Hiring Software Engineers

A fellow CTO friend I’m having coffee with looks across the table at me and pleads “I need to hire 5 senior front-end developers this month. We’ll pay whatever it takes. Can you help?” I quickly realize that I can’t. My team has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to talented engineers, but not a single one was already a rock star when we hired them. We bet on everything except for experience. Here is why.

Harry (not his real name) had a gazillion certifications and a CS MS degree pinned up in his cubicle. It was during the dot-com boom and I was the new software engineer at a B2B startup. I don’t recall a single time when I saw Harry with his head down writing code. He liked to talk, go to lunch, attend meetings, and tell jokes. I could always go to him when I got stuck and he’d be able to help, but then I was trapped in a vortex of chit chat trying to politely extract myself. Harry had lots of experience and talent but was lacking drive. That’s when I learned — experience doesn’t automatically equal value for the company.

Ten years later, I find myself in a cigarette smoke-filled Internet cafe in Ukraine interviewing developers for a new startup. I meet a young self-taught programmer Ivan (name changed) who had the worst resume that I had ever seen, literally a blank piece of paper with a single sentence. No university degree, no real job experience, just a certification course from a trade school I had never heard of. But he didn’t come with just this one-line resume, he also brought a brilliant, simple, elegant solution to a coding challenge I had sent him. I took a flyer on him and within six months he was crushing it as my lead developer. He went on to earn an H1B sponsorship and is now slinging code for Apple. Ivan’s story taught me that people with enough talent and drive can knock your socks off if given a chance — even if they lack experience on paper.

Now when I’m hiring, I look at work ethic, empathy, talent and a team-first attitude — the kinds of things that people either have or they don’t. Experience takes care of itself over time, and it doesn’t take as long as you’d think if these other intangibles are abundant. An added benefit of hiring someone who is light on experience is increased loyalty to your company. Most people remember who took a chance and invested in them before they were highly sought out by recruiters. It establishes a bond that is tough to come by in the dynamic IT world.