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Convincing engineers to join your team

By Harj Taggar on Aug 30, 2018

Convincing engineers to join your team

Once you've found an engineer you want to hire, the final step is presenting them an offer to join your team and convincing them to accept it. This post offers advice for increasing the percentage of the offers you make that are accepted. Since working on Triplebyte I've been surprised by just how much variance there is in this rate among companies. Companies that use Triplebyte have acceptance rates ranging from as low as 10% to as high as 90%.

Generating an offer for an engineer is expensive. It takes time to source good candidates and then hours of your engineering team's time doing technical phone screens and onsite interviews. You'll likely need to complete five onsite interviews to generate a single offer (the industry standard onsite interview to offer rate for engineers is around 20%). Assuming six hours of engineering time spent interviewing that's 30 hours of engineering productivity lost. Given this cost it makes economic sense to work as hard as you can to get your offers accepted.

The work to increase your offer acceptance rate begins well before presenting the offer itself. It starts with designing a great candidate experience at each step leading up to the offer. Every interaction a candidate has with you must balance your need to extract signal from them while still getting them excited about joining. This begins with doing something seemingly simple - being responsive.

Speed

Read this blog post to get an engineer's perspective on the importance of speed and responsiveness in their job search process. Being fast and responsive seems like obvious advice and yet we still see companies move slowly and miss out on good people. There's two reasons this happens.

The first is entropy. Maintaining an organized system for managing candidates is hard. It will naturally trend towards disorder unless you work really hard against it. This is especially true for larger companies with more people and processes. As a smaller startup speed is a huge advantage you have over them when competing for engineers.

Make this easier for yourself by using software to manage and track the status of your candidates. At first you can use something simple like a spreadsheet or Airtable. As you grow and need to setup interview panels to gather feedback from interviewers you should graduate to a real ATS (Applicant Tracking System) like Lever. Make it clear who has responsibility for reviewing and acting on candidates every day.

The second reason is psychological. It's easy to believe that candidates who drop out because you were slow weren't interested in your company anyway. This is bad reasoning and will make you miss out on good candidates. Managing a job search process quickly becomes overwhelming, especially for the best candidates with the most options. To even have the chance to close the best candidates treat every candidate dropping out before you replied them as a failure, not a lucky escape.

With an organized and responsive process in place you can now focus on optimizing the quality of each candidate interaction. This starts with the first call.

First Call

The first call with a candidate typically lasts for about 25 minutes. I'd recommend the following agenda:

  1. Introduce yourself, the company and what you work on.
  2. Ask the candidate to introduce themselves and talk about what's important to them in their next role (if you did the initial outreach and they're not actively looking, you can soften this to e.g. “how do you think about developing your career and skills in the future?”).
  3. Ask questions about their skills and experiences to see if they match with what you're looking for.
  4. Pitch the work being done at the company and why it's an exciting time to join now.
  5. Finish with answering any questions they have and explain what the next steps in your hiring process are.

It's common to leave asking the candidate what they're looking for until the end of the call. I think that's suboptimal because you miss the opportunity to tailor your pitch around it throughout the call.

If you're an early stage company (less than 20 people) a founder should always be doing this call with engineering candidates. Commonly you'll have one technical founder and one non-technical/sales founder. I'd recommend the sales founder do these calls even if they can't speak in detail about the technical challenges. This gives the technical founder more uninterrupted time to build (maker vs manager schedule). The sales founder should at least have enough sales ability to convince engineers to meet the technical founder in person to learn more about the technology.

As you grow you'll hire a recruiter and typically they'll do these calls. I'd recommend doing the following to best set them up for success:

  1. Ask your recruiter to send you a monthly report on number of first calls they're doing and the % that opt'ed out of coming onsite. Have your recruiter keep a list of reasons why candidates said they wouldn't move forward and continually review these with them to improve the pitch.
  2. Assign one engineer to train your recruiter on how to talk about the interesting technical challenges at the company. Have them listen to mock pitches, give feedback, and repeat. I often see companies give their recruiter no help in learning how to best pitch the company and then complain when they see low conversions. That's not fair to them nor optimal for you.
  3. Asking technical vetting questions is difficult for recruiters as they're usually not technical. This is usually the most awkward aspect of the interactions between engineers and recruiters. Give your recruiter support and structure so they can do this well. I'd advise giving them specific technical questions to ask. One idea I've seen companies use to good effect is making them multiple choice format so the recruiter can read out the answers and ask the candidate to pick one that fits best. This helps your recruiter feel confident and provide a better candidate experience.
  4. If you're working on a deeply technical product that doesn't yet have marquee customers or traction, I'd actually recommend having an engineer do these first calls, at least for particularly promising candidates. In this case your main selling point is the depth of your technical challenges and it'll be very hard to find a recruiter who can pitch those well.

Technical Phone Screen

If the first call goes well you'll usually move the candidate forward to a technical phone screen with an engineer (companies that use Triplebyte will skip these phone screens and move straight to the onsite). These phone screens are usually 45 minutes of the candidate working through a coding problem and screen sharing. I'd recommend allotting one full hour for the phone screen. 45 minutes for working through a technical problem and up to 15 minutes for a conversation between the candidate and engineer to ask each other questions.

Ideally you want to select the engineers who are best at pitching your company for these phone screens. There are also ways to make the experience more candidate friendly e.g. letting them pick from several problems to solve during the call. This creates some more work for you but if a candidate can show their strength on a problem they enjoy they'll have a more positive feeling towards you. You can also let them code in their own environment and screen share with you instead of using an artificial environment (though some of these e.g. Coderpad do have advantages of better collaboration and recording features).

If the technical phone screen goes well, the next step is the onsite interview.

Onsite Interview

The onsite interview will be the first time a candidate meets your team in person. Their experience throughout the day will be a huge deciding factor in where they end up. It's important to think through the details of the candidate experience when setting up your onsite. Start with the basic logistics and be sure to:

  1. Send an email ahead of time with clear directions to the office.
  2. Assign someone to greet them when they arrive
  3. Have somewhere they can hang out if they arrive early (even if it's just a spare desk and chair)

A standard onsite interview agenda will typically look like this:

  1. Quick welcome and talking through the agenda for the day (5 minutes)
  2. Technical interview 1 (1 hour)
  3. Technical interview 2 (1 hour)
  4. Lunch (1 hour)
  5. Technical interview 3 (1 hour)
  6. Technical interview 4 (1 hour)
  7. Behavioral / culture interview (45 mins)
  8. Closing Q&A for them to ask about the company (25 minutes)

If you're early stage I'd recommend having at least one of the founders involved in the closing Q&A. It can also be a good idea to include a demo or roadmap section here at the end. Give the candidate a sneak preview of a new feature you're working on or talk through the most exciting upcoming projects so they finish the day feeling excited about your future momentum.

We asked engineers using Triplebyte what caused them to have bad experiences during onsite interviews. Almost all the replies centered on their interactions with the interviewers. The top three complaints were interviewers being (1) unprepared and not knowing anything about them (2) not being familiar with the technical questions they asked and (3) being determined to prove their intelligence to the interviewee.

It's unlikely an engineer will accept your offer if they had a bad interaction with an interviewer. I'd make the importance of providing a good interview experience a part of your company culture. You can start by writing a simple interviewing guide for your team that emphasizes the importance of being on-time, prepared and friendly when interviewing. You can also only pick the engineers who are friendliest and best at representing your company as interviewers.

For question familiarity, have a centralized question bank that interviewers work through together before using them on candidates. For more ideas on the kind of content and questions you can use in technical interviews, my co-founder Ammon wrote a detailed post on how to interview engineers.

It's also great to do something that makes lunch a chance for the candidate to get to know the team. At Triplebyte we Slack our team in the morning that a candidate is interviewing and ask people to head over to the lunch table at the same time. Our office manager introduces the candidate to the team and we do an icebreaker where the candidate gets to ask a question which everyone goes around and answers (we tell them to think of this ahead of time and make it lighthearted). It's a good way for them to get to know the team and is usually quite fun. We've had candidates tell us this experience was the deciding factor in joining.

Making the Offer

After a successful onsite you'll make the formal offer and the work to get it accepted really starts. The first step is making sure you actually present the offer details. A complaint we hear from Triplebyte candidates is being asked how likely they would be to accept an offer before knowing the actual offer details. The reality is that compensation details are a large factor in where people decide to work and you can't expect someone to know if they want to work for you without giving them that data.

Create a formal offer letter template that includes these details:

Salary and benefits

  • Signing bonus details (if applicable)
  • Health insurance details (include a link to the policy documents)
  • 401(k) details, if any
  • Vacation policy details

Equity

  • Total number of shares/stock options presented
  • Total number of shares outstanding
  • % ownership that represents
  • Exercise price for options
  • Vesting schedule details

When presenting the offer I'd recommend doing things in the following order:

  1. Call to tell them they'll be receiving an offer

Have the hiring manager (if you're early stage that's the founder) call the candidate as soon as possible after the onsite. Do it the same day if you can. Tell them the day went really well and you'd love to make them an offer to join the team. Mention specific reasons why you're excited about them joining the team and reference what they did well during the day. You could even have multiple people on the call and ask each of them to mention a specific reason they'd be excited to work with the candidate. Tell them the next step will be you (or a recruiter) calling them back to talk through offer details.

  1. Call with offer details

Call the next day to talk them through the offer details. Explaining salary and benefits is fairly straightforward. For equity, before giving any details, ask them how familiar they are with equity concepts like stock options or RSUs.

  • If they have little familiarity, do not overwhelm them with information on the call. Give them a quick explanation of how equity works. Talk them through the numbers of your offer and tell them you'll send them some resources on equity to read through on their own time.
  • If they're experienced with equity, then go straight into the numbers and ask if they have any questions about the details they'd like you to talk more about.

Tell them you'll be sending through the formal offer letter, documenting all these details, via email shortly. They should take some time to digest that and the next step would be a follow up call to talk through their thoughts. Offer some times for that call right then.

It's tempting to push hard for a decision on this call. I'd recommend not doing that to avoid the candidate feeling pressured. This will make it harder for you to stay engaged with them as they go through the decision making process. It's fine to ask them if they have any initial thoughts or questions and then move on if they seem hesitant to go into details. It is also ok to ask them about their decision making timeline if you haven't discussed that already.

Culture

Now the offer has been presented it's time to focus on closing. To be effective at closing candidates you need to work hard at selling them on the most exciting reasons to join. This sounds obvious but there is a temptation to stop if the candidate doesn't seem immediately excited or asks probing questions about your business. The reality is that working at your company will seem more exciting to you than the candidate because you've had time and data to build up that excitement. Now you have to pull out all the stops to transfer that excitement.

It's common at this stage for candidates to start probing more deeply into questions about your company culture. They're trying to build a picture of what it will be like to work with you on a daily basis. We've observed at Triplebyte that most companies use fairly generic descriptions of their culture. This is optimal for not offending candidates but won't make your company stand out. To use your culture as a differentiator you'll need to take some risk. You could try describing your culture with tradeoffs e.g. don't just say you're “collaborative”, say you're willing to trade the upside of collaboration (better ideas and execution) for the downsides (reduced personal autonomy to just do things).

Depending on the content you choose, being different in describing your culture could backfire or it could give you a hiring advantage with the right candidates. Whichever approach you take, make sure you and your team are prepared to talk in detail about this with candidates. Sounding unprepared about culture is itself a negative signal about how much the company cares about and values its team.

Closing

Make sure to get your team involved in the closing process. Ask everyone who met the candidate during the onsite to send them a follow up email with specific reasons they enjoyed it and offering to talk with them again. If you're small it's ok if this is literally the entire company. If you have multiple teams and you already know which team the candidate would be working on, make sure that team reaches out. Encourage them to talk about the details of what the first two weeks would look like and who would help get them ramped up. Nitty gritty details will make the offer feel more real and we've seen this be the deciding factor for candidates.

If you're early stage, include your investors in every engineering offer you make. Then become selective as you grow and the hiring pace picks up. Choose the investor you think will be most likely to effectively sell that candidate and give the candidate context on why you thought that in the intro email. Don't pick an investor who isn't up to date and familiar with the details about your company.

Also think about more than just closing the candidate. Think about their personal circumstances and other decision makers involved. The best recruiters we work with at Triplebyte are continually taking notes about this and referring back to them to take action. I've seen a great recruiter learn early on that the candidate's wife was reluctant to move location because she was worried it'd negatively impact her medical career. The recruiter spent time researching places she could work, gathered contact information and compensation data, and asked to speak with the wife to share it. The candidate accepted the offer shortly afterwards.

What matters most during the closing process is how long its been since your last communication with the candidate. You need to strike a balance between proactively following up without being overbearing. It's good to find reasons to reach out again that aren't asking “have you decided yet?” even if you both know what the real agenda is. For example you could send them links to recent news stories you think they'd be interested in based on what you learnt about them during the onsite. If you're doing team events send them an invitation to join. Your goal is to stay near the top of their mind as they're deciding but not suffocate them.

Exploding Offers

One tactic companies use for closing is putting an aggressive deadline on the offer e.g. we need a final decision within a week. I'd advise against this because good candidates with multiple options will push back. It's also something an experienced recruiter at a competing company can use as ammunition against you. If a candidate tells them about your deadline they might respond well I'd question the culture that company is trying to build if they only want to hire people who can decide quickly. We want everyone to be sure this is the best place for them over the long term and would never pressure someone into rushing their decision.

A softer version you can try is an expiring signing bonus. We've seen this be effective and have used it ourselves with success at Triplebyte. The way I'd present this would be We want you to take all the time you need to make the right decision for you (and your family). At the same time we can't leave offers hanging out there indefinitely as things can change rapidly at a startup. If you are able to make a final decision by X date, we'd be able to offer you a $X,000 signing bonus.

Big company competition and Bay Area relocation

There are two common scenarios that present unique closing challenges - competing against big companies (Facebook and Google especially) and candidates considering relocation to the Bay Area. I'll talk through some advice on handling both.

As a startup it's hard to compete with Facebook and Google compensation packages, especially for senior engineers. Unless you're also a public company, you won't be able to compete on total compensation. Still, you can win - we've seen startups successfully compete against them on Triplebyte. These are the arguments we've found are most successful:

  1. Learning: You learn the fastest by being given real decision making responsibility. Large companies won't give you this kind of responsibility for years, they need to have checks and balances in place to ensure no single person - especially a new hire - could cause too much damage. Fast growing startups don't have this luxury and you'll be thrown straight into making decisions that could materially affect the trajectory of the company.
  2. Career Progression: Silicon Valley and the technology industry are unique because you can rise up through the ranks of a company faster than anywhere else (e.g. the Chief Product Officer of Facebook ($500bn market cap) is 36 years old). This only happens by joining a startup that grows fast and keeps throwing more responsibilities at you. Give the candidate examples of how this has already been happening for people at your startup and paint a specific picture of how the candidate could progress over the next few years with you.
  3. Opportunity cost: At any point in time there will always be the safe option of working at a public technology company. The names might change but the experience of working at one is fungible. The experience of working at startups can vary wildly and you should present your startup as a unique opportunity right now because of the team and market. They can always go back to the big company experience if it doesn't work out.
  4. Mentorship: One concern engineers, especially juniors, can have about working at a smaller startup is they won't learn best practices and the “right” way to do things. It will help a lot if you have experienced engineers on your team who would be willing to provide mentorship. If you do be sure to tell the candidate this.

For candidates who would need to relocate to the Bay Area, they may be frightened by the cost of living, which has both increased in dollars and frequency of press coverage. While this is ultimately a personal decision for the candidate I have been surprised by how often even engineers don't take an analytical approach to running the numbers to be sure what their actual cost of living would be. You can be proactive about this. Don't assume that when a candidate says they don't think they can afford to live in the Bay Area that they've run through the numbers. If you really want them to join then spend time helping them think through this. You can create a spreadsheet template with cost of living assumptions and work through this together with them to figure out what their real monthly income would be. We also wrote a blog post talking through the pros and cons in detail that you could share.

Feedback and Iterate

No company has a 100% offer acceptance rate and you will inevitably miss out on closing candidates you really wanted. That's an inevitable part of hiring and it sucks. Use every rejected offer as an opportunity to gather data on how you can improve your hiring process and pitch. Do a quick exit interview with each candidate and ask for feedback on why they made the decision and their general feedback on the quality of your hiring process. Review these regularly with your team and use them to iterate and improve your interviewing and closing process over time.

If you treat optimizing this process like you would optimizing your product you will see improved conversions and have more success hiring. Good luck!

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