How to beat the competition for tech talent

Dawn Capital
Dawn Capital
Published in
11 min readApr 14, 2022

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By Avalon Lee-Bacon and Chloe Dodson

Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash

Software is eating the world — including, over the last two years, the workplace. ‘Travel, driving to the office and the actual physical office building quite literally got dematerialized into video conferencing,’ as Marc Andreessen put it.

By forcing the world to go remote almost overnight, the pandemic made software all the more important. Simultaneously, the talent pool for tech talent became global, and all the more fierce. Increased capital means more well-funded startups are now able to attract top engineering and R&D talent from anywhere — but it also means your competition can do exactly the same thing.

So in this race to find top engineering and R&D talent, how do you hire and retain the best?

Start with your hiring strategy

First, decide how you want to build out your engineering and R&D teams.

Seizing the opportunity to hire remotely, or centering your hiring around engineering and R&D hubs, can open up access to top tech talent in geographies outside of your headquarters.

Hiring remotely

Remote or hybrid work is now the new standard operating model, with 75% of workers believing flexible work is a must have, not a benefit. Hiring remotely gives you the flexibility to hire from anywhere, so you can benefit from the newly accessible global talent pool and bring on board the best talent from around the world. It is, however, sensible to decide on the time zones that will work best for you, as you may well want some level of overlap to cover work that can’t be done asynchronously.

By embracing this opportunity to hire remotely, you can build very strong teams quickly, or even build multiple teams simultaneously. This is especially true if you are looking for a specific technical skillset, as you aren’t limited by the size of the talent pool in any one location.

It can also be more cost-effective than hiring for on-site roles. You don’t have to pay for as much (or any) office space and, in some cases, salary expectations might be lower compared to your HQ. And at the same time, it saves your employees time and money in commuting. However, going remote shouldn’t be a decision based solely on cost. To create an excellent remote working culture, you’ll take on financial commitments such as equipping people with good home-working set-ups and bringing teams together for off-sites — all of which adds up.

Supporting remote and hybrid working in this way can also become part of your employee value proposition, helping you to attract talent — it provides flexibility, can empower your employees to create a healthy work-life balance, and shifts the focus on to outcomes rather than presence and hours in an office. But while many companies might be adopting remote-first, what will be a real differentiator in enabling you to hire and retain the best talent is actually doing remote well — by building a strong culture and the tooling to support it.

Building engineering and R&D hubs

Concentrating your engineering and R&D talent around hubs is also a strategy we have seen work really well.

These hubs are best located in countries with a high concentration of top technical talent. Portugal (the home of Talkdesk and Farfetch), for example, plays host to engineering and R&D centres for Google and Microsoft, among others, while Germany and Poland are also popular within Europe.

Creating a hub gives you many of the same benefits as hiring remotely, namely access to strong (and perhaps more affordable) talent. But, alongside this, having physical locations to concentrate your hiring around can also bring additional benefits. For one, it can make it easier to create a strong culture, and it also makes regular visits and collaboration in person very feasible, which might be harder to organise if your talent is fully dispersed. In addition, by creating a hub somewhere that has a strong market for engineering talent, you create a network of employees who can attract other people they might know, particularly if your hub is near a research centre or technical university. In this way, hubs act as a beacon for more talent, increasing the reach of your talent acquisition efforts.

The best of both worlds

What strategy you choose depends on your circumstances: where your customers are, what you’re researching or building, and what projects and goals you have in sight. For this reason, many companies take a hybrid approach, splitting their engineering resource between their HQ and regional hubs, with some fully remote too.

As an example, while our portfolio company Firebolt hires the best person for the role regardless of location, they have built out technical hubs across the world in locations such as Germany and the US. Stripe, too, created its first truly remote engineering hub (initially centred in the US, but expanding to Europe and Asia) in 2019. Their Developer Support Engineering team is now distributed across three continents — and two thirds of the team operate outside of an office.

And that’s one of the big benefits of hiring remotely — whether completely distributed or as part of a hub: you can move engineering support closer to your customers. At a time when many companies are global from day one, it helps to have engineers on the ground who understand the intricacies of the local market. These teams can quickly advocate for and bring to market locally-relevant and useful products. This made perfect sense for Lokalise, another of our portfolio companies, whose continuous localisation platform helps businesses release multilingual and multi-platform versions of a product in parallel with the development cycle. The company went remote in March 2020, allowing them to both recruit the best global SaaS talent and better help their customers around the world launch software that is fully tailored to each target market.

Shaping your talent strategy

The foundation for good hiring is a solid talent acquisition strategy, and a team committed to supporting it. Building a talent acquisition team internally can be a great investment, and there is also the option of forming trusted relationships with an embedded recruitment partner to act as part of your team, or specialist recruitment agencies who can access top talent in the geographies and technical domains in which you’re looking to scale. Whether you choose to hire remotely or create hubs outside the country of your HQ, you need to consider the local employment law, regulations and tax rules. Employer of record (EoR) platforms can help you hire compliantly and quickly in countries where you don’t yet have an entity.

Beyond this, it’s important to create a culture of hiring across the whole company, where everyone is accountable for attracting the best people. You could offer referral bonuses to tap into your current team’s network, and of course, building a great working culture helps here too– if people love working with you, they’ll tell their friends.

Focus on skills

Rather than being guided by roles and candidate profiles, or just hiring more of the same, define the skills you actually need to get the job done. By understanding the skills you’re looking for in the broader context of your business strategy — and getting your talent team on the same page — you can more accurately pinpoint and hire the talent that will move the needle. As AstraZeneca did to spin up their vaccine development team at the start of the pandemic, honing in on the exact skillset and specialisations enables you to tailor events, webinars and email campaigns to a very specific, specialised talent pool.

It also lets you broaden your scope. Tech’s gaze has traditionally been directed toward a candidate’s years of experience, but a good way to widen your talent pipeline — and tap into new talent pools — is to think in terms of potential. Skills you can train and develop, but it’s harder to change somebody’s attitudes and behaviours. This is all the more important now as people follow less traditional educational and career routes, with 43% of candidates today being self-taught in one or more of their role’s requirements. You might consider, for example, partnering with an engineering bootcamp to keep promising talent flowing down the funnel.

Another key benefit of a skills-based approach is that it’s easier to tie it to your outcomes. If you break down projects and company goals into skill sets, you can start to forecast what skills you might need before you need them — and give you a more granular, meaningful way to measure how well your talent acquisition team or recruiters are hiring to plan and budget. Your hiring becomes a more strategic, rather than just tactical, tool.

Look inwards

You may not need to look externally for every hire. If you understand the skills your team already has, and in which direction they want to develop, you might be able to help them get there while also filling a critical role in the process. This not only gives your business and existing talent more agility — a current employee already knows your culture and ongoing projects so can hit the ground running in their new role — but also helps you retain the best, most ambitious talent by creating compelling learning opportunities and opening up new career paths for them. If they don’t find their next role in your company, they’ll find it with your competitor.

Getting the interview process right

In a world where the talent market is so competitive, the interview and hiring process has taken on an even greater importance. It’s the candidate’s first window into your company culture, so introducing them to people across your business will help them to get an accurate reflection of the team and environment, and enable you to put the strongest foot forward for candidates who will likely have competing offers.

Use the process wisely; it should be short but thorough, tight and well-defined. Give detailed feedback, and ensure you’re delivering a great candidate experience to everyone — even those you don’t offer to. It’s also really worth keeping in touch with the “silver medallists” — those who didn’t quite make the cut, but were strong candidates nonetheless. These can be a valuable pool of talent further down the line.

When conducting your interviews, make sure you consider what the candidate actually values. In particular, it’s important to understand what engineering candidates actually want and what will differentiate one job opportunity from another — are they motivated by the product? The technical challenge? The engineers they’ll be working with? By figuring this out, you can ensure they’re given enough exposure to this during the process.

When it comes to making an offer, offer the best you can to the candidates you can’t afford to lose. But alongside the cash or equity, when communicating the offer, make sure the candidate feels valued, understands why you want them to join, and what opportunities they’ll have to grow within your business.

Onboarding & culture

Of course, landing the hire is just the first step. You need to set up new engineers for success by building the best onboarding process you can. Onboarding sets the tone for an employee’s relationship with your company, their team, and their work. It should therefore be infused with your company values, and be structured to enable your new hire to start building connections and relationships with peers and colleagues around the business. And that’s just the start — you need to develop the right culture to allow your engineering and R&D talent to flourish.

Getting your onboarding right

Onboarding can be an overwhelming experience, and all the more so if you’re joining remotely. Setting up a structured onboarding programme will be well worth the investment: consider things like ensuring new hires have a buddy who can answer any questions they might have, creating opportunities and interactions to get them connected to the rest of the team, and arranging regular check-ins with their manager. It is also crucial to make sure they know how to access all the information and tools they need and have access to any training they could benefit from. If your company is of the size where this is feasible, meeting with a co-founder and members of the leadership team can also be really powerful in ensuring a new employee feels valued, and has the chance to hear about the mission and vision of a company from someone who created it.

And if you’re hiring remotely, an asynchronous onboarding process is important — for example, introductory videos, recorded walkthroughs, product and process documentation, and guides for downloading and installing all the tools they’ll need. Tools like Swimm are perfect for this. With always-up-to-date docs, new engineers can be onboarded and context switch quickly and asynchronously because it’s all written down within the code repository. It keeps engineers in sync no matter where they are. By making onboarding asynchronous, you reduce the ramp-up time and friction for remote employees, as well as streamline traditional in-person onboarding. Teams can start scaling independently and at a faster rate.

Building a best in class culture

Getting your culture right is always vital, and this takes on a new significance when some or all of your employees are working remotely or in hubs outside of your HQ. You need to instil it across every touchpoint — from hiring to onboarding to everyday operations — to create a consistent employee experience and empower autonomous, self-managed teams.

Appointing a dedicated employee experience or remote operations lead to build this out and evolve your company’s remote fluency can be a good idea. You could also think about nominating a lead to be head of productivity and happiness for each hub or remote region. They can act as advocates for remote teams, helping coordinate regular socials and off-sites, and ensure there is enough access to the leadership team so they feel part of the wider company culture. This is particularly important for junior hires, with two thirds of generation Z (those born after 1997) saying remote work has slowed their career progression.

With the right principles and infrastructure, you can create a brilliant remote-first culture. One of our portfolio companies, BRYTER, has grown as a remote-first company. The team is based in over 20 different countries, and employees can utilise office hubs in New York, Boston, London, Frankfurt and Berlin but be based at home and work from anywhere. BRYTER starts with culture on day one: the founders give cultural onboarding sessions to make new joiners feel welcome and allow them to share in the vision. And they use a mix of guiding principles — like taking a results-driven approach, and enabling cross-functional collaboration and learning — and practices to help empower remote working and cultivate relationships. These practices include everything from the usual virtual coffees and lunches to “Caring Circles” — temporary or persistent groups of colleagues who act as a sort of personal board of trustees or mentors. They can help an employee solve problems, feedback on their ideas and provide them with curated learning journeys. Read snippets from their employee handbook and watch the first in their series of videos on how they approach remote working.

Building a culture in which people thrive not only allows you to further develop and retain your top employees, it also generates a virtuous circle that affects your whole talent strategy. With great culture comes improved employee experience and a stronger employer brand — all of which helps you attract more talent.

Embracing the opportunity

The explosion in software has both increased product complexity and accelerated development cycles, putting an unprecedented strain on engineering and R&D teams — and an unprecedented premium on hiring them.

But while the challenges around hiring and retaining top engineering and R&D talent are greater than ever, the opening up of the talent market in the wake of the pandemic has also made the opportunity all the bigger for those companies that take it.

Establish the right hiring strategy, pinpoint the skills you really need, embed a best-in-class interviewing and onboarding process and create a sustainable culture, and you’ll significantly enhance your chances of finding and retaining the best talent.

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