How should start-ups court software talent?

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How should start-ups court software talent?

There is a game of 'speed dating' going on between technology businesses and the software engineering talent that bring amazing solutions to market. In recent years big tech companies, expanding aggressively in Europe, have competed ferociously with locally headquartered tech startups for the best software engineers. These engineers are in short supply. A government-supported Tech Nation report disclosed that 10 per cent of all UK job vacancies were in tech. The report suggested that at current growth there could be 100,000 job openings per month before the end of June this year.

In 2021, we now live in a world in which almost every large corporation is either experimenting with software innovation, or already recognises that it is central to its business. Many previously long-term innovation investment options have been rapidly brought forward due to the Covid-19 pandemic, to capitalise on shifting market dynamics and working practices. For most companies, it's no longer a question of whether you build software, but how

Therefore, the competition for the brightest engineering talent - that can make an outsized impact in our software-enabled world - is only going to increase as this decade unfolds. It is essential that startups are ready to compete and have the tools to do so. 

In the early stages of the startup lifecycle, hiring the right people is critical. Venture capitalists (the key providers of risk capital that get startups off the ground) principally look to invest in entrepreneurs who have assembled strong founding teams to take forward innovative ideas (along with other factors including the business model, the attractiveness of the industry and the size of the addressable market). Finding and convincing the key people to get on board with a new venture at an early stage is often the first really challenging step a startup faces. No matter how wonderful the business idea is, it won't take off without the right team behind it.

Beyond the founding team itself, hiring the core engineering staff with the ideal blend of technical and operational skills is important. Launching a startup is a high pressure, high stakes endeavour that rewards speed of execution and the agility to test, learn and iterate on the fly. Building the software delivery system using the most advanced practices and tools, and optimising it to deliver crucial startup milestones (such as building a 'minimum viable product', or establishing 'product-market fit') maximises the chances of early success and lays the crucial foundations for future growth. 

Start-ups have to be clever about how they attract top talent in a highly competitive marketplace, given that they often do not have the large pocketbooks of cash for salaries and benefits that large tech enterprises can open up at will. Fortunately, there are several key areas where startups can differentiate in order to fight for, and win, the software engineering talent required to build their businesses.

Below I cover the mission; ownership, empowerment and autonomy; and career advancement. There's so much more one could explore, such as culture, values and operating principles. Moreover, why the 'how' is as important as the 'what': I.e., having a great mission and purpose is one element, but how the company operates, and what kind of company is being built, is also crucial for hiring talent that will thrive in the business.


A company mission or purpose starts from the basis of what problem the business is tackling, why this is important to the world, and why your team and company is uniquely positioned to solve it. 

The most talented developers want to create great code that brings game-changing, innovative product ideas to life. They want to be inspired by the purpose of the company, beyond just hitting project deadlines and releasing features to users. Your start-up should have this crystal clear at the outset. 

Articulating a compelling mission will improve success rates when hiring the team and raising the funds needed to grow the business. It is the connection employees have between the work they do every day, the impact they have for the company, and the social and economic value they are creating. Mission helps employees to power through tough times. It is the heuristic that guides individual and team decision-making in the moment and aids the allocation of finite startup resources over time. It is the north star that drives the company forward, and it is the basis against which success will be measured. 

Maybe your mission is helping to tackle climate change, or providing improved access to vital services for under-served social groups, or making workers more productive, or reducing costs for consumers in an industry ripe for disruption, or simply making something meaningfully better than incumbent providers. Be clear, and ensure it will resonate with the right kind of people that will complete your team.

Make sure employees understand both the mission itself and how the company aims to get there - a mission with big ideas but no plan to execute will fall flat. Be open about the business priorities and how the company will operate: share the business model in detail and how all the elements around each hire will interact with each other.

Ownership, empowerment and autonomy

A big draw for anyone joining a small startup is the opportunity to truly own a wide range of responsibilities, often beyond any normal job role. Rapid growth, combined with the panoply of things you could be working on, means that opportunities will arise to stretch employees well beyond their core capabilities. Employees will frequently find themselves doing jobs they weren't originally hired to do. They will need to embrace a culture of adaptability, and to thrive in an environment where they are frequently empowered to make decisions beyond their level of experience, to operate with significant uncertainty and drive towards self-determined outcomes with limited supervision. This kind of autonomy, combined with the depth and breadth of involvement your team will have in many areas of your business, is your trump card. It is rare for large corporations to be able to match the kind of experience that your startup can offer as you launch, grow and scale. 

But, while moving fast and empowering your employees, don't neglect the basics of the employer-employee relationship. 

Ensure that you define (and write down) the values and principles your company holds in high regard. These are the strands of your culture that the founding team can hold on to as the company scales quickly. They help bring your culture to life on a daily basis, will reinforce your mission and - if well crafted and genuine - will attract people to the company.

Treat employees well and show real interest in them, their lives, and their careers. Don't fake it or force it. No one enjoys corporate efforts that seem designed by robots. Build in the ability for people to mix, to talk, and to experience what different parts of the business offer. Larger companies struggle here, but smaller start-ups can bake-in empathy and understanding into their DNA before they begin to ossify as monolithic corporate entities.

Part of this means allowing talent to take ownership of their roles. When it comes to software engineering there are some high-tech factors at play.

Our global data in The 2020 State of Software Delivery report compared the UK, US, and European countries in their software delivery. It showed that the UK delivers a high level of output, but exhibits a risk-aversive tendency that holds back the pace of innovation.

If one wants start-ups to be resilient and innovative then they require great talent to be attracted not only to the company, but to the sector and the location (London or the UK's other tech clusters), in order to share best practices learnt from other tech clusters around the world, and to catalyse a culture of technology-driven innovation.

Autonomy is aided when teams can play with the toys that make them happy. Or, more precisely - that tech talent uses the tools that help them be consistently great at their jobs. It is only by adopting modern software development techniques, like continuous integration and continuous delivery (CI/CD), that software teams can ratchet up the pace of innovation and achieve excellence at pace.

Career advancement

Allow your team to grow. It's easy to overlook this when you start out and you don't have a plan for 10, 100, 1000 employees let alone the long-term plans for each. But no one just wants to do the job they are hired for - they have ambitions to grow, excel, secure raises and promotion.

A lack of opportunities for growth is generally accepted in business as a reasonable reason for people to look beyond their role or their company and go find the satisfaction in areas that their current situation lacks. Remember this as a business leader - have a path for advancement laid out. It may be conditional, there may be business factors to take into account beyond what employees deliver, but it should be in place and clear.

What if your employee wants to advance but doesn't have every skill. It can be hard to find the notionally perfect person. Could you arrange training for them? A stretch project. A job share? An external mentor or advisor? They are ways to make it work, if everyone is committed to doing so.

And when the role might not change too much, as when software engineering specialists find their niche, it's important that their projects will vary, they receive opportunities to learn advanced skills, and they can challenge themselves to find deep domain areas to excel in.

Nothing in the mix is impossible, but the art of building a start-up that does it all well requires thought and the ability to frequently examine how the business is growing, to ensure that all these areas remain in a strong balance. When mission is married to ownership and allied with career advancement the best talent will want to join your startup and will thrive in your company. It's so important that start-ups can view the big picture and secure that talent at the right phase of the journey to support ambitious growth.