Did you write a Perfect Boyfriend/Girlfriend list as a kid? The biggest lesson from those was that perfect people don’t exist, but we can still build a fantastic relationship with someone who doesn’t tick all the boxes we imagined.
It’s not that different with hiring the first developer for your startup. It’s a tall order to find someone with financial expectations you can match, exact skills and experience you need, and whose vision aligns with yours. But just like with dating, you have a much better chance of success if you think about what you’re looking for in another person.
Good software developers come in many shapes and sizes. There are some common traits - technical excellence, empathy, ability to think in systems. However, they can be expressed in various ways, whether it comes to communication style, work habits, or methodological preferences.
If there’s only one lesson you will remember from this post, make it this one:
Not every great developer is a great first developer for a startup.
A fledgling startup is a very specific work environment. It’s risky, volatile, and lacks well-defined processes. While some will thrive in this setting, many - including incredibly skilled people - won’t cope well. So let’s make a list of qualities you should be looking for in the first developers to join your startup.
In an ideal world, there would be plenty of developers available to choose from. In practice, it’s a bit more complicated. We rarely meet the right person the moment we start looking. Sometimes patience is the name of the game. The perfect match won’t always be ready to jump ship overnight and it might take some courting to help them make up their mind. Even then, it’s only going to work if they’re ready to make a decision.
A talented developer might want to start part time (10-20 hours) as a side project before making the leap and quitting a secure, full-time, role. Don’t write them off immediately: sometimes that’s just enough. But ultimately, you’re not looking for a contractor. Be clear that you need someone who wants to go full-time sooner rather than later.
In general, passion for work is overrated. There’s an abundance of excellent specialists, in software and beyond, who want to come to work, do their job, clock out and not think about it until the next morning. But your first developer has to be excited about what you’re building. This isn’t about rejecting their work-life balance. You want them to have a healthy relationship with work, too. But at an early stage there is no spec, no user stories, no well-defined tasks. A huge part of their job will be filling in these blanks. The future of your product is riding on this so you want them bought in.
With little-to-no revenue and limited runway, you should offer a slice of equity rather than try to match the market rate on salary alone. As well as benefiting from lower outgoings, you’ll know that you’re not the only one planning to be around for the long-run. If someone accepts a smaller paycheck now to benefit from a big payout from equity later, they have the exact combination you’re looking for: an appetite for risk and commitment to the long game.
Specialism is a privilege of mature teams. The truth is, you might not know what you’re building yet yourself. Did you know YouTube started as a dating site and Android was going to be an operating system for cameras? It’s no use splitting hairs over mastery in PHP and Vue.js if you discover you should have been building a mobile app all along. If your first developer is a narrow specialist then you’re in for trouble if you need to pivot. Even at the cost of expertise in one domain, a Jack-of-all-trades that can hit the ground running with a new stack is your best bet.
“This isn’t my job” are forbidden words in early-stage startups. In your early-stage startup, everything is everyone’s job. One day you’re a full-time developer, the other the office has been flooded by a neighbour and you’re carrying buckets of water. In those days, there will be plenty of blockers from outside of your first hire’s job description. They need to be able to remove them and carry on.
Your first developer won’t have a project manager. Or any kind of manager, for that matter. Nor will they have anyone to mentor them, pair-program with, or ask for a code review. They will explore tools and solutions they never tried before. The bright side of being the only developer in the room is that they will learn a lot. It’s dark counterpart? They will often find themselves out of their depth with no lifeguard in sight. They need to be aware of, and comfortable with, that feeling.
Your original developer will build the backbone of your product and they will be the only person competent to make technical decisions that will set the course for potentially years to come. This puts the responsibility of explaining those decisions and their consequences on them. For this to be a fruitful partnership, they need to be able to provide you with context and walk you through their reasoning.
A startup adage says you should build the product, talk to the users, and nothing else. Since everything is everyone’s job, that means your original developer will spend plenty of time talking. This can mean solving the first batch of support tickets, helping you pitch a customer, or tagging along to an investor demo. You want to work with someone who is equally comfortable in a conference room as in their code editor of choice.
In startups, there is no prize for the most beautiful code or the best designed architecture. You will be throwing a lot of stuff at the wall to see what sticks. The only thing that matters is to put a product in front of potential users and then iterate, iterate, iterate. You’re looking for someone for whom done is better than perfect.
The first developer you hire will plant a seed. That seed will grow with your startup and eventually become your engineering culture. The way that person documents code, tracks bugs, and explains problems will trickle down through your future dev team, whether it ends up being three or 300 people. A knack for figuring out processes and culture will be crucial for them to succeed.
Now, don’t beat yourself up if you don’t find someone who ticks all those boxes. People with excellent technical acumen, appetite for risk, great communication skills, and experience designing engineering processes are usually happily employed and either have Director at the start of their title or Lead at the end. However, mapping the exact qualities you’re looking for in your first developer will give you a much clearer understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the candidates you talk to.