Making the Right Technical Hire – Harvard Business School Working Knowledge

For many CEOs, particularly those running startups, hiring the right people is the single biggest determinant of whether a new business survives. And so it makes sense that the chief executive should be heavily involved in selecting key hires throughout the organization.

But when it comes to hiring technical help, the decision-making can be a little more daunting for CEOs, especially if they are not technicaly inclined themselves. Luckily, there are many books and articles about building engineering teams. The Mythical Man Month by Fred Brooks, should be on every software engineer and tech startup leader’s reading list. CEOs might also find it helpful to check out the many blog posts explaining why, for example, full stack engineers are unicorns.

To get basic engineering work done as a company grows, it’s fine to look for a generalist or augmenting your technical team with an outsourced development shop. But being strategic about hiring could be the difference between a great product already earning its way in the market versus one that goes virtually unnoticed.

Here are six tips based on personal experience for how to be more strategic about technical hiring.

1. Product prioritization leads to hiring prioritization

If you’re doing proper product prioritization via discovery—talking with customers and understanding what’s needed to get the proper product market fit or to grow adoption—then these priorities should set the hiring agenda. For example, if you now realize that your on-boarding process is too complicated, hiring a user experience expert may serve you far better than someone who can code a fresh user interface. If performance issues are causing churn, then hire a performance engineer; someone who knows how to diagnose and fix performance issues.

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Just like you build a product to solve for the job to be done, hire the engineer for the development job to be done.

2. Understand where hiring bias lies

Many early-stage companies are founded by engineers who know exactly what they’re doing, but may be biased toward areas in which they are most familiar, even if that technology is suboptimal for their current products. I’ve seen products built with .NET simply because the seasoned engineer-founder knew that platform best, without considering whether it was the best platform for their product or whether they’d be able to find enough skilled .NET engineers to build at scale.

The same technical bias can develop after a firm has hired its first full stack engineer, if that person’s preferred languagethen becomes the standard for future work. This rarely works out, and most of the time the reality of having to refactor your entire codebase or port to a new language hangs over the product team … forever.

3. Long-term need vs. short-term fix

Another common mistake is hiring a full-time expert in an area that needs only occasional work, such as the aforementioned performance engineering person. Certainly, if you’re building a complex, distributed, application that has heavy computation or many API calls, then a performance engineer is a critical full-time hire. However, it may behoove you to find a good contract engineer who specializes in performance tuning as needed; at least until you’re operating at scale. Same thing for a designer. A contract designer may be prudent while you iterate on your MVP, then you can bring in a full-time designer once you approach scale. You may pay a little more per hour for contractors, but that small extra cost far outweighs over-hiring and paying a full-time salary early on.

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4. Time delay + J-curve

Each time you add a new person to the team, there will likely be a J-curve impact on productivity.


Adding a bunch of engineers at once is not going to accelerate development overnight, just as nine women can’t make a baby in one month. Each time a new person comes on board, it disrupts the whole dynamic of the team.

Therefore, when you prioritize hiring, factor in how long it will take to fill some roles (e.g., we don’t need a designer for a few months, but it could take three months just to find the right person) and be thoughtful about the cadence of adding new people to any team. If you’re doing a lot of hiring over a discrete period of time, set the right expectations (with yourself, your company, and your investors) that a ramp in hiring will likely slow production down until new teams settle into new norms.

5. Have a strategy for humans

Hiring is difficult, and even when you get really good at it, you are adding human beings who have unique needs, past-job learnings to unlearn, and career aspirations. Their added productivity and how they add to your culture is only part of the hiring consideration. Your hiring strategy needs to consider their human needs including benefits, HR support, a strong on-boarding experience, training and mentorship, and acclimation with their new manager and colleagues.

6. Apply the 80-20 rule

A great product leader will tell you that if you invest 80 percent of your effort in understanding the problem, it should result in spending 20 percent of your effort in building the right solution. The same applies to hiring. If you allocate 80 percent of your effort toward developing a great hiring strategy and program, you should only need to spend 20 percent of your effort on bringing great people on board and retaining them.

A severe opportunity cost comes with bringing on the wrong people or the right people at the wrong time, so it’s important to make sure you are careful to hire people who are a good fit for the organization and also provide adequate support for new workers to retain talent. Even for a tiny early-stage company, having to let someone go, or having them quit, not only stresses out the manager and team, but creates a productivity hit while you go through another hiring process. Even though it may feel like you’re moving slowly through the process of building a team, a strategic approach will pay off.

Join the conversation

You can read more about my thoughts on hiring for startups here. Please share other ideas on this topic in the comments!

Adapted from the author’s blog post, Are You Being Strategic About Hiring?


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