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Putting together a solid engineering team without breaking the bank may be one of the toughest things to do since landing on the moon. There is no exact science to hiring engineers. Some will say it’s an art, some will say it’s a gut feeling, and some will say it’s just luck. In all honesty, it’s probably a mixture of all 3. There are some things that you can do though to increase those odds of building a talented and long lasting engineering team. Besides having great recruiters and an excellent talent acquisition process, let's take a look at the pros/cons of hiring for skill vs potential and what fits best with your organization.

Hiring for Skill

The idea behind hiring for skill is that these employees hit the ground running and can make an immediate impact to the team. They have used the same tech stack in the past and have solved the same problems. Most likely, this engineer is going to be much higher up the career ladder. If you are going to break out the big bucks for an engineer, you should expect to get all of the above and see instant production.

Hiring a developer based on skill can be expensive. When doing so, you are paying for all the people that have already spent hours training that engineer and all of their previous experience. But therein lies the big benefit: your own organization drastically cuts down on the amount of ramp up time invested and you see quicker returns on your investment.

Another huge problem when hiring based on a specific skillset is that these developers can be hard to find. Think back to Economics 101; supply and demand. They are in very high demand, but there isn’t a huge supply. Because of this, these developers get 15 emails a week with people throwing money at them. Even the best recruiters can struggle with landing top talent because of all the other “noise” out there from the recruiting world.

Your time-to-fill when hiring based on skill is much higher as well. This is not going to be a short process. You have to set proper expectations that the seat could be vacant for a longer period than what some may think. Engineers at this level tend to know exactly what they want. They know exactly what technologies they want to work with and what size company they want to go to. They are going to be much more selective which makes the time to hire this person longer because it takes quite a bit more sourcing. 

Obviously there are the soft skills that come along with an engineer as well. Do they fit the culture? Would they pass the layover test? When hiring for skill, make sure they have the skills to also mentor and be a lead at some point if not right away.

You’ll also want to keep an eye on their loyalty. Sometimes the more senior engineers have a different agenda. During the interview process, keep the following mind to try to combat this.

  • Are they completely bought into your organization or is this just another stop in the journey? Some engineers love the challenge of problem-solving. They love coming into a challenge, fixing it, and then moving on to the next challenge. You may get a good year or two out of them, but you have to realize that you may not have them forever.  
  • Are they more concerned with their personal reputation than the team's goals?  I think this sort of speaks for itself but is the engineer simply more concerned making sure that everyone in the organization thinks they are the sole reason things got turned around? You want an engineer that understands the end goal and that it takes an effort from several to reach it and they celebrate as a group.

Hiring for Potential

What is more inspiring than hiring a developer that is like a sponge -- someone that is driven to learn every little thing that they can? They show up with a smile and an excitement to be challenged. They have no bad habits, just the potential to be great. And on top of everything else, they come with a much lower price tag and the tenure will most likely be longer.  

Another benefit to hiring for potential is that the time-to-fill is much lower. It isn’t going to take as long to find the engineer with potential vs those with a specific skill. However, not every recruiter knows how to find potential. Some recruiters only know how to to search on keywords but not read between the lines. Maybe you have an engineer that has been coding Python since they got out of school last year but you are a Java stack. They may not come up in a search, but a good tech recruiter will be able to recognize the concepts that they understand and that they can learn.

An engineer with potential often has a longer tenure within an organization, which is always a positive. Finding a solid engineer with 2-3 years of experience is a tough find usually because they are still in the phase where they are learning every single day. If they are still learning, they aren’t leaving. So with time-to-fill being lower and tenure being longer, you can rely less on recruiting to find the next big thing.

That all sounds so easy and amazing, right? Let's take a closer look. Yes, they come with a small price tag. That is a positive, but you also have to think about the amount of mentoring time that is involved from your more senior engineers. You’re paying a heftier price tag for these senior engineers, and then they are spending some time each week training and mentoring new hires. So in reality, the price tag is really higher than is what's on paper.

Some other things to consider along the developer mentoring front include:

  • Do your engineers even want to mentor someone?  Maybe the team doesn’t believe in hiring on potential or that they feel they don’t have time for it. All this will do is cause your more senior engineers to be irritated and unhappy which leads to more hiring once they leave.
  • Have you notified the team that you are open to hiring on potential and do they know how to interview someone like that? I can't even count how many times engineers get “no’s” during a technical interview because the hiring manager never informed the team that they were ok with hiring someone that had the potential to be great. The team screens them as if they could hit the ground running and not basic thoughts and principles. If this is happening, you are just wasting everyone's time. It is extremely important to prep the team on your thoughts and ideas for the role.

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