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Making Your First Technical Hire

Hsu Ken Ooi
Hsu Ken Ooi
3 min read

I was recently asked me the following and thought I'd post the response it case it was helpful to others.

Q: I’m looking for a technical co-founder or hiring my first engineer. Since I’m not technical, I don’t know what qualities to look for. Any advice?

Great question and a very common among non-technical founders. There’s a big difference between a technical co-founder and first engineer but putting that aside, here’s a shortlist of things you should look for.

Generalist – An indicator of whether a startup will be successful is how quickly they can test and iterate on their ideas. Engineers who are good at many things but maybe not the best in anything, tend to be better at this. They’re also more able to adapt along with the startup. You might be building a web app now but in 3 months you’ll realize it should be an iOS and Android app.

  • Thoughtful – Technical decisions have significantly, long lasting impacts on your startup. Using a new experimental, esoteric framework as part of your technical stack? Not a big deal now but good luck trying to hire people who know and want to work on it later. They should be thoughtful and considerate about these kinds of trade-offs.
  • Communication – Related to the above. A bad engineer will make the above choice without considering anything. An okay engineer will consider it but not communicate it. A great engineer will consider it, layout the options, trade-offs, their recommendation and have a discussion about it. You might not be technical but great technical people can bring you into the discussion by explaining it in a way you’ll understand.
  • Business > Technology – There’s a type of engineer that’s primarily concerned with either working with the latest technologies or only on problems that are technically interesting. Stay away. A startup is a business that builds a product with technology. In that order. Depending on your industry, a lot of software development isn’t technically that interesting. Building an activity hook that triggers an email campaign isn’t technically interesting or particularly fun to build. Sure does boost retention though. Find engineers who prioritize building the business over how interesting the technology is.
  • Management – Optional for a first engineer but more important for technical co-founder. At some point you’ll need to hire more engineers and you’ll need someone to lead that team. If they’re good at the above, they’ll probably be good at this too. The question is whether they want to manage a team. Managing an engineering team often means they’re spending very little to no time actually coding. Not everyone wants to do that. Ask them how they feel about the prospect of that.

In addition, there’s a few common mistakes you should be aware of.

  • Large Company Engineers – Before I get a bunch of hate mail, this is obviously not true of every large company engineer but it’s important to be mindful of it. Engineers from larger companies, especially non-technology companies (banks, etc.), tend to be specialist. That makes sense when you’re operating at that level of scale and complexity. Furthermore, there tends to be more culture shock to how quickly and chaotic startups are. Lots of great engineers at large companies, just be mindful and don’t assume that an engineer from XYZ large company is an automatic win.
  • Outsourcing – Outsourcing your initial MVP can work but there’s a couple of things to consider. First, it’s likely you’ll have to throw away everything they did at some point. To agency, your product is a temporary project. Second, at some point you’re going to want to build an in-house team. Again, your ability to iterate quickly is a core competency. You don’t want to outsource core competencies. Third, it’ll likely take more work than you’re thinking. You’ll need to stay on top of them, communicate clearly and repeatedly what you want, etc.

This ended up being longer than I thought and I’m just scratching the surface. Hope it helps!

Hsu Ken Ooi