How to recruit top engineers to your startup

I’ve had the good fortune of working with great engineers and I’ve hired somewhere around 40 to 50 of them in last 5 years. Since I believe that having second-rate people will kill a company, I’ve put a lot of thought and effort into figuring out how to recruit great engineers. I’m talking about the steps that happen before you see a resume or conduct an official interview.

Posting job descriptions online is easy and doesn’t require much effort. But when you post to, craigslist and so forth, you’re spending a ton of time filtering through the disenchanted and the desperate, and you’re not hitting any passive candidates. The best devs are the ones not looking for jobs!

We recruited an excellent team at Snapvine entirely through personal networks and going after passive recruits. After our acquisition by WhitePages, one of my goals was to rebuild the 50-person engineering team there. At the time, the WhitePages “brand” for devs was weak, so we decided that we need lots of face-time and direct interaction if we were going to stand out. It’s the same situation for any startup, since startups haven’t built a reputation. Cold emails and 2 paragraph blurbs are not going to capture the attention of the best people.

Some things we did that worked successfully (in no particular order):

Sponsor and/or host dev events and talks
This is an easy non-recruity way of building relationships with passive candidates. Invite someone to speak about a relevant or interesting topic. In fact, the speaker may be a passive candidate you want to recruit. Then get the word out through your team and online forums. Giving talks works too.

The real results come through coaching your devs on how to build relationships and how to soft screen at the events, and through establishing a simple system to track passive candidates and ensure that followup takes place.

Have lots of coffees with talented people, always
Identify high caliber people, cold email them, or get introduced through mutual friends ala “hey, I saw your project on github and it is cool, would love to meet up and chat about it”, then have coffee, and follow-up in a month, etc. This only works when the email is from a dev (we used people who had high profiles), not HR/recruiters obviously.

Lots of times, doing this gave us ins with other passive candidates that we didn’t know, e.g. “Hey my friend is thinking of leaving Amazon / you should talk to him / got any open positions?”)

In passive recruiting, HR / Recruiting’s key role is to keep things organized and to facilitate. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. The emails and meetings must be done by the devs directly (and that’s not something that comes naturally.)

Payoff can take months, so even when the economy tightened and we froze headcount, we continued these types of passive recruiting efforts. Considering that the best devs can be 10x as productive, it’s worth it.

For college recruiting, focus!
At WhitePages, our strategy of going deep at one school (UW CSE) worked out very well. Most companies only drop in at a school once per year at the annual career fair. If you only do that, then unless you’re Facebook or Google, students won’t be lining up to talk to you. We had students lining up, because we focused our efforts.


We gave talks on campus and postered the CS labs with flyers. We asked professors to email their students and we bought plenty of pizza. At these talks, we collected emails and chit-chatted with students. We followed up and invited students to our offices for events.

We also invested heavily in an intern program and we made sure our interns had an excellent experience (giving them real projects with real impact, pairing them with mentors, scheduling face time with key people throughout the summer, etc.) We also coached them on how to spread the word about our company and projects to their classmates.

By our second career fair, we had students lining up to talk with us, and we successfully closed engineers who had competing offers from Amazon, Google and Facebook.

Convert your contractors
Hiring contractors can be a quick way to fill an immediate need and carries a low commitment (both for them and for you). We had good success treating the high contract wages as a “try before you buy” fee, and once we decided a contractor was a good fit, we made concerted efforts to convince them to join us as a regular employee. This strategy worked well, and became part of our playbook.

4 Comments on "How to recruit top engineers to your startup"

  • Some really solid advice Joe. Surprised more startups don’t do these “obvious” things, but I guess they’re only obvious to us recruiters.

  • Your advice on college recruiting is spot on. It requires the sort of long view you describe, which can be tough for companies that aren’t really intentional about the process. I did a ton of hiring out of the UW CS department, mostly undergraduate internships (that then led to full time jobs). The formula that worked for us was pretty simple, and sounds a lot like yours:

    * Train people so that they can succeed, and then provide mentors
    * Offer very real, hard, and meaningful work people can be proud of
    * For interns, make full timeoffers to the best performers at the end of their internship
    * Create part-time work for former interns to keep them around until graduation
    * Be present on campus all the time, and build relationships

    We found that our existing staff created a pipeline for new hires, because they knew who the other great undergraduates were, they could advocate for us with some credibility, and because those undergraduates wanted to work with the people we hired.

    Your strategy of low key recruiting even during headcount freezes is terrific.

  • Really good advice, and very tailored to startups. My company does a lot of work helping companies recruit better (consulting on recruiting strategy and process and training teams to recruit better), from small-ish startups to big, global companies…and SO much of getting the best talent has to do with defining your bar, driving a recruiting-ownership culture throughout your org, and doing the basics really well (engaging and following up). Peer-to-peer networking just works.

  • Nice follow-up, thank you. We did those things as well, but i left it out of my post, i.e. offer a job on their last day and create part time work during the year. We also experienced the pipeline effect…it just works!