Every startup founder knows hiring talented developers is one of the biggest challenges facing fast-growing companies. For every enticement you can offer — competitive salary, generous benefits, a rewarding role — dozens of other startups will line up with similar amenities. Not to mention, you’re competing with deep-pocketed giants like Google and Facebook.
But you have a secret weapon: your engineering brand.
To help give you an edge in defining a compelling engineering brand, we tapped some of the world’s most prominent tech evangelists for advice. Tech evangelists work to cultivate deep relationships with developers, and arguably understand better than anyone how to attract and retain talented team members. Here’s what they had to say:
Encourage developers to have a voice online and offline
Developers are aware you don’t stay in a company for life any longer. On the contrary, the average retention is less than two years. That’s why it’s important to allow developers to take part in activities outside your company, says Microsoft Developer Evangelist Christian Heilmann. Allowing your talent to release work as open source, contribute to OSS products your company uses, write about their work and attend conferences to talk about themselves is incredibly motivating. This approach allows developers to keep up with new technologies and stay relevant, Christian says, and shows you aren’t afraid to give your technical talent a voice. If and when people do leave your company, they’ll take their outside work with them — and your name will be attached as the company that empowered them to create it.
Invest heavily in high-quality documentation
Your docs are your brand, says Developer Advocacy Lead Bear Douglas from Slack. Well-written, clear, useful documentation communicates that the API and the product underneath are equally well thought out and architected. Bear recommends every company start the documentation process by crisply defining the target audience. Who are they? What can you assume they know about your product and stack? Then write for that group. It’s a simple strategy, she says, but great docs are the foundation for great developer brands like Stripe and Twilio.
Define a three-way value proposition for developers, API providers and users
What are the best outcomes for the API provider, the end-user, and the developer integrating the APIs? Adobe Lead Tech Evangelist Ash Ryan Arnwine recommends figuring out what makes your product desirable for all three parties, and working backward from there. If the value prop for any of these parties — business partner, customer or API provider — is missing, you’re in trouble.
Once you have your value props, attract developer talent using:
- outreach (let them know who you are and the problem you solve)
- technical enablement (get them from zero to ship as quickly and smoothly as possible)
- inspiration (show them what’s possible with your APIs, from the obvious to the extraordinary)
Ultimately, Ash says, for developers to adopt your ecosystem you’ve got to be providing the right opportunities and developer experience for them.
Smell like a developer
“Developers have a strong nose for sniffing out what is authentically a developer product that will serve their needs well.” explains Roblox VP of Developer Relations Grace Francisco. “Word of mouth is exceptionally strong with developer audiences so make sure you smell like a developer.” In other words, if you work in developer marketing or relations, be sure you’re representing your product in a way that’s technically credible and will resonate with an audience of developers.
Set a high bar for hires and don’t budge
Development shops earn their reputation pretty quickly in a market. Former Twilio Developer Evangelist Rob Spectre believes team quality is the biggest driver of that reputation. If you’re wise about hiring, eventually all the excellent technical ability in your company will form a gravitational pull that makes recruiting less difficult. Engaging high-caliber talent early in the hiring process will accelerate the attraction.
The more job candidates in the market your engineers engage with, the faster the word will spread about your team’s capabilities.
Obstacles around compensation, equity, benefits, and even stack all evaporate when a candidate meets your engineers early and often. Simply put, great engineers want to work with great engineers. Ensuring you fill open positions with talent at every experience level supplies that demand.
Place an emphasis on ongoing education and training opportunities
“If a company doesn’t have some sort of support for engineers wanting to build their skills, then I’m not interested.” says Cassidy Williams, who’s worked as Clarifai’s developer evangelist. Providing classes, books, exploratory time, open source contribution opportunities and side projects are few ways your company can show employees and recruits that you value continued education.
Hire for your values
As an early employee of MongoDB, Senior Manager of Developer Advocacy Francesca Krihely has learned that much of an early-stage company’s culture depends on what founders do and how they do it. It’s important to be intentional. This means defining the positive values that will help your team be successful, then embodying and hiring for those values. If you believe that a strong sense of autonomy has helped you succeed in your career, live those values by allowing your whole team to fail fast and try new things on their own. If exchanging information with other developers was tantamount to your success, start an engineering blog or encourage teams to participate in open source. As you team grows, continuously communicate founder values by highlighting and promoting individuals who have done an exceptional job representing them.
Set up the culture
Zalando’s Open Source Evangelist Lauri Apple offers five tips for building a strong tech culture that will attract great developers:
- Offer an open source portfolio that reflects high quality, usefulness and innovation.
- An agile infrastructure allows teams to build happily and productively. However, agile frameworks aren’t sufficient. You must also reinforce agile values like collaboration, ownership, transparency and trust. Without these and mutual accountability, autonomy can easily transform into chaos.
- Be inclusive and reward growth mindset. As a company, think about how you plan to retain the people you hire. Avoid decency debt accumulation as early as possible. Reduce the friction and paperwork around promotions and team-switching. Consider establishing apprenticeships and other programs that empower your people to stretch their abilities and explore their interests. And in the realm of open source, provide mechanisms that encourage developers to manage, grow and promote their projects; it will help them foster a product mindset and become well-rounded.
- Hire competent and humble leaders. In doing so, you’ll more easily attract top talent. Bureaucratic, ego-driven environments stifle creativity and trust and lead to frustration.
- Build a trustworthy environment in which people can be themselves. Trust enables your people to experience the level of psychological safety necessary to debate, disagree, and communicate effectively.
From the highest levels on down, provide transparency into how decisions are made, why decisions are made, and what decisions need to be made. This doesn’t necessarily mean giving everyone a vote, Amazon Developer Advocate Chris Munns clarifies. What it means is making sure everyone gets a chance to understand and provide feedback on everything: from product to technology-related decisions. This transparency will help prevent people from feeling marginalized or “that they’re just ‘code monkeys’ in a feature farm” he says. Side benefit: it can also help ensure problems are looked at from multiple points of view.
Get more advice on closing in-demand candidates here.