lay down a track separately and engineering it together in post-production.  Bands can purchase tracks as well, and add them in. No one needs to be in the studio simultaneously. He was nostalgic for the days when a band all came together to record an album. I certainly cannot claim to be an expert in the music industry, but from our conversation I could tell he felt a lot was lost by recording an album this way.  We talked at length about both the benefits and the losses of the digitization of music. This gentleman surely felt the losses outweighed the benefits. He felt that there was a loss of creative energy, and in the end—you could quite possibly have a band that didn’t know how to play together live in concert.

As he spoke about this, I began to make some correlations to my industry. In my early days at CNN.com there were no code modules, no APIs. If we wanted something to work, we had to build it from scratch. Everything was built from the code up. There were many sleepless nights huddled around the glow of monitors drinking large amounts of caffeine, throwing ideas back and forth. Today, you can buy millions of packages and modules. If you listen to the salespeople, you can almost believe that you don’t need coders anymore.

Obviously, this is an oversimplification. We all know you need coders to stitch all those modules together, to fill in the gaps where the purchased solutions just don’t cut it. In startup situations you need not just a “Digital Producer,” you still need the old school “Musician/Coder” too.

Establish early on that the team you hire can still work in concert. They should know what to do if a module doesn’t fit. They should be able to look at it and come up with their own solution if they had to, as a team. Ask an interviewee if this has ever happened to them on the job. What did they do? You should be able to glean from their answer how capable they are at thinking outside purchased solutions. Ask how they came up with the fix and if so how did they arrive there as a team? Someone who is a true technologist will love regaling you with this story.

Passion is Key

And that brings me to passion. This may be the single most important factor when I interview someone. They need to love what they do. They should live, sleep and breathe code or design. You want someone who does this even in their free time.

So… how do you figure out if your candidate is one of these people? Ask them if they have a github account or an online portfolio. They should.  Ask them for their favorite online community to go to when they are stumped on a project.  Be wary of one word answers. Look for effusive, emphatic, passionate replies.  Look for people who are genuinely excited to talk about the work they’ve done and what they someday hope to work on.  Ask them about their own personal side projects. Some management types look down on personal projects, worrying that their hires may not be fully committed to the company’s goals. I disagree with this. You want people who have side projects of their own.  Maybe they steal away only an hour or two a week to work on them, but they still have them. This shows a true love for their craft. I know of several startups that actually built in some time during the work cycle for their developers to present these projects in-house. These sessions keep their team happy, engaged and more often than not solutions arise during these meetings that can be used in the organization.

Comments & Advice:
  1. Dave says:

    Good post.

    Where do feel you can find the best lead developers for a dot com? Thanks in advance and good luck to you!

  2. Nicole says:

    I’ve had some luck in the past using http://careers.stackoverflow.com/ and
    http://jobs.37signals.com/
    and sites similar to them. I like the concept of referio.com as well, but have yet to use it. A lot of it depends on where your business is and what kind of talent you are looking for.

  3. Lawrence Heaton says:

    Good advice for candidates as well as management. How did the startups encouraging side-projects handle intellectual property rights?

  4. Sandy says:

    Finding and keeping skilled and ethical developers is crucial to any online startup success.

    We are constantly on the look out for talent, especially open source php coders.

    Will check out stackoverflow.com
    Thanks for the tip!
    Sandy

  5. Sivan says:

    Thanks. You might also want to view a video of a startup founder on his experiences of how to build a team at http://bit.ly/19QVDf3.

Make Your Comment: