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Hiring techies at startups: Go narrow

Jesse Chan-Norris on writing a techie job description for Indaba Music:

... what I realized was that we needed a job description that spent much more time explaining who we are, as a team, and as a company, and by extension, the kind of person you should want to be if you want to join that team and work with us. I wanted to construct a posting that would attract the right kind of people and get them interested in us, that would sell our company as much as the candidates were selling themselves to us.

So this time around, instead of talking about years of ruby experience and a working knowledge of mongodb, we tell people that “Every member of our team is involved in the product development process. We challenge our developers, and we expect people to contribute at every step along the way” and we talk about how “We are a small team, and everyone is expected to exhibit a fair amount of autonomy.” And more than anything else, we lead with our core philosophy, which is that we believe that “the music industry is more alive than ever.” Forget all of those people who think that this industry is in the shitter – we’re just getting started.

I'd sharpen this even more. There's that piece of pitch-deck wisdom about how you never say "this is a $10 billion market so if we only capture 1% of it that'll be $100 million!" -- instead, you say "this is how we're segmenting this $10 billion market into a more precise $100 million market, and we're going to shoot for getting 100% of it". The idea being that nobody ever sold a new product by being a tiny bit better than the other guys to everybody in the whole world.

Well, I think it makes sense to think of hiring programmers that way too. You should define what sort of a place your company is to work at, and then really emphasize that differentiation as you write job descriptions, hang out at meetups, etc. No good programmer ever switched jobs because the next job sounded 1% better than their current situation. (Well, some programmers do that, because some of us are seriously brain-dead when it comes to making career choices, but that's another topic.)

To take an example: When Profitably started looking to hire engineers, we explicitly positioned ourselves as not another social media site. We talked about "complex analytical problems" in our job description, and sometimes I'd send out job emails actually making fun of the idea of working in social media.

That might seem unnecessarily negative, but keep in mind that the NYC startup scene is full of social media companies, and I was willing to bet that I wasn't the only techie in town who was a little fatigued by that emphasis. And I figured the most important thing was this: Above all else, break through the noise.

And, hey, you know what? If you really love working in social media, you probably wouldn't want to work at a company like Profitably anyway. But in the meantime, those little jabs at social media serve as a cue to the small minority of people who are tired of that scene, and maybe they'll read more about the company, and maybe even get in touch.

The nice thing about being a small company is that your hiring needs are small, and you can craft a job description that's that precise. Maybe it excludes everyone but ten programmers in town--if you're only hiring three programmers this year, you're good. Until the day when your massive prowess at tech hiring, combined with some real product-market fit, makes you so big that you've got Google-size hiring problems, at which point, congratulations.

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Tagged: startups, hiring

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