It was three years ago, and The Muse had finally gotten to a point where we could justify hiring a third person on the engineering team. We had met several candidates, but one stuck out in particular. She had studied at a top computer science school and worked at a major investment bank. More importantly, she had incredibly strong product acumen and empathy for our users.
After interviewing this candidate one final time, I went for a long walk around the city. I remember thinking, “How are we going to win her over?” As fun as it can be to work at a small startup, it definitely comes with its downsides. We were a two-person engineering outfit, pre-Series A, and operating on a shoestring budget. There was no guarantee we’d be around in six months. The difference between us and the candidate’s then-current employer was night and day. How could we go up against a well-capitalized and well-resourced investment bank?
Long story short, we did win the candidate over. However, it’s challenging to find and retain top tech talent regardless of whether you’re a small, underfunded startup or well past that point. So many companies are looking for engineers, which means you’re bound to be competing against organizations that offer higher salaries, better benefits, or both.
“Software is eating the world,” Marc Andreessen famously quipped; in turn, companies are eating up all the engineering talent.
When it comes to hiring engineering talent, here’s our playbook at The Muse, built on lessons we’ve learned while scaling our technical team from two to 25 members over the past three years. Invariably, some parts of our strategy won’t work for your company, but hopefully you’ll find a few ideas that can be adapted for your recruitment and retention efforts.
1. Figure Out What Makes You Different
No matter how well-off your company is, there is always going to be another employer willing to pay more for engineering talent. Luckily, salaries aren’t the only yardstick by which candidates measure offers. In fact, more than half of engineers would take a lower salary if it meant working at a company with a great culture.
To get ahead of the companies with deeper pockets, think about what makes your team stand out and relentlessly pitch your unique attributes at interviews. For us, it’s our product-driven perspective, our heavy involvement in the open-source community, and the great amount of agency we give our engineers.
When engaging with the best talent, you’re pitching to them just as much as they’re interviewing with you. By focusing on what makes your company special, you’ll attract the people who are enchanted by the most distinctive qualities of your company. These are candidates who have bought into who you are from the very beginning, which makes them more likely to stick around for the long haul.
2. Respect Candidates’ Time
As a company in the HR space, our goal is to keep the application and interview process as smooth as possible, even for candidates who don’t ultimately receive offers. As policy, we get back to applicants within two business days, and when we pass on someone, we always follow up with a kind rejection note. Between these two tactics, candidates are never left wondering what the status of their application is.
Once someone is in the interview process, we wrap up the process quickly to ensure they have an offer in hand to compare against. This is important because the most sought-after candidates will inevitably have competing offers, and you don’t want a delayed offer on your part to be the reason they don’t go with you.
We don’t give exploding offers. This isn’t just the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do. Candidates know this is a sales gimmick to prevent them from comparing offers. When it comes to a decision as important as where you’ll be working for the next few years, you should have the opportunity to shop around. It’s a red flag when a company tries to prevent that.
3. Focus on Culture Fit
Thanks to an abundance of content on the topic and useful products, companies have improved substantially in the execution of technical interviews in the past few years. However, the same thoughtfulness has not yet been put into testing for culture fit. The reality, though, is that culture fit is extraordinarily important to a candidate’s success at a company.
In the same way that a technical fit isn’t simply “someone who knows your specific tech stack,” culture fit doesn’t simply mean “someone you’d like to grab a beer with after work.” There are a number of strategies available for assessing culture fit, but one in particular that has worked well for us is to define the traits and sensibilities that work well at our company. Then, we have several people vet each candidate along these parameters. In addition to interviews with other members of the engineering staff, we have every candidate talk to our founders and at least one other person from outside the team. This gives us a great diversity of perspective on how a candidate might fit in at the company.
4. Offer Clear Paths for Advancement
At The Muse, we’ve created a career ladders document that clearly and transparently outlines the minimum requirements for every engineering level and management role. Salaries are made more objective by tying relatively tight ranges to each level. This gives engineers reassurance that levels and salaries won’t vary wildly based on bias or favoritism.
Our team has also set out to ensure that the management and individual contributor tracks run parallel to each other. This is because someone who is good at management is not necessarily good at engineering and vice versa, yet both skill sets are pivotal to success.
Finally, in order to help engineers level up, we offer a mentorship program and provide a budget for continuous education through conferences and classes.
Why do we set all of this up? It’s not a trivial process, but it’s worth it. Seventy-six percent of engineers would leave their job for career-growth opportunities. If you want to keep your engineers, you must make those opportunities available within your own organization.
What ultimately happened to that engineer we hired? After a year and a half, she left the company to found her own startup. While that’s a fairly typical tenure at a small, quickly changing startup, it was unusual for us. In fact, she is the only engineer who has left in the four years I’ve managed the team. Of course, there have also been plenty of candidates for which we were collectively head over heels, only to lose out to other offers.
You can’t win them all, but generally speaking, we’ve managed to hire on schedule and on budget and retain the talented people who join us. I’d like to think this is because we’ve made it a priority not only to recruit engineers, but to recruit the right engineers. We also try hard to make The Muse a great place to work for long after they’ve signed the offer letter.
Yusuf Simonson is chief technology officer at The Muse.