Month: November 2009

Hiring technologists – part I

Posted by – November 25, 2009

In real estate, it’s all about the location, location, location. In startups, it’s all about the people, people, people.

There’s no task more important than hiring good people. But let’s face it, you’re not Google, you don’t have the best and brightest hand-delivering their resumes to your office. You don’t have a massive HR department. You probably don’t even have a single employee with “HR” in their title. You don’t have experienced interviewers who can spend all day quizzing potential hires about the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere, or how people wearing red hats and blue hats can prevent themselves from dying.

So, how does a startup, with limited resources, hire quality people?

Clearly define your needs
Every hire you make must be for a reason. Don’t hire because you’re lonely, or your buddy is looking for a job. Hire because you need to fill a specific void. There’s one exception to this rule, which is when a rock star walks through your doors. At that point, you should change gears and hire for talent. That topic is worthy of a future blog post.

Write up a job posting
It’s important to pick the proper job title.  Don’t make up a title unless that’s part of your company’s culture.  If you’re hiring a “Chief Hacker,” your applicants will expect to be referred to as “Chief Hacker.”   If company politics get in the way and they end up becoming “Senior Programmer,” they’re not going to have a very good first-day.

Beware of gimmicky job titles, they become dated quickly.  Coding Guru and Rails Ninja will attract some and alienate others.  And think about people searching job listings, are they more likely to for “Coding Guru” or “Senior Engineer”? And for the love of god, avoid job titles that won’t make sense to anyone outside of your company.  If nobody knows that your internal CMS is named Bonzo, don’t post a job for “Bonzo Support Engineer.” Yes, that should be obvious, but you’d be surprised how many companies do it.

Start off with a blurb about your company. There’s nothing wrong with writing a dry and conservative blurb, especially if you’re looking for experienced applicants, but try to match the tone to the culture of your company. If you’re a bunch of goofballs, this is no time to be conservative.

Now, what’s this person going to do? If you can’t answer this, refer back to the top of this page. If you’re having trouble wording the roles & responsibilities, search similar job postings on sites like or simplyhired for inspiration. Be careful not to use dated buzzwords or incorrect technology terms. The talented applicants will sniff out your ignorance and avoid you like the plague.

Be specific and tough with  your requirements.  It’s miserable sifting through hundreds of entry-level resumes when you’re hiring for a senior-level position.  Don’t worry about alienating people that don’t meet every requirement.  If they have the chutzpah, they’ll still apply.

Positing the job
Start off by positing the position on your own site. Even if you get minimal traffic, it’s worth it for all the bots that crawl your site daily.

Craigslist is always a safe (and cheap) place to start.  Authentic Jobs is worth the cabbage. Dice, Monster, and HotJobs haven’t been useful in years.  I’ve had luck with 37 Signals job board, but no luck with Joel Spolsky’s. One of the best places to find candidates these days is LinkedIn.  It gives you the ability to reach those who aren’t actively looking for jobs.  Those folks are *generally* the talented, passionate, loyal folks. Poach them!

Reviewing resumes
OK, so the job has been posted and the resumes start pouring in. The first few times you go through this process, you’ll likely review each resume from top to bottom. However, after you’ve hired a handful of people, odds are that you’ll start to despise this phase. In order to find that one great resume, it may take reviewing fifty crappy ones. That can be quite a grind.

At this point in my career, I spend seconds reviewing a resume before making a decision. Job seekers, this is why the cover letter resume are so important. To err is human, but there are some documents in business that need to be perfect. When I review a resume, grammar and spelling mistakes are instantly tossed.  Nine times out of ten, that says something about their quality of work.  If the cover-letter is boilerplate garble, it gets tossed.  I want to see someone invest time into researching my company to make sure it’s a good fit for both sides.  Verbose cover-letters get tossed.  Those are the people that end up causing a 15 minute meeting to run 45 minutes.  

Cover letters that say things like “stop your search, you’ve found the right person” get tossed.  Those folks are typically aggressive and don’t work well in teams.  Resumes that aren’t formatted properly, get tossed. I don’t want a text version of your resume with random line breaks and 3,000 word paragraphs.

Resumes with no substance and loads of buzzwords, get tossed. Candidates who spent under a year at multiple jobs, or have inflated titles for their level of experience, raise a red flag.  Folks coming from large consulting companies, applying for startup gigs, usually make me wary.  Those who put their education above their work experience also make me wary. 

Long story short, I’m a prick when it comes to resumes. I didn’t start out like that, but after wasting countless hours on phone screens, I’ve learned that you sometimes, you really have to judge a book by its cover.

(Note to job seekers: Format the filename of your resume as firstname-lastname-resume.pdf. Whoever is reading it, will likely save it to a folder and share it with their colleagues. Saving them the pain of renaming “resume.pdf” will earn you bonus points.)

First contact
After whittling down the pile of resumes to the top 5-10 candidates, it’s time to see how they handle a phone screen. Email each candidate a short message. Something like “Hi John, Thanks for sending along your resume.  Your background looks like a good fit.  Can we set up a time to chat sometime this week?” 

There’s a reason you’ll want to say this, rather than suggesting a specific time. Those who respond with “Sure, I’m flexible, let me know what works for you” get brownie points.  Those who respond with “Sure, does 2:30p tomorrow work for you?” show promise. Those who respond with “Yeah, let’s do that” show a lack of common sense.  Those who respond with “Yes, I can fit you in tomorrow at 2:30” are usually clueless.

The phone screen
You should initiate the call. Believe it or not, a good number of people will answer the phone like they just woke up.  Bad sign.  And then there are those who you’ll catch completely off guard even though you agreed to chat at that exact time.  BAD sign. 

During the call, let the conversation flow naturally. This isn’t the time to grill them, you really just want to get a sense of their personality and how they communicate. Ask them about their professional background. Listen for passional, self-awareness, confidence, etc. Are they overselling themselves? Underselling?

Ask questions like “what motivates you?” and “describe the ideal job” to see if they’ve actually thought these things through.  Those who can immediately answer those questions, and don’t obviously tailor them to your job opening, get brownie points.  Ask “how would a co-worker describe you?” — that’ll come in handy when checking references.  Ask “what’s the most frustrating thing you have to deal with in your current job?”  If they start venting, it should raise a flag.  Finally, ask “what do  you know about our company?”  If they haven’t done their research, they lose points.

I typically try to cut the candidate off once or twice during the conversation to see if they continue talking or let me interject.  Those who talk over you, tend not to be the collaborative type.

Wrap up the call with giving a little additional background of the company. Give them a feel for the culture, work environment, types of projects they’d be working on, etc. If you like them, this is a good time to start selling your company. It’s not the time to let them know about the skeletons in your company’s closet though. That’ll come later.

What’s next?
Congratulations, you’ve determined your needs, written and posted the job description, and whittled down the list through reviewing the resumes and conducting phone screens. Now, the real interview begins. I’ll cover that in Part II.