A guide for Non-Tech Founders to choose the right engineers

For someone who has seen a good number of ups and downs of hiring tech talent, I could give you a good thirty minute talk on “How to go right with your first few tech hires!”

I love this conversation from ‘Seinfeld’ which goes something like this. 


Cynthia: There are just no men out there, you know?  

Elaine: I know. 

Cynthia: I mean the problem is that, the good ones know they’re good. And they know they’re in such demand that they’re just not interested in confining themselves to one person.

Elaine: I hate the good ones.

Cynthia: Well, the mediocre ones are available, but they’re so insecure about not being one of the good ones that they’re always going, “Well I’m not good enough for you, what are you doing with me?” and eventually I just go, “You’re right.” 

Elaine: You know, maybe you need somebody between good and mediocre.


Exactly the case with engineers; especially when you start!

First things first, make a laundry list of objectives you wish to achieve by building a software.

I would like to ask a few questions before you read further

    1. Is it about solving the problems of billions or thousands?
    2. Will the scale be a concern early on?
    3. Is it evolutionary v/s. revolutionary?
    4. Has anyone done something similar?
    5. Are the benefits palpable immediately v/s. long term?
    6. How long do I have to wait to see the results?

To understand the above questions I have a simple analogy that I always use, about hosting parties.

Let’s assume you want to throw a party for 10 persons. You either cook for them or order, send out invites, pick up drinks by yourself, play songs off your phone or arrange for a karaoke.

BOOM you nailed it!

But, what if you host the same for 10,000 persons? It is essentially the same; food, drinks and ambience. But, you hire professionals; you vet them, ask for feedback, you’ll try and talk to their other clients.

You create a menu, you sample it, may be even invite a test group, like we do for rehearsal dinners. You decide on a theme, the venue and the rest is exactly the same when it comes to hiring your engineering folks.

To be more specific, every stage of a start-up needs people with different skill sets. To build a PoC, you could hire an ambitious college graduate. Make a list of the exact set of requirements (You might even miss the tech jargon, so you could even draw it).

Ask him to build it, don’t ask for any commitments with respect to technology stack, and just build something that actually works! What I personally like about college kids is the speed and rate at which they deliver. They don’t have any inhibitions. Once a working model is built, your ‘Party for Ten’ piece is done. Now, you need to move on and hire your next set of guys who will build something which can scale up to million, or even billion!

Now you have built a product to give your business and you will hit with this 200 year old fundamental principle of Project Management. Trust me, this will, forever, remain the fundamental principle of value creation.

Source: https://tinyurl.com/y7ujqfrn

This colorful venn diagram holds key to how you position yourselves.The concept has been much talked about in the past. But should serve as basis for your hiring practices. Some perspective , one of the early employees at a E-commerce Giant once told me that… initially, the founder picked fast and cheap as the modus operandi . You can always revisit that at later stages when you have abundant resources. But being a startup, you have to pick two of them.

To make more sense of how this Venn diagram works for startups , here are three scenarios , One from my own experience at WeavedIn. When we started ,we struggled to get a great guy to build architecture for our product. So, we got some help from a friend’s friend to do that part for us .  He worked part time and pushed us through our early stages. Although quality of our product was good, it was slow even though he put in 20 hours a week. That is a classic example of what ‘ cheap and good’ looks like. If you looking at ‘Fast and cheap’ , you’d be almost all the college startups, get a few brainy chaps  from your college and build something that will work; there are always those few seniors who are ever-ready to, you could sail through to reach the green . Then comes ‘Good and fast’ , a silicon valley startup with a rock star team and funding to build “the product”.

Once you’ve picked you battleground, now you have to decide on the type of engineers, your soldiers. After deciding on your budget , timeline and the customers, you will be able to catch a glimpse of emerging patterns. You could be a team of phds to invent the next high energy battery or a handful of young chaps who have won a hackathon.

At this point, you need to go back, read the conversation from Seinfeld once again. Good ones are always in demand and you cannot stop them from moving around and mediocres also won’t stay back as they cannot ship anything  . So when you hire, you need to look at the longevity of each team member just like LTV of customer, you need make an estimate of the LTV of each employee. Few leave after the initial excitement and few stay back to be a part of your story!

You’ll need both kind, but overexposure to just one kind will ruin the party.

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