Startup Staffing 101: Hiring the Right Engineers at Each Round

Startup Grind
Published in
6 min readDec 14, 2020

Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) recently released a study on the state of startups in 2020. Out of those polled, 45 percent reported that hiring has become more difficult than it used to be.

At first glance, it might seem that talent shortages would concern only the earliest-stage ventures. After all, heavy-hitters like Uber and Stripe must be drowning in inbound applications, right?

While logical, this thinking may not be entirely accurate. Startups in Silicon Valley or any of the major tech hubs in the U.S. will indeed have an easier time finding quality software developers than, say, a startup in the Midwest. Still, hiring and retaining developers is a challenge even the highest-flying unicorns face.

Software engineers now sit squarely within the brightest spotlight, with only one in 100 unemployed. So, how do you find the top talent required to scale a successful business in such a diverse and competitive landscape?

Here at iTechArt, we built our business on that very question, spending the last 15+ years equipping companies at every size, in every industry, with dedicated development teams.

Based on our experience catering to a range of clients with distinct engineering goals, we’ve identified the key considerations we take into account in order to ensure a successful fit at each phase of the startup lifecycle, from seed round to Series C and beyond.

Seed: When you’re figuring out what you need

Here is when you ask yourself whether it’s actually necessary to hire full-time engineers.

At this initial stage, more than anything, your startup needs funds to conduct research. Don’t try to solve a million problems building the perfect software before you’ve so much as gleaned market validation. You could build the most magical product, but if no one is willing to pay for it, what’s the point?

There are plenty of ways to start gaining clients and generating sales without any product or software to validate your idea. In the beginning, it’s okay to have a basic solution without a lot of sophisticated features; in fact, it’s actually better than spending months building something complex without any buy-in from your prospective users.

Alternatively, if you have a technical co-founder or a bit of engineering experience yourself, you might build a basic prototype, test it to understand what works, and only then scale your team with developers to build and refine the solution. Remember: even the full-featured, scalable, and visually appealing version of something nobody uses won’t help you make waves in the market.

What to know

  1. Listen closely to the candidate who asks lots of questions, especially if you’re currently in the process of answering those very questions yourself. Someone who expects well-established processes, detailed quarterly reports, and a neat-and-tidy road map is not the startup type. Instead, look for risk-takers who are not apprehensive about joining an unpredictable venture.
  2. Never undervalue your interns. As a rule, they eagerly take on opportunities to gain experience and practice their craft, and in the tech startup world, it can be more important to figure out who — rather than what — you need.
  3. Don’t look for a static set of skills; look for the person who can quickly adapt to your environment. Remember: The interview process should be built around the theory, not rhetoric. And no “draw-architecture-on-paper” type questions!

Series A: Founders wanted

The major goal of Series A financing is to actively start development and move towards a full-fledged product launch. At this stage, you should be laying the foundation for a long-term, scalable business.

First and foremost, find a senior-level “core” (preferably full-stack) developer and create a dream team around this person. Since most initial tasks revolve around architecture development and management, the first employees must be skillful enough to make crucial engineering decisions.

Even if senior engineers lack some industry-specific expertise, they will certainly be able to extrapolate their knowledge to your project and quickly troubleshoot as needed.

Developers with long-term, hands-on experience are able to find middle ground and adjust to the changing startup environment. They will come up with solutions that are perfectly matched to the current implementation, accelerating your time-to-market.

It’s vital to appropriately invest in these roles; after all, how can you expect others to invest in something when you yourself have not?

What to know

  1. Ability is not equal to the number of languages or frameworks on a CV. Have a closer look at the candidate’s technical experience on previous projects; this should influence 70–80 percent of your final decision.
  2. Early-stage engineers have the power to define the technology stack. For many, offering them this opportunity may be compelling enough to make their decision for them.
  3. Include architectural questions into the interview flow. Ask the candidate whether they have any relevant experience, and if so, ask how they would implement a certain industry-specific feature. Their reasoning can help you determine if you are a perfect match.
  4. Ambition and a solutions-oriented attitude should always be on your radar. During this step, developers will face lots of mission-critical dilemmas, so they should be determined and confident enough to advance projects without much babysitting.

Series B: Build for billions

At this step, every startup is looking to expand into new markets and launch new features or even new subsidiaries.

Your business is actively scaling, and so is your team. You’ve definitely acquired some technical debt along the way, so most of the hires you’ll make at this stage should address that problem.

What to know

  1. Design the “soft” part of the interview to make sure your engineer is equally good at building products and rapport with fellow team members and cross-functional stakeholders.
  2. Over the course of your project development, your backlog will invariably begin to resemble more of a black hole than a neat set of scheduled tasks. This is when you’ll want to add mid-level and junior engineers as needed.
  3. Drawing on our experience working with more than 250 VC-backed startups, the best solution at this stage is to hire one senior developer and several less-senior specialists. Usually, mid-level engineers handle routine tasks like system profiling, while bug fixes and other minor tasks are assigned to junior team members. Ideally, everything will organically systematize over time, with tasks being allocated based on seniority and more tenured talent teaching their less experienced co-workers as they go.

Series C and beyond: Expansion strategies

Commonly, Series C startups are looking to rapidly expand their business activities and catapult their product to an international market. As for those companies that do continue on to Series D or E rounds, most are attempting to increase their valuation prior to an imminent IPO; a smaller percentage simply haven’t accomplished all they’d hoped with their Series C funding.

At this point, investors will generally be willing to continue funneling money into startups that have demonstrated their value to help them maintain their market edge.

What to know

  1. Hyper-growth startups will usually have an established development team well in place and are now primarily looking for candidates with management experience as well as deep technical expertise. Software engineering managers have a great deal of responsibility in managing projects and performing transitions from one technology to another, say, moving to microservices or even adopting new software patterns.
  2. Engineers at this level aren’t looking to stay in the shadows; they’ll want not only to serve as an architect and manager on major engineering projects but also develop a team of other engineers and promote a culture of growth and improvement. Think of them as the ambassadors of a company’s tech culture and a link to other internal teams; they should be on the pulse of the tech scene and have x-ray vision for potentially beneficial activities.

As you can see, there’s no magic bullet for hiring programmers, but hopefully knowing what to expect at each stage will make it easier. At the end of the day, building the team that will help build your company can be an incredibly rewarding experience; by applying the tips and tools outlined above, you’re sure to find the right fit for every role.



Startup Grind

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