7 simple rules for hiring great developers

The war for programming talent is full bore. Here's how to hire the best coders when competing with the big boys

The war for developer talent is hotter than ever. Whether you're trying to build mobile apps, redesign the user experience on your public website, or keep business-critical applications on the cutting edge, everyone needs code.

"Engineers are king right now," notes Sam Schillace, senior vice president of engineering at cloud storage and collaboration company Box. "Coders are superimportant to everyone."

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With an unemployment rate roughly half the national average, software engineers can write their tickets and demand generous salaries and legendary perks -- and big tech companies are more than happy to provide them.

Credit: John Curley Photography via Hortonworks

"At last count, there are nearly five job openings for every developer," says Bethany Marzewski, segment marketing manager for developer job site Stack Overflow Careers 2.0. "When developers have their pick of four other job offers, savvy companies have recognized that recruiting a quality candidate means doing more than posting on job boards. They need to stand out."

But how can you stand out when you're going against the Googles, Facebooks, and Twitters of the world? It's not easy. But there's more to building great dev teams than six-figure salaries, gourmet lunches, and foosball.

To hang with the big dogs -- and snatch top talent from their hungry maws -- you need to follow these seven simple rules.

Developer hiring rule No. 1: Hire slowly

It's an old rule, but a good one. If you hire A-level developers they will recommend other A-level developers to you, because they only want to work with the best. If you hire B-level programmers, they will recommend C-level programmers so that they'll look better by comparison

"One of the worst things in the world you can do is build your first 10 employees with B-level people," says Steve Newcomb, founder and CEO of Famo.us, which is bringing 3D rendering technology to the Web. "You will end up with 100 C-level people. That's why we hire very slowly."

Famo.us employs a "try before you buy" philosophy, offering a series of two-week consulting contracts to the 5 to 10 percent of applicants who make it through the firm's rigorous screening process. At the end of every evaluation period, the potential employee must present what he or she has been working on. The rest of the development staff then votes on whether to keep them, evaluate further, or kick them off the island. The vote has to be unanimous for someone to be hired or asked to leave.


"One of the worst things in the world you can do is build your first 10 employees with B-level people. You will end up with 100 C-level people. That's why we hire very slowly."

--Steve Newcomb, founder and CEO, Famo.us

"We even play the music from 'Survivor' while we're voting," says Newcomb. The longest eval period lasted six months, he adds. That was for his first employee, now head of tools for the 10-person startup.

Developer hiring rule No. 2: Stay away from "rockstars"

If you want to build a world-class dev team, you need more than one superstar. You don't want to blow all your resources searching for Superman; you want to gather the Avengers.

That's because the best software isn't built by one person; it's created by teams. Having one star and a bunch of second-tier programmers can be really destructive, says Kyri Sarantakos, VP of engineering at TheLadders, a job matching service.

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