#TechTuesday – 4 Ways to Attract and Retain World-Class Engineers (on a Startup Budget)

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You want the top talent but you're short on funds. How can you attract the best engineers when you're on a budget? By Tina Denuit-Wojcik (Founder, Enplug)

Good engineers are notoriously difficult to find and, at a startup, you need not just good engineers, but excellent engineers.

I’ve been an engineer at tradition software companies like Microsoft and financial institutions like Nomura. The former brings plenty of engineering talent with its prestigious name and the latter with its copious pay. At Enplug, like most startups, we don't have the cash to pay hefty salaries or a marquee name of a software giant to attract top engineers. We had to take a different approach. And it worked.

Our Approach

Our digital signage technology is all built in-house and we started the engineering team from scratch. Founded two years ago, we’ve grown our tech team to 12 people, which is just over a third of our entire team.

Our technology drives our sales, decides our survival and is the key to our success. Our technical mission is not an easy one. We are working with five different technology stacks, each with a specialized purpose. Most of the people on the team are proficient in at least two of them and are always looking to jump on and help out with something new.

We are an agile team, releasing new features each week and with a major version of our software coming out every 3-6 months. This means that we need the best talent possible. We did this by maximizing all the benefits of having a startup culture.

Our Top Tips

The vanguard to building a top-tier engineering team boils down to four actions: hire for cultural fit, give opportunities to grow as fast as possible, maintain the quality of your product and personalize the work.

1. Hire for Cultural Fit

When interviewing candidates for our engineering positions, we rarely look for a specific experience because by now, we have people who can offer great mentorship in any technology we use. Instead, we look for smart, ambitious, and enthusiastic individuals who want to be part of something bigger; who want to learn, grow, and make a difference.

We find that engineers who see Enplug as a unique springboard to their personal success are the ones that have the most energy and motivation to drive the company’s success. They recognize what our company can offer to them in their career growth and work extra hard.

Fitting our team culture is our most important criteria.

2. Empower Your Engineers

Hiring engineers who want to do more, but are not equipped to do so, would be a recipe for disaster. That’s why it’s essential to create an environment where developers can grow fast and push their boundaries safely. At Enplug, many engineers are entrusted with tasks that slightly too hard for them, but they always have the support they need to be successful. This means that the engineers are always learning.

We emphasize an environment of mentorship in our engineer team. I’ve worked on many teams where senior engineers think that their time is too valuable to help others. They believe it will be faster if they go ahead and do all of the hard tasks themselves. It’s a slippery slope.

Individual tasks might get done faster at the beginning, but the team is not improving. It is also detrimental to team morale: the senior people get overwhelmed by the amount of work while the junior developers grow bored and frustrated.

Engineers with more experience need to understand that the best use of their time is to pass that experience on to others. This must be ingrained in a team’s culture.

The measure of success for our senior engineers is not by how much code they write, but by how much they help others grow. The measure of success for junior engineers is how far they push themselves.

3. Trust, but Verify

The third ingredient in creating a stellar tech team is devising a process to maintain excellent product quality. We implement this check with a thorough code review process.

It doesn’t replace testing, but ensures that the code is functional, high quality, and consistent across the entire team. Iterations based on quality feedback from your peers are also an effective way to learn and improve.

4. Personalize the Work

Finally, I check on an ongoing basis that personal goals stay aligned with the goals of the company. That includes hearing the ideas and interests of each individual and doing my best to accommodate them.

Look for additional perks you could offer-anything that makes the job even more exciting. This could be the ability to work on other technologies, spend time prototyping a new feature, step up to a leadership role, or blog about our work. There are countless ways in which working for your company can be unique and attractive, but you have to spend the time with each person to understand what motivates them.

Recently, one of our developers asked me, “Do you think Enplug is the best place for my career?” I answered “Yes!” with full confidence, and gave him a detailed list of reasons. It is my personal goal to always be able to honestly give an answer like that to everyone on the team.

The benefits for having these four strategies in place is that not only are you able to attract the best talent, but you’re also able to retain them. In fact, the teammates that have been at Enplug the longest are those on our engineering team. Very few statements speak louder to a potential new engineer than when they hear that our senior engineering team has been with the company since Day 1.

What attracted you to your role in tech?

Photo credit: asharkyu via Shutterstock.


About the guest blogger: Tina Denuit-Wojcik is the CTO at Enplug, a Los Angeles technology company that builds a leading software used to manage and distribute content on digital displays. Prior to Enplug, Tina was one of the original developers of Microsoft SQL Azure. Tina has a bachelor's and master's degree in computer science from Poland's AGH University of Science and Technology.