Hiring Great Engineers: Kleiner Perkins’ Mike Abbott Explains How

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Editor’s note: Derek Andersen is the founder of Startup Grind, a 35-city event series hosted in 15-countries that educates, inspires, and connects entrepreneurs. He also founded Commonred (acquired by Income.com) and is ex-Electronic Arts.

I spoke with a robotics engineer and PHD from Stanford this week about looking for a job. He’s not the type of guy that easily joins your startup but he described two recent attempts. One was an email from a recruiter that as he described used “plenty of buzz words”, while another email came from an engineering team lead on the special projects group. Can you guess who he went to meet with and who he didn’t? When interviewing Kleiner Perkins Partner Mike Abbott at a recent Startup Grind event in Mountain View, this is one of the critical elements that Mike points out when it comes to hiring the best engineers. Engineers close engineers.

Mike has plenty of experience, having taken Twitter’s engineering team from 80 to 350 in 18 months and building the team that engineered WebOS at Palm. Hard to find many people who have been directly responsible for hiring as many software engineers in the last five years. Here are a few of the top strategies and insights pulled from Mike on how to get great engineers to join your startup. Some insights are edited for length.

Getting Coffee Is The First Win

“For that first reach out, the goal, the win, is just getting that coffee. I think you should always pay, I mean they’re doing you a favor and if you give me your time I really appreciate that. The other recommendation is to not do that meeting at your office. There’s something about making it more informal that people are more willing to go with and this is particularly important for various senior hires. Now I say this but at the same time I’m saying it’s not that you don’t need recruiters. Recruiters are very helpful to fill the top part of that pipeline to help manage that process so it’s a good experience for the candidate and it gives the candidate another person for he or she to talk to. Especially when you’re negotiating or competing with other companies, which is often times the case.”

Create Internal Competitions For Leads and Referrals

“This is something that we really tried to focus on, how are you going to recruit? You make a competition. How many names can you get on a board from LinkedIn? How many names can you get on from GitHub? Especially if they’re on a certain open source project, how do we think through who is the right person to go reach out to that engineer?”

Even If You’re Small, Don’t Hire Just Anyone

“There are a lot of considerations when you’re under 10 people. You always want to get the best engineer. As a percentage when you’re two people every person has such a large percentage and I would argue that most cultures in companies are set after the tenth employee and then you can very slightly change those, but for the most part you’re pretty set in terms of, is this an engineering centric or design centric company or where you sit in that area of gravity. So you have to be thoughtful about that so it’s not a common saying you lowered your bar, but think about who you’re hiring for. For example you know you can find great self-taught computer scientists that maybe are not far along in their career, but are so ambitious they are willing to sacrifice so much to get your company going. That’s awesome and you know maybe they didn’t do the best on the mobile sort problem or whatever, but you’re willing to take that bet and I think you have to have a balance and be pragmatic about it too.”

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YDBZsDM50M0]

Make Sure The Interview Process Is Very Difficult

“If it’s easy or perceived as easy by an engineer he or she will not want to join your company because they’ll say, ‘Wait a second if this is the interview, I don’t know if anyone here is the caliber of engineer that I actually want to work with.'”

Create A Questions List For Your Company

“Not everyone has as much experience interviewing as other people. If you hire 300 engineers and on average you talk to 30 people for every person you hire, that’s 900 people that’s a lot of interviews and you know we had a lot of folks (at Twitter) that had never done that many interviews. So how do you train people to interview? Do we do pair interviews and at least having a common list of questions you ensure that there is a degree of consistency. ‘A’ that the same question wasn’t asked every candidate, and ‘B’ how do you actually train up people to go hire? That was something that we still could probably still do a better job at but it was something that we thought about.”

Engineers Close Engineers

“An engineer pulls another engineer out of a company. I mean look, in this day any great engineer is very gainfully employed it’s unlikely they’re looking (for a job). So let’s look at two different email scenarios. You get an email from Joey recruiter — hey maybe they spelled your name wrong or right, best job ever. Or you get an email from the woman engineer saying, “Hey I’m working on some really great projects let’s go grab some coffee.” I think in those two scenarios most people say, “I’ll listen, this sounds interesting.” Step back and think what does an engineer really want? It’s I want to work on tough problems, I want to work around great engineers, and I want them to have an impact around me. You get those three things, everything else kind of falls in place.”
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hZUqMXhZuzI]

Focus On Experience Candidates  Can Achieve To Succeed Down The Road

“One of the questions I had asked is, “What do you want to do after Twitter?” People go, “Huh?” “What do you want to do after Twitter?” “Oh I want to go start a company.” “Okay, let me walk through with you different things or experiences that you might be able to do here at Twitter to learn to go increase your probability of succeeding when you go do that.” I always found that a really helpful exercise and I think it helped the candidate too because then it’s like oh — and it’s not that I want that person to go join Twitter and then leave immediately, but let’s face it, everyone is going to leave. And like I’ve told every team I’ve ever lead, the strength of this Valley is the people in this room, it’s the network and it’s not any particular company.”

Acqui-Hires Can Work But Be Careful

“Acqui-hires can work as long as the team is really small. Ideally they physically co-locate wherever the mothership is. The best sized team is probably five or less. It just gets hard because getting that group assimilated to the other culture and over time tearing that group of five apart because you really want them part of the collective larger team than that smaller team. I’m sure that if you talk to a number of those acqui-hires (at Twitter) there will be a certain set of companies that say it was a complete disaster and there will be another set that says it was awesome. One of the worst things is when someone tells you what you want to hear but secretly they want to finish this other project over here that they didn’t finish at their startup that didn’t work out. That can happen, and that’s something that’s important for both sides because that will usually never end up well.”
Please add any other helpful tips you’ve come across in the comments.