Alice Deng


6 Essentials for Hiring Exceptional Engineers

How do awesome people choose from different opportunities?


I started this project after multiple friends asked me for advice on how they could hire people like their friends — top talent.

The condensed information below is useful to anyone that wants to understand how exceptional people decide on their next opportunities.

First question: What do the top 1% of builders value in potential opportunities? What stood out to them in the hiring process?

Second question: How do these answers compare to the top 10% of builders? How can we extract the “special sauce” (if there is one) that can attract future top 1% builders?


Interviewed 30 of the most exceptional builders I knew & referrals (1%)

Interviewed 20 great, solid engineers (10%)

Questions asked:

  1. If you were to be convinced to work for a company, what specifically would convince you?
  2. What were specific moments, anecdotes, or stories that solidified the reason why you’re working at your current company or a past opportunity?

How I define an exceptional 1% builder?

“10-x-er” — able to contribute 10x the regular engineer — technically capable, stellar builders, but also are able to take a step back and look at the larger picture and drive the vision of the org/company


  • Geographical biases
  • Small pool of interviewees
  • Nature of disparity in answers — each person’s goals & values are incredibly different

What does the 1% value in their next opportunity?

** — in the majority of answers of the 1% versus 10%

1. Having a good time/ enjoy working with the team

  • I want to make sure my future team is a good fit and that I’m having fun
  • Do I enjoy the people I spend most of my waking hours with?
  • A company with an awesome culture in which I look forward to seeing my coworkers as both competent engineers and friends

2. Strong engineering team/ peers to learn from

  • People hungry to work hard and everyone is aligned strongly with the mission
  • “I need to be the dumbest engineer in the room almost every day”
  • Quality of colleagues in the company
  • “Teach me specific skills that is important for my future work”
  • “I’m convinced that if the team is exceptionally strong in engineering — the company has a lot of room to grow”
  • I try to work with people who have interesting ways of approaching problems and thinking about the world, in the hopes that they will positively influence the way I think / change the way I see the world
  • I want to be surrounded by smart people committed to their work. I have seen enough startups where employees are very relaxed and do not care about the company to take an active position or voice strong opinions.
  • Internship at startup vs. Google — at Google, my peers are one level above an intern versus at another opportunity they are 5 levels above

3. Good/nice people**

  • Also, it definitely helped that I had friends here to vouch for the people/culture! In terms of my criteria, I believe that you get two birds (learning + good people) with one stone when you choose a place with smart, compassionate engineers.
  • I’m also a strong believer in company culture, since I’m spending over 1/3 of my time every day at work. I’m looking for companies that work to fight red tape, question the way they do things so they can improve every day, and foster openness, collaboration, and integrity.

4. Huge impact

  • During my internship at [company name], I was able to take the site down during my internship and that was so exhilarating — when I look for future opportunities I always want to reinvent that
  • I want to be able to make design decisions
  • Significant ownership
  • “Executional and creative liberty to make a difference”
  • “Unparalleled opportunity and liberty to billions”
  • I care too much about having full control over what I’m working on to work for anyone else
  • it needs to be interesting both in terms of impact and being technically challenging
  • I’d prefer an environment where I had a significant say in the direction of the organization, whether it was a small team as an independent startup or a small team with high autonomy embedded within a larger organization.

5. Ability to be flexible

  • flexibility to do/work on what I want
  • I would need have a flexible role where I felt like I was actually making impact — either at a very early stage startup or entering a company at a high position (e.g. research director, chief scientist) later in my career.

6. Opportunities that align with their long term goals

  • Aligning experiences with long term career/life goals
  • “I want to be in healthcare + AI space later on so I’m working at a lab”
  • “Credibility to do things I was trying to do down the line”
  • Working for someone only if there was a “need to learn more”
  • The years before this one run along a similar vein of ranking all companies and opportunities and meticulously recording and tracking my interactions with the company in a spreadsheet, optimizing over a different utility function.
  • My goal is to come up with a more systematic framework for evaluating work opportunities, so hopefully I don’t fall prey to having a single (potentially fallible) spellbinding reason for choosing a place to work.

How to reflect these values in the hiring process:

1. Demonstrate to the candidate that they will be working with people they can learn a ton from.

  • Meeting all the PHD’s at [company name] during the onsite interview sold me!
  • Meeting the founder/exec — afterwards I felt I could trust that the founder/exec will produce a lot of value

2. Create an interview process that is difficult, collaborative, and interesting.

Make it an opportunity to showcase the company, how the role looks like, and how the candidate fits into the picture.
  • During my interview, I got a strong sense that the people were interested in more than my technical ability. They asked about my projects with curiosity, not a checklist. When working through technical questions, I felt like I was sharing my thought process, working through a problem with another person, not for another person.
  • The company directly took my goals into mind and aligned the job with the qualities I value in myself
  • During the onsite, they walked me through the potential projects I would be working on — they all were incredibly interesting with high impact
  • [company name] had hardest interviews and the best people — when I didn’t know much or don’t have a lot of experience I just associated “best company” as the one with the hardest interviews, therefore best people
“When a majority of the engineers within the company don’t use the product obsessively, that’s a big warning sign for me.”

3. Provide an extra personal touch!

  • My interviewers there didn’t seem particularly excited and tended to ask pretty straightforward technical questions. However, I was (and still am) pretty impressed by the company’s personal touch given its size — recruiters offered calls to dispense advice and set up a personal tour when I visited the office.
  • After I got my offer, the entire company filmed me a personalized congratulations video — how can I say no to that?


Both the top 10% and top 1% of engineers optimize for opportunities for learning and strong engineering culture (seen through the interview process as difficult technical bar). This is the baseline your company must meet to hire good people.

Top 1% engineers further optimize for the people they work with and what their specific contribution would be; you should emphasize this through making sure:

  • interviewers ask about projects with enthusiasm/genuineness during recruiting process
  • candidates are scheduled significant face time with future coworkers/executive team — social setting/not an interview
  • the hiring process coordinator understands the candidate’s long term goals and always touches upon how the org’s goal aligns with them
  • the hiring process coordinator is outlining a clear role that includes large ownership and flexibility
  • the impact of the org and it’s future goals are constantly communicated in the hiring process
The top 1% know that their career and compensation will be fine so they care more about things that they have the luxury to care about — focusing on optimal personal growth, specific impact, and maximizing an opportunity and using it to level up.

The top 10% are still concerned about “climbing the ladder” and are more likely to care more about career advancement and compensation; if a candidate seems fixated on this, you should dig into why. The top 10% usually mentioned compensation, opportunity for future technical & leadership advancement, and strong manager mentorship.

A special thanks to…

Anna Liu, Harvard

Smitha Milli, UC Berkeley

Vincent Chen, Stanford

Joe Kahn, Harvard

Varun Mohan, MIT

Anonymous, Stanford

Qiqi Wu, UCSD

Jessica Wang, MIT

Rohan Pai, UC Berkeley

Will Jack, MIT

Evan Limanto, UC Berkeley

David Mace, Caltech

Alexandr Wang, MIT

Anonymous, Stanford

Kevin Wu, UC Berkeley

Slava Kim, MIT

Robert Eng, Caltech

Yasyf Mohamedalli, MIT

Anonymous, CMU

Anish Athalye, MIT

Canzhi Ye, UC Berkeley

Kimberli Zhong, MIT

Jared Pochtar, Harvard

Camille Considine, UC Berkeley

Nikhil Buduma, MIT

Prem Nair, Princeton

Leigh Marie Braswell, MIT

Neena Dugar, MIT

Sebastian Merz, UC Berkeley

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