How to hunt down, recruit and keep software developers — the Startup Way

Francesco Perticarari
Jun 24 · 7 min read
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In 2019, the biggest concern tech companies are dealing with is related to capacity— according to outsourcing development company CodingSans. That is: delivering working software even though the backlog is full and resources are limited. Capacity is closely followed by sharing knowledge and hiring talent.

The third issue (hiring) is directly connected with the first, however, since respondents regarded hiring more developers as the best way to get more things done. The respondents said the other significant part is implementing agile methods, prioritizing development and improving productivity, which show how hiring quality talent is as important as hiring the sufficient number of developers to achieve the company’s goals.

Choosing the right programming language

When an company hires developers, it normally does so depending on the stack requirement of its projects. Languages used are, of course, the biggest drive when making such decision.

In 2018, the most widely used programming language was JavaScript, with 60.73% of the respondents using it. The second most popular is Java and Python, with 30.03% and 25.41% of the respondents using them.

In 2019, JavaScript is still the leading programming language, but only 54.24% of the participants are now using it. And the order hasn’t changed since 2018: Java (34.96%) came as second and Python (24.46%) as third.

This is the current state, but where are we heading? The survey shows that Python, Go, TypeScript, C#, Ruby and Kotlin are the languages that firms are paying more attention to as compared to their 2018 plans.

The survey also uncovered some cool techniques tech startups use to compete with larger, more traditional corporations.

Here are 5 ways they’re currently using for hiring software engineers at startup tech companies.

Most efficient hiring ways

When tech firms hire code developers, just under 20% use worker referrals: a drop from 30% in 2017 and 25% in 2018.

The use of external agencies and recruiters also dropped a little to 8.6% from 14% in 2017 and 9.5% in 2018.

Leveraging professional connections remained roughly stable, being used by 11.7% of the respondents.

The use of in-house recruiters went down too, going from 16.8% in 2018 to 14.2% in 2019.

Finally, the use of online platforms went up, scoring 17.7% including LinkedIn. However, the drop in the other forms of hiring might be also due to jump from 10% to nearly 17% for the number of respondents who said they have not hired talent.

Despite the overall reduction in the number of firms using introduction-based methods in 2019, Sarah White reported on news publication CIO that tech startups are the biggest advocates for hiring individuals through referrals.

Sarah quotes Travis Bloom, a senior front-end engineer at Rocketrip.

And once a developer is referred by a current employee or recruited through a trusted network, Bloom says it’s easier to induce them on board, since the person who made the referral can “answer questions and give a detailed look at what life inside the company is really like.”

Most important hiring criteria

For tech startups, technical skills aren’t the primary hiring criteria. Instead, nearly 60% cited willingness to learn as the top priority in hiring. Work experience, cultural fit, and tech skills evaluation all follow, with 40% of the participants choosing either of them as the most important factor.

Less than 5% cited a college degree as a key hiring criteria. Startup work is based around small, agile teams therefore hiring somebody who fits well into the corporate culture and can learn fast is a lot more important at a startup than at a bigger organization. The hiring process is often also more hands-on for the executive board and tech leads in a startup, which allows tech firms to rely less on CV titles and more on having a feel for how the candidate will grow into the team.

“It’s hard to work around a dysfunctional team dynamic when there are only a handful of people on the team,” says Bloom. And within the fast world of a startup, the last thing you want is delays over office politics.

How startups lure talent

Startups are normally at a hiring disadvantage against massive firms that provide competitive remuneration packages. In fact, only 10% of tech startups use high salaries to woo engineers. However, Startups can rely on different value propositions to lure talent. Having a great team and company culture scores a first (46%), solving interesting and difficult challenges comes second (41%), as well as the offering of more flexible hours (34 %) and professional growth opportunities (28%)

Keeping engineers motivated

Keeping developers motivated and engaged is probably as important as hiring them in the first place. Tech startups do it the same way as they recruit them—58% say that having a cohesive team helps them keep developers on track and 57% cite the importance of providing challenging and engaging work.

Following the top two above, startups note that it’s important to provide: a variety of tasks (35%), work autonomy (32%) and an exciting product to work on (23%). Interestingly, only 21% cited money and only 4% cited stock options as motivation, which keeps highlighting the importance to focus on selling one’s company and its current challenges to developers if a firm wants to build a strong tech team.

Autonomy, challenging peers and a continually developing product are all key to retaining talent. It helps too if the developer believes in the product’s value”,

says Bloom.

Ensuring code quality

Tech startups grow up with uncertainty built into their daily life as the first years of any startup are often troubled and unpredictable. This includes managing how to write quality code without depleting unnecessary resources to achieve this.

To ensure the quality of the code written and the sharing of information across the development team 60% of the companies use peer revision, whilst 41% cite TDD and CI, and 30% make use of either code commenting or documentation. Only 11% say they don’t use any specific way to maintain a certain development standard.

Conclusions: our comments

Hiring developers is clearly one of the biggest challenges tech companies are facing, but there are many ways you can overcome this challenge.

Being able to build a strong engagement strategy with the developer community seems key to have carry our successful tech recruitment. Despite this, tech startups seem to be shifting towards the use of online portals to engage with talent, which can definitely boost outreach — but can also put strain on the company’s responsible people for HR and talent acquisition decisions.

If you have time, you can go through your own network, investing in an engagement campaign to get referrals and engage with developers that way. If you already have some employees, you can start a referral program so they will be more incentivized to refer their friends.

If you need help hiring without the related administration burden and the workload is fluctuating or growing at a fast pace, then using a recruiter could be an option. They have an extensive network and expertise to find the developer you need.

However, recruitment agencies often work off CV databases and know very little tech themselves, which means that they can’t offer the “network effect value” of a referral from a technical professional.

At Silicon Roundabout we have helped companies recruit for a little while now (a bit like a recruiter but with a different, community-driven approach), and our experience tells us it’s often best to have a hybrid approach.

Building a strong strategy to sell your company through your own tech employees is fundamental. Relying solely on recruiters (whether internal or external) is not smart as engineers love to talk tech and hear from those who’re currently tackling the company challenges and living the “team experience” from the inside.

On the other hand, especially if you are a startup/scaleup and not a big brand like Facebook, it’s going to be hard to hire high-quality developers in the numbers you need, right when the need comes up. Therefore it’s important to have “power ups” in place to ensure both brand outreach and referral inflows.

Attending developer-focused events can be a great tool to succeed at this, as well as organising your own dev events (maybe in partnership with an existing tech community like many companies did with us), and have existing agreements with a few recruitment specialists if possible.

This will maintain your options open and ensure your company message keeps the right developers coming to you, ready when you need them most.

Once you’ve hired great developers, it’s going to be easier to keep them on board, as long as you maintain a startup-like environment whilst you grow — Beware, instead, of taking up a corporate work environment with ever more disjointed departments and a slow HR filled with bureaucracy.

Ultimately you’ll have to make choices made on budget but remember: hiring the best developers at the right time can be literally the difference between growing and succeeding or losing momentum and struggling.


Director of Silicon Roundabout — The biggest Startup Hub and Tech Community in the UK

CEO of AGÀPE Properties — The first UK Property Investment and Multi-Let Management Company accepting cryptocurrencies

Silicon Roundabout Hub

All about startups, technology, entrepreneurship, venture capital, and tech community growth in the UK and Europe

Francesco Perticarari

Written by

Co-founder of Silicon Roundabout, Chairman of The Conquest Group and CEO of AGÀPE Properties. Computing BSc 1st Hons and Business Mentor.

Silicon Roundabout Hub

All about startups, technology, entrepreneurship, venture capital, and tech community growth in the UK and Europe