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Early Stage Startups: What are you looking for most in your first 5 engineering hires?

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Senior Software Engineer at Unemployed4 days ago

As a founder of an early-stage startup, what are the top things you look for in your first five engineering hires? Are you searching for people who can handle a bit of everything, or do you prefer specialists in key areas? How do you balance technical skills with ensuring they fit well with your company's culture and vision?

Besides their technical know-how, what personal qualities are most important to you in these early hires? Do you value problem-solving skills and creativity over past experience in similar roles or industries? How crucial are soft skills like communication and adaptability, given the fast-paced and ever-changing nature of startups? And finally, how do you make sure these first hires will not only meet immediate project needs but also grow with the company as it expands?

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(6 comments)
  • 1
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    Tech Lead/Manager at Meta, Pinterest, Kosei
    4 days ago

    For the very early engineering hires (certainly engineers #1 and #2), I'd want them to come from my network: either someone I've worked with before or a 2nd-degree connection.

    The top priority would be to find someone with whom I can have a productive, high-trust relationship. At this early stage of the startup, the technology and problem may change a lot, so I want someone who cares about the business and is autonomous (senior) enough to execute on ideas without hand-holding.

    On the question of adaptability, I actually wouldn't plan out more than 2 years. The startup will look very different in a few years if things go well, and it's actually fine/expected that people want to move on. Startups need to think much shorter term than Big Tech.

    This is a great question for Ben in his talk on Aug 13: Startups Are Better Than FAANG For Career Growth: When + Why.

    Finally, I'd also highly recommend going through this article from YC about "How to hire your first engineer"

  • 3
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    Tech Lead @ Robinhood, Meta, Course Hero
    2 days ago

    Great question! I have a lot of thoughts here.

    Hiring Your Friends

    As Rahul mentioned, this can be really beneficial. However, it's a double-edge sword:

    • Pro: You work better with people you trust and are familiar with.
    • Con: If the job doesn't do well (startups are high-stress, so this is very possible), you might lose the friendship.

    So just make sure that you have high conviction before doing this.

    Skillset

    This one's easy when it comes to the core thing I'm looking for: They need to be able to code, both with high quality and high velocity. This is why if Taro were to hire engineers right now, I would make them go through a lot of live practical coding: "To the Taro founders, how would you interview a candidate?"

    On top of that, I would expect good mastery of fundamental skills like communication, product management, disambiguation, etc (i.e. the stuff Taro teaches).

    Level

    The first 5 engineers at a startup should be like semi-cofounders where they can independently come up with ideas and lead initiatives around them end-to-end. Using FAANG standards, this translates to L5 (senior). In other words, I would only hire people who are at least doing most of the stuff here: [Course] Grow From Mid-Level To Senior Engineer: L4 To L5

    Higher-end of L4 would work as well if there was something compelling (slam dunk behavioral interview performance, side project with 100k+ users).

    • 0
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      Thoughtful Tarodactyl
      Taro Community
      2 days ago

      Just clarifying, is it 10k users or 100k users? In the link you tagged I believe it says 10k but here it says 100k. Thanks in advance!

    • 0
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      Tech Lead @ Robinhood, Meta, Course Hero
      2 days ago

      10k is more of a bare minimum, and 100k is what it would take for me to be comfortable hiring a more junior person. Of course, there's nuance to this as L4 -> L5 is a wide band. It depends on how close they are to L5.

    • 0
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      Thoughtful Tarodactyl
      Taro Community
      2 days ago

      Thanks, and what counts as a "user". Of course the trivial definition is anyone who registers an account. But as you often say creating sign ups for no reason is annoying. For apps with no sign up:

      For android/ios is 1 download == 1 user?

      And web apps is 1 unique visitor == 1 user?

      Though I presume this is all a spectrum. Different apps have different value per user and volume per user probs makes a huge difference too. How do you suggest communicating this value?

    • 1
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      Tech Lead @ Robinhood, Meta, Course Hero
      2 days ago

      It's really difficult for me as the hiring manager as, well, people can lie. The beautiful thing about mobile is that I can see the download and rating count. Of course, it's possible they got a lot of users who immediately uninstalled the app, but even then, that has value. Growth is already hard, and retention is even harder (and you can't really verify retention as an outsider).

      The main tool you have when verifying a side project is to just try it out yourself, especially if you don't have the luxury of automatically having download/rating count like on a mobile app. The kinds of people who would lie about a project having a lot of users are almost certainly too lazy to make something actually good. It would only take 30 seconds to see that they're lying.

      For the most part, quality and traction are connected. I have checked out thousands of side projects from struggling job seekers, and it's immediately clear to me why those projects have 0 users. The polish isn't there, I can find a basic edge case they completely fumble within 1 minute, and the underlying idea is usually poor (generic, too grandiose, unclear).

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