Here’s How to Build a Growth-Ready Engineering Team
At this point in my career, I’m no stranger to startup life. After building engineering teams at Lob, Earnest, and now Noyo, I’ve been thinking about the right methodology for growing a strong, capable team that is well-positioned to evolve with the company.
My main takeaway from my years of experience? Although it may seem antithetical to how startups typically operate — with a “grow first, organize later” mindset — paying a lot of attention to recruiting, hiring, and culture early on is critical. Formalizing these processes pays massive dividends down the road and helps you avoid growing pains as you scale.
Here are ways to shape recruiting, hiring, and team culture so that your team is set up for long-term success.
5 Ways to Build Growth-Ready Engineering Teams
- Eliminate bias in recruiting.
- Create a great candidate experience.
- Establish transparent compensation practices.
- Don't shy away from experienced hires.
- Create a healthy engineering culture that empowers.
1. Eliminate Bias in Recruiting
If you want to have higher-impact interviews with higher-quality candidates, eliminating as much bias in the recruiting process as possible is key. During early hiring, it’s tempting to tap into your networks to find dependable, experienced candidates, but given the nature of the industry, relying too heavily on referrals can make for a very homogeneous team.
A diverse team is a stronger and more resilient team. Here are some tips for creating one:
- Look both within and outside of your networks in order to find people from different backgrounds and experiences. A few good resources include the Mom Project, RecruitMilitary, People of Color in Tech, Techqueria, abilityJOBS, and Women in Tech.
- Be intentional with your recruiters. Be very explicit with outside firms about sourcing underrepresented candidates.
- Hold recruiters — and yourselves — accountable. Make sure that the candidates you’re seeing from outside firms actually reflect the kind of team you want to build.
At Noyo, for instance, we recently had to part ways with one of our recruiting partners that was not delivering when it came to sourcing diverse candidates.
2. Create a Great Candidate Experience
Set candidates up for success and help them demonstrate their strengths rather than making them prove they’re good enough to work for you. Every aspect of the interview process should be relevant and applicable to the role they will have to play, and the candidate experience should reflect the company culture.
To accomplish this, here are some guidelines:
- Set appropriate expectations and don’t hide the ball. For us, a candidate’s ability to deal with the element of surprise is just not a big requirement for working at Noyo. In real life, we all have the internet and each other for support and we never ask anyone to suddenly solve a problem on a whiteboard. If dealing with surprises isn’t part of the job, then including that element in an interview only creates unnecessary stress.
- Don’t test for esoteric skills. We give candidates a prompt beforehand and ask them to create a small application that they bring in so they’re familiar with the code they worked on. Doing this helps create an interview loop that matches how we actually work on the team.
- Don’t look at code people have created for other purposes. Some people love to code and build projects in their spare time. Some people don’t. Looking at large banks of historical code is biased toward candidates who have a lot of time to do that sort of thing and it doesn’t necessarily mean someone is more qualified for the job.
Candidates are usually relieved to find out that they don’t have to whiteboard code in real time or tackle algorithm questions. By creating a transparent and focused interview process, you set the right tone for collaboration right off the bat.
3. Establish Transparent Compensation Practices
Pay parity is crucial for building a diverse team. Equal pay is just the right thing to do, and having clear pay philosophies and guidelines creates a culture of trust. From our experiences, it also helps attract and retain top talent.
- Establishing set compensation packages for different levels to avoid pay disparities for reasons that aren’t due to someone’s skill set.
- Setting a timeline and process for performance reviews. This doesn’t have to be a big undertaking, but it’s helpful for creating good habits and setting expectations for candidates.
- Auditing your compensation packages regularly and ensuring you have transparent and consistent documentation around salary decisions.
- Getting creative with offers. If possible, provide options for compensation packages that weigh salary versus equity.
For example, Noyo has two offer levels: higher salary versus more equity. This gives people a choice and a better understanding of the value of equity and how it works. It also recognizes that every individual has a different personal situation. Over time, we catch up the salary for individuals that choose an equity-heavy package.
4. Don’t Shy Away From Experienced Hires
Many engineering teams at early stage startups are dominated by recent college graduates, often with only one senior engineer in the mix.
At Noyo, we consciously set out to build a team of engineers with at least five (preferably more than seven) years of experience. This way we benefited from the wisdom of colleagues who had already worked through the pain points of setting up early infrastructures.
There are definite tradeoffs to this approach. Some of the pros are:
- Less chaotic systems and codebase. Our engineers knew what pitfalls to avoid in early foundation-building.
- These individuals have more management experience (and interest in managing), making it easier to assign those roles as opposed to just installing the person who had been there the longest.
While cons to consider include:
- Slower recruitment. There’s a large pool of new grads but only so many people with lots of experience who want to work at an early stage company.
- Not everyone who wants a leadership role is able to get one due to small team size, which may be a consideration for those with more years of experience.
5. Create a Healthy Engineering Culture That Empowers
For us, a healthy engineering culture means one of confident code deployment. We don’t want anyone to be afraid to deploy and we don’t treat it as some special or secret privilege.
Establishing a transparent, structured process empowers engineers to take on architectural projects while ensuring quality and consistency. The ability for all engineers to kick off the deployment process, receive official approval, and click the button to push code to production is something we put in place early on. It did require more up-front investment in our automated testing to get it all working, but it’s allowed us to democratize people pushing code out.
Here are some principles for creating your own healthy engineering culture:
- Establish clear engineering best practices for the entire team such as continuous integration and delivery as well as architectural design records. These practices will allow you to fully automate the process of building and deploying code for your systems and document technical decision-making, giving everyone on the team deployment capabilities, visibility into the company’s engineering and code history, and a chance to provide feedback throughout the process.
- Stay committed to the databases, frameworks, and languages that serve the business best rather than being distracted by the shiny new thing. With a small team, maintaining a commitment to a smaller tech stack makes it easier to review one another’s code and build best practices that are applicable across different parts of the system. As the company and team grow, you can then start thinking about what can and needs to be added to your stack.
- Empower teams to design and plan their own work. We’ve divided into domain-based teams earlier than some companies, but it allows the people with the most context on a problem to design the solution.
By creating good habits early, we’ve started with a solid foundation. With consistency in recruiting, a great candidate experience, clear compensation practices, and the right culture, you too can avoid the pitfalls of typical early startup turmoil.