How to Interview Engineers for Your Startup

6 Tips to Optimize Your Interviewing Process

Hiring the wrong engineers can cause almost irreversible damage, especially to a startup. Those early hires will be key drivers of your success. They will be involved in mission-critical decision making and product development.

Get the wrong person onboard, and the potential negative impact does not bear thinking about. Yet to hire the right candidate, you must think about the consequences of making a poor hire.

What are these consequences? According to research published by CB Insights, the wrong team is in the top three reasons for the failure of startups – only behind no market need and a lack of cash.

This leads us to your hiring process. Your process may include elements such as candidate screening, skills testing, programming on-site, and other ways to assess technical competence as well as utilizing internal and external recruiters to secure the best talent for your startup. Throughout, the most important part of the hiring process remains the interview.

We asked Traey Hatch, Big Data Practice Manager and previously a Lead Data Engineer at a Series B startup, and our own Bryan O’Guin, Executive Recruitment Consultant, for their thoughts.

Why Is the Engineering Interview So Important?

The interview gives the opportunity to test for technical skills and knowledge, but more importantly it lets the interviewer assess the candidate’s personality, cultural fit, and the soft skills they possess.

From his own experience, Traey recognizes the need for startups to hire the right engineers.

Startups have the most risk when hiring a new engineer,” Traey tells us. “They have a small team; this person needs to play well with others in the office. They have a massive backlog; they need a self-sufficient engineer with throughput. And they usually have cutting-edge problems, they need someone who can blaze their own trail.

Many companies want to know about technical acumen early in the process, I want to know about fit. The number one trait I look for during a fit interview with an engineering candidate is curiosity,” says Traey.

Why curiosity?

A curious engineer is learning; they are always searching for ways to improve their software and understand their domain. A startup cannot survive without this principle at its core,” explains Traey.

However, while Traey places curiosity at the top of his list, it is by no means the sole deciding factor.

Other traits that I look for during a fit interview are communication skills, pleasantness, and the ability to be engaged in a conversation about our work,” he says. “If I am going to be working with you every day, I want to make sure we can hold a decent conversation.

Best Practices for Interviewing Engineers

Having established why the interview process is so important in the hiring process, we wanted to dig deeper. So, we asked Traey and Bryan to share some best practices with us.

Traey explains that he adopts a low-risk, high-reward strategy by starting with fit.

Within a few minutes I can generally tell if this person is someone I want on our team, and if they would thrive in the unique environment that is the startup software company,” he says.

However, Traey doesn’t rely on only himself in the process of identifying the best candidate.

In addition to screen for fit myself, I like to give my colleagues, and potential teammates for the engineering hire, the opportunity to ask some questions themselves,” he adds. “Almost always, they will pick up on things I missed, or offer brilliant insights about a person’s character.

Only after establishing that a candidate would fit in does Traey seek to understand a candidate’s technical ability. Here, he explains that the point of the growth curve on which a startup sits is a determinant of the caliber of engineer to be hired.

Early-stage startups should be looking for seasoned engineers and engineers with tremendous domain knowledge. Hiring well at this stage can help build a solid foundation for your project. As journeymen, engineers will often set up their projects for success from the very start. They have seen and made many mistakes during their career, and they will bring all this wisdom and experience with them to the project,” he says.

Mid- to late-stage startups will often look for junior engineers to help increase throughput. Here we are often looking for solid software development foundations and dedication to improving one’s craftsmanship. A junior engineer who is inspired by his/her work will improve in skill quickly.

Thoughts About the Interview Process

Bryan agrees with Traey about the need to identify for fit first, explaining that how the interview is conducted is crucial to this. He says that interviewers should engage the interviewee in open dialogue.

It should be a two-sided conversation,” he explains. “This not only allows the startup to get to know the candidates and their skillsets, but also the candidates should feel that they get an in-depth understanding of the startup, where they are going, and how that candidate can contribute to the long run.

It’s also important to keep the candidate engaged in the hiring process. Bryan provides this insight:

One of the biggest mistakes is taking too long to give feedback – whether it be reviewing a CV for the first time or coming back with interview feedback. You can lose great candidates by taking too much time. The best engineers go fast!” he says from daily experience.

Also, it is important to be detailed in interviewing candidates,” he continues, but if you have five or six steps in the interview process that will again cause you to lose an amazing candidate.

What Types of Questions Will Help Identify the Best Candidate?

We wanted to know what type of question Traey uses to screen candidates for the traits he is seeking.

Over the years, I have found that my approach to hiring is more gut instinct than a highly-scripted approach,” he tells us. “This works for me, as I have definitely made some errors along the way. And those errors have taught me valuable lessons about selecting the right candidate.

When screening for technical skills, Traey tailors his approach depending on the role he is filling and the candidate he is seeking. He also prefers candidates to demonstrate their skills.

For seasoned engineers, I want to see code examples, to discuss software architecture, and how they will approach design decisions.

I also want to know that they are able to create software, not just respond to a coding challenge. Seeing how the engineer will develop a project over time is important to me, and this is difficult to ascertain with a short technical exercise.

If the engineer is open to it, I like to ask them to put together a small (Python) package, with a repo on GitHub that solves a technical problem. This allows me to see how they approach many aspects of the Software Development LifeCycle (SDLC), not just how to write a function. I want to see if the engineer can deliver this software in a way that makes it accessible to a broader team/audience and if they have the mastery of their language to handle advanced topics like package creation and design quickly.

For junior engineers, I am more open to a coding challenge. I want to see their fluency with syntax and how they go about documenting their code. Additionally, we can learn how they organize their code for reusability.

Many firms like to have a live coding challenge; I am not a big fan of this practice. Although it allows us to feel confident that the software engineer is the one producing the work, it forces a social approach to what is often a solitary work endeavor.

The SDLC for most companies consists of sprints and reviews. I prefer a similar approach to technical evaluations. Let the engineer take the requirements and come back with a working product. Note that I also like to see the engineer deliver this work via GitHub (or any Git repo) because I find basic Git skills one of the hidden deficits in many engineering hires. I want to make sure all engineers understand how to use Git for basic collaboration.

How Do External Recruiters Add Value to Interviewers and Interviewees?

When I first started hiring, it [engineering resources] was a mystery. How could I take something so subjective, riddled with nuance, and apply a process? There are efficiencies to be had and solutions can always be evaluated with tangible benchmarks, but how you get there is a road with nothing but possibility,” says Traey.

Bryan says that a key benefit of using external recruiters is the time that it saves. However, this is not the only benefit.

More importantly, though, is being able to evaluate the specific needs of both parties and make sure everyone involved has an understanding of those values,” he says. Some of the best engineers and managers are extremely talented individuals – but not necessarily great interviewers or interviewees. That isn’t their day-to-day job, so we help with that process.

We wanted to know how this works in practice, and Bryan was happy to give an example.

When I first signed a client of mine a few years ago, we sat down face to face (now we can do it on Zoom) and had an hour-long chat about the process and how it would work,” he says. “They were open to my suggestions on how the process might need to be tweaked, and I was able to get a real understanding of their needs and what type of individuals they needed and wanted to hire. That initial hour-long conversation saved us weeks and weeks of time over the years, while I was able to help them hire multiple engineers.

Six Tips for Interviewing Engineers for Your Startup

If we were to summarize our conversations with Traey and Bryan, we would condense what we have learned into the following six tips to help you interview engineers more effectively for your startup:

  1. Focus on candidate fit first.
  2. Involve other members of your team in the interviewing process.
  3. Keep the candidate engaged by giving regular feedback and explaining what happens next.
  4. Shorten your interviewing process – five or six interviews is overkill.
  5. Tailor your screening and questioning for the role and type of candidate you seek.
  6. Use external recruiters to save time and create a value-added hiring process for interviewers and interviewees.

To benefit from the Kofi Group experience, get in touch with Kofi Group today.