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Neo’s Ali Partovi on best practices for hiring early-stage startup engineers

‘It starts with having a deep passion for the idea yourself’

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Image Credits: Kilito Chan (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

On day one of TechCrunch’s Early Stage virtual conference, Ali Partovi joined us to discuss best practices for startups looking to hire engineers.

It’s a subject that’s near and dear to his heart: Partovi is co-founder and CEO of Neo, a venture aimed at including young engineers in a community alongside seasoned industry vets. The fund includes top executives from a slew of different industry titans, including Amazon, Airbnb, Dropbox, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Stripe.

Partovi is probably best known in the Valley for co-founding Code.org with twin brother, Hadi. The nonprofit launched in 2013 with a high-profile video featuring Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Jack Dorsey, along with a mission to make coding education more accessible to the masses.

It was a two-summer internship at Microsoft while studying at Harvard that gave Partovi an entrée into the world of tech. And while it was clearly a formative experience for the college student, he advises against prospective startup founders looking to large corporations as career launch pads.

“I spend a lot of time mentoring college students, that’s a big part of what I do at Neo,” Partovi said.

“And for anyone who wants to be a founder of a company, there’s a spectrum, from giant companies like Microsoft or Google to early-stage startups. And I would say, find the smallest point on that spectrum that you’re comfortable with, and start your career there. Maybe that’s a 100-person company or maybe for you, it’s a 500-person company. But if you start at Microsoft, it’ll be a long time before you feel comfortable doing your own startup. The skills you gain at a giant company are very valuable for getting promoted and succeeding in giant companies. They’re not often as translatable to being your own founder.”

Working within a corporate structure, Partovi explains, largely teaches one skills for working within a corporate structure. It’s a fair point. Launching a startup, after all, requires one to be nimble and willing to change approaches or even pivot to stay ahead of consumer demand and other market forces. These are not words we associate with even the most forward-thinking corporations.

“People often say before you start your own company, you should get experience. And while I agree with that, not all experience is relevant,” Partovi says. “I, myself, joined a really big software company straight out of college, because I thought I wanted to get experience first before starting my first startup. Not a single person that I met there was somebody that came to my startup with me, and I’m not sure I really learned too much there that was relevant. If you work in a company with great engineers, in a company that’s rapidly growing and known for being a recruiting powerhouse, you will, when you leave there, hopefully be able to have identified people who you want to work with.”

The issue, Partovi contends, also extends to early hiring practices. In certain respects it can be difficult for small startups to compete with the perks of massive companies like Google and Apple. Those are, after all, extremely compelling offers for a newly graduated engineer looking for a sense of security — and a sufficiently stocked cafeteria — during this era of seemingly endless economic downturns. But Partovi believes that those might not be the right candidates to be pursuing in the first place.

“If somebody is more excited about the perks of working at Google, they’re probably not the person you want anyway,” he says. “I wouldn’t try to compete on that dimension at all. The type of person you want is someone who is going to be from the beginning a missionary and ideologue. Someone who believes so deeply in what you’re doing that they would sacrifice things to pursue it. It starts with having a deep passion for the idea yourself. And if you have that, and if you’re able to show a vision and show, not just kind of here’s what we’re doing today but here’s the world we’re creating.”

That sort of enthusiasm is precisely what it’s all about. If you’re going to succeed in the cutthroat world of startups, you need to find individuals who believe in the mission as much as yourself and co-founders.

“A sense of passion and ownership for the project, for the mission, is really important,” says Partovi. “You know, you don’t want it to be like, the founder is the one who loves the project. And this engineer is just somebody that is working hourly, that we told her or him what to build and they’re building it. It’s not like a construction worker or, you know, an electrician. You want to have someone who shares at the same level as yourself. A deep sense of caring for what you’re creating.”

And equally important to the mission, he adds, is treating these early hires as partners on your journey. “If you start thinking, ‘this is my idea, and then I hire these underlings who are the coders who will do that work for hire,’ you’re not acknowledging how important it is in the creative process for the actual engineer to feel ownership to have input,” he adds.

“Maybe they morph your idea significantly because they realize, hey, you know, this could be done a different way. Computer science and computer programming has elements of pattern matching and predicting the future and you know, systems that are actually quite relevant to business decisions. And I’d say it’s important to have somebody on your founding team that you treat as a real partner, who is technically strong.”

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