Moving Past the Starter Hire (in Technical Hiring)

Just for a minute let’s think back to that first significant marriage or relationship we had in our adult lives that really meant something. We had our checklist of requirements and characteristics of what we were looking for a good mate or partner in our personal lives, and early on we thought we found the person we wanted to be with forever. It was exciting. There was an adrenaline rush but over time things might have began to fizzle or maybe our partner wasn’t the person we thought he/she would be.

Like hiring for our workplaces, we make a lot of mistakes and learn more of what we don’t want as much as what we do. I call the real first committed employee relationship where you, the hiring manager or recruiter really took a chance and went for broke to hire the best candidate that you thought would help scale and/or build your product, service or technology the starter employee.

That starter employee is significant and critical in every position in your organization. When you extended them a job offer, you don’t yet realize what they are or what they will become. You had a lot of hope, time and thought invested in what for you was a critical hire. However, if you work in a technology company or technical industry, there is no employee more important than your technical or engineering employee and/or team.

Whether its a software developer, data scientist, engineer or other technical role, most of us have made hiring errors whether we admit it or not. That person that we hired didn’t work out even though we were certain they would play such an important role at our organization. We pulled out all the stops for them which at the time in our little budding startup was a lot. We offered them a flexible schedule, unlimited vacation, a fully stocked bar for those late work nights and if we were able, we gave them a sign on bonus or equity to make certain that they were truly vested in the future and vision we had for our company.

The pecking order of importance at a new company goes something like this: 1) CEO 2) Engineer and 3) Recruiter. Because without a leader or a product, you don’t have something to sell, scale or grow let alone make money. Without a product, you don’t need a recruiter to find new talent/employees for your company.

Competing Against a Six Figure Software & Engineer Bonus and Salary

It’s hard to compete against the current recruiting and courting efforts of the “big guys” in technology. You know who I mean. They’re offering software developers and engineers sometimes six figure sign on bonuses and stock options that keep them voluntarily handcuffed to a company. So as an organization you do your best and hire the best talent for the role even though that little voice in your head might be saying, “run away.”

Truth is that in most cases we know that the starter employee is a bad choice, but we convince ourselves it’s the best one given the situation. We need someone to fix our code or rebuild our backend. And we need that person today. We make a decision not in haste but because it looks like the best solution given our options, and we don’t have the time to waste building a recruiting pipeline. We need technical talent NOW at our company.

Moving past the starter hire is hard. It means we, as a leader have to admit we made a mistake and in some cases reach out to friends, peers or outside services to admit we need help. It’s okay. In my failed marriage, I talked to a therapist just like I brought in a sourcing expert and a recruitment technology to help me find the best emerging technical and software developer talent for my company. I learned a lot about myself and what I didn’t want from a new spouse, employee. I learned that I had to plan for my hiring peaks and valley and most importantly to focus on relationships with candidates where the big guys were not. Often times, I didn’t have the bandwidth to do so because I’m doing a million different things. So I made critical hire number 3 and brought in a really great experienced technical recruiter on my team. And together we got creative in our efforts beyond what I was reading in TechCrunch and other publications. And in our first creative recruiting efforts in 2001, that meant we sourced for talent using dating websites. It was unconventional but my team made great hires and ultimately we found some committed and qualified talent that was right for our company and a great addition to our team.

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Jessica Miller-Merrell

Learn more about Jessica Miller-Merrell, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, the founder of Workology, a workplace HR resource, and the host of the Workology Podcast. More of her blogs can be found here.


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