A guide to hiring great engineering leaders at a startup

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Startups are ambitious, and the scale of products they build is usually never small. With that vision, it is only normal for any competitive startup to try to hire the best possible engineering talent. But the dearth of quality talent in technology and product is a hurdle.

Engineering leaders are the architects who will keep the startup afloat. It is imperative that an engineering leader commit multiple years to help build out the business. But hiring candidates at this role and level is not something that comes easily to any first-time founder. The hiring process is not the same as hiring for any other function or leadership role.

We have been doing this for a few years at Accel, helping our portfolio founders hire the best engineering talent. 

So we have put together a deep dive into deconstructing how exceptional engineering leaders can be hired at a startup.

Let’s dive in.

Key areas to look at while hiring engineering leaders

The role of an engineering leader requires a candidate to be a dynamic people manager. Some of the parameters that largely contribute to the role are - their ability to attract talent, and be a mentor to the team.

The engineering leader should be someone all the engineers naturally look up to. Having had conversations with several tech leaders in the industry lately, we have had our own learnings on this subject, and here are five elements that we would drop:

  • Personal Fit
  • Technical Fit
  • People Management
  • Execution Capability
  • Cross-functional Communication

While it takes anywhere between 6 to 8 interviews to screen for all these key areas, the reality is that it is hard to find someone who has all these traits. If there are multiple co-founders, these areas can be segregated amongst all of them while screening for candidates, and the cofounders can stick to their individual traits and see if the candidate possesses them.

Structuring an interview process

An essential part of hiring for an engineering leader is gathering critical feedback after interviewing every candidate. At the same time, if there are several members in the interviewing panel, interviewers should not share their opinions on a certain candidate with each other during the process. It can lead to bias and unwise hiring decisions.

One way to identify whether to proceed with a candidate or not is by cross-checking between all the feedback notes made by the panel, comprising co-founders and the hiring managers.

A standard debrief call between panel members needs to be taken at the end of the interviews, to take a final call on candidature.

A wise way would be to look for the right things they are not saying v/s the right things they are saying. Most people, when asked about management philosophy, talk only about execution but do not showcase any people skills.

Here are a few points to think about:

  • When the candidates interview at this level of the role, they come with some knowledge around how to answer a question smartly without having to answer it at all. 
  • Having had some experience up their sleeves with leading teams and hiring engineers themselves, it only gets easier for these candidates to be sitting on the other side of the table.
  • One way to filter certain candidates out is by being careful and getting them to give specific examples of how they can build the tech architecture at the company. 
  • However, if the shortlisted candidate turns out to be not proficient in any 1 or 2 of the 5 key traits, there is always an option of mentoring or coaching him or her.

A concept called bar-raising, inspired by Amazon, can be relevant in this context. Bar raising adds a third-party interviewer to the process for an objective point of view. Their role here is to ensure every new hire has growth potential, acting as a steward for the famous 16 Leadership Principles formulated by Jeff Bezos.

Setting up the interview panel

There might also be some cases of receiving low-level questions from the panel, and it might not be possible to gauge the level of complexity the candidates have seen in their careers with such questions. So it is equally important to choose the interviewing panel carefully.

The natural step would be to identify these panel members, and whether they already exist within the organisation or if the founders would have to look outside, and within their networks. One of the most efficient and convenient approaches here is to speak with your startup’s investors and board members, whether they are angels or institutionalised VCs, and try to get them onboard this interviewing panel. While these stakeholders need not necessarily influence the decision process, they may still be the strong sounding board you might need for you to be able to get a different lens.

Reference checks, plus focusing on the impact they have created earlier in their careers are a couple more good practices.

Assessing them above and beyond the usual

Beyond the hygiene interviewing questions, it is recommended that the candidates are asked several open-ended questions.

Here are a few pointers for the same:

  • The candidates’ biggest failures and what they have learnt from them is a good question. In the process, there is also scope to gauge whether they are aware of their own limitations and experiments.
  • Looking at their previous experiences and career trajectories, some questions can be framed to assess whether the candidates are risk-taking or risk-averse.
  • As for assignments and case studies, it’s wise to keep the assignment or case study ready and present it as an open whiteboard problem in the interview, which can be worked through together.

It is perfectly fine if the candidates admit that they had not dealt with a certain kind of problem earlier. But it is equally important that they carry some amount of expertise that will help them tackle such problems if they arise.

The Culture Check for Engineering

The toughest part about being an engineering leader is setting up that right culture for the team of engineers. When startups are trying to rapidly move from zero to one, the objectives of setting up operational excellence and engineering team culture at times tend to take a backseat.

A company like WhatsApp is known for its phenomenal team culture. The reason is that the company has always been aware of its core values, so the team culture has evolved naturally.

WhatsApp has simple values - fast, secure and reliable messaging. Though these corporate values are aligned with the quality and reliability of WhatsApp as a product, the engineering team’s core values will overlap.

How do leaders make this happen for their own teams. Here are a few pointers:

  • As companies grow, their engineering teams also grow. In the process, the individual contributions of engineers and their values become important to the organization.
  • These engineers also cannot rely on senior engineering leaders all the time for direction. Hence, it is necessary that leaders are encouraged from within the startup.
  • With a lot of cross-functional collaboration in the team, forums like design reviews, operational reviews, and hackathons become disproportionately important to set up the right culture.

In conclusion, the idea is to assess the thinking capacity and the problem-solving skills in the candidate, and how he or she can become an engineering leader that the team looks up to. 

It takes time, patience, and a deeper understanding of the business and culture needs before finally arriving at the best possible candidate for your engineering teams. But if you get these hires right, your startup is already on its way to success. We wish you all the best!

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