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Sunday, April 03, 2011

Startup Recruiting

Early on in Quora's life, there were lots of questions on Quora like Who are the best engineers at Google?, and Who are the rising stars in Engineering at Google? I don't know who asked those questions, but if you're a startup recruiting engineers, those are the wrong questions to ask.

To begin with, if someone is widely recognized inside a large company, they are unlikely to leave for a startup. Lars Rasmussen, for instance, did not leave for Facebook until after Google Wave was canceled and Facebook wasn't a startup anymore. Secondly, in large organizations that are well past the startup stage, climbing the corporate ladder is as much a measure of political skill as it is a measure of engineering skill. While bringing in someone with political skill might be very useful when you're past the startup stage, at the startup stage it can be a cause of pain by adding very political people into what would otherwise be a unified team. As Sanjeev Singh once said, internalizing Tips for Noogler Engineers might make you a great corporate ladder climber but would also make you useless at a startup.

So what's the right question to ask? The right question to ask would be, Who is the most undervalued engineer at Company X? This brings up two highly desirable traits: one, the engineer probably realizes that he's undervalued (or if he doesn't realize that he would as soon as you showed him your offer), and two, the engineer's probably undervalued because he's precisely the kind of person who can't or won't play the political game highly prized in big companies. I'll lead off with two examples, both from Google.

The most undervalued engineer I know at Google was a tech lead for one of the front-ends responsible for producing most of the company's revenue when I joined. He never shirked from the grungy work of fixing up code and making things work well. He never grabbed the sexy work for himself. Whenever I saw a code review from him, I would be awed by the kind of code he produced: this was not code, this was poetry. I learned something about programming well from every code review he sent me, no matter the language or the system. People knew he was a hot-shot: he was tapped to build another critical system just prior to the IPO. After a few years at this, he moved on to several other projects. But when he came up for promotion (and his manager had to put him up for promotion (after far too long at Google), since he wasn't a self-promoter), the promotion committee sent back the feedback: "Lack of demonstrated leadership ability, and insufficient technical depth."

The second most undervalued engineer I know at Google had both his 20% projects turned into full time Google projects which launched externally to high visibility. You would recognize at least one of these products as something that lots of people used. He too, was denied for promotion once, and after he worked the system and got his promotion, said to me, "After this experience, I want nothing to do with the system." Again, he's not a self-promoter, but his track record should have spoken for itself. Given his track record, it wouldn't surprise me to see him at a startup some time in the future.

Both these men are financially independent, and are effectively economic volunteers. But I can assure you that there exist others like them, and many of them are not economic volunteers. It's actually not that hard to hunt them down, but the trick isn't to ask managers about such under-valued engineers. It's to ask the "leaf-node" engineers who do the work. Ask the right questions, and your recruiting problems for your startup will be half over.

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