talent November 12, 2019

How to Prioritize Developer Roles in a Startup

Hiring Developers? Learn how to prioritize and hire for the right roles first.
Avatar for Medi Madelen Gwosdz
Content Strategist

Your company just made the jump from idea to reality. You got the funding to hire a core team, but don’t have any founders with serious technical skills. As you prepare to start building your product, you have to answer a fundamental question: how many developers does my startup need, and what roles should I look to fill first?

Who should be your first hire(s)?

Jilliene Helman’s, the CEO of RealtyMogul.com, has written a list of the first five people to hire as a startup, and the most important are a front-end engineer and a back-end engineer. Helman argues that having these two specialized roles in your early stages allows both of them to actually do more. “A front-end engineer who focuses on how the company’s site looks, and a back-end engineer who focuses on how it works,” is a powerful combination. In an early-stage world, where people still wear many hats, this might include front-end developers who can handle a lot of the design and user experience as well. 

Only got the budget for a single tech hire to start? You can find people making the case for hiring full-stackers – coders who do front and backend work – instead. Tessa Norton for Hackernoon points out: “The greatest USP (Unique Selling Proposition) of a full-stack developer is not in that they are experts, but that they are flexible to an incredible extent. As a startup founder, you can have your full-stack developer(s) commit to the front-end, back-end, or the architecture as and when the need arises.” Furthermore,  she says while in the early days they are flexible, they are also able to grow with your startup. 

On Stack Overflow’s sister site, Software Engineering, a discussion around estimating the right number of devs needed for a project led to this interesting comment.  the writer points out that a group of around five developers allows a team to focus on things like pair programming so devs can evolve together with their co-workers. This also means that if one person leaves, someone else is likely to be familiar enough with the code to keep things from breaking down.

What if you are looking for leadership in tech?

Your situation might be different if you are still looking for your tech lead. A user in a thread on  brightjourney.com points out it might be wise to grow a team around them: “Hire a CTO. The CTO hires five senior people who get to define the next generation of the product, get familiar with it and with each other. The CTO and their people can, in turn, hire 15 more people and break them into teams.”

Of course, finding that crucial CTO is easier said than done. If the search for the perfect candidate takes too long, you might want to consider the cost of finding that person and delaying other crucial decisions until then. It might be worth looking for a part-time CTO. This is less unusual than it seems. Emily Bahna, Managing Director at Thoughtbot advises, “Having someone to help you make critical strategic decisions part-time is better than hiring someone who is less than fully qualified to do the job.”

Hire experienced engineers

Another user’s advice was to hire “Engineers who have already solved the problems you are about to face .” That approach means you “won’t waste time learning how to solve the same issue, thus your development will go much quicker and they can share experience for business decisions.”

Mind you, a senior developer, in this case, needs to be someone who has worked in this capacity. Especially with developers, a title does not always translate into years of experience in the job. Consider programming experience instead and the fact that most developers will write their first line of code as teenagers. 30% of developers who identified as a “Senior Developer” in our 2016 survey were in their 20s.  

Alex Sopinka, CTO of Tasytt, puts it well, saying, “To me, a Senior Developer is someone who has a track record of success, including understanding project requirements and delivering on them. He/she will have started to exhibit leadership skills and the ability to delegate and manage.” 

Adjusting to the market

Great, now you know what you want, but how to find it? It’s one thing to imagine the dream team of developers who will helo to tackle your roadmap and take your startup to the next level. It’s an entirely separate question to find these people, especially if the skills sets you are looking for are in high-demand, or if talents are not available in your area. A major actors in your planning should be the cost to fill different roles. 

The requirements of your team are something you should work out (and adjust) with your technical leadership. Make sure you talk a lot and built a great relationship from the start. You will only really understand which roles to recruit for if you understand the type of profile you are looking for. And sometimes this will include tough follow-ups with hiring managers to better understand why they rejected candidates. 

Things you should not de-prioritize along the way

No doubt, your first employee will shape your company more than anything. Naturally, employee #1-5 will be more crucial to your culture than #95-100. As Brian de Haaff writes: “Adding the wrong person to your team hurts—but it stings even more in a startup.”

So even though you want to hit the ground running, now might be a good time to think about diversity. In an interview, Aubrey Blanche,  Atlassian’s Global Head of Diversity Inclusion, advises startups: “Getting a first woman on the team is a lot easier when there’s only three employees and they’re all men, as opposed to when there are 20 that are all men. Invest early.”

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