How to Hire a Hacker in NYC

Hiring is hard.  So is dating.  When you’re talking hiring for startups, the two are actually pretty similar—because joining a super early stage startup is essentially like getting married.  You’re building a young team with a small amount of money.  Chances are neither of you has done this before—you’re making the rules as you go along, but you’re all hot and heavy to go at it (at least until the money runs dry, anyway). 

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that you hear similar complaints from people on both sides that there’s “nobody good out there”—either for dating or hiring for tech.  The reality just doesn’t reflect that.  I think the people who complain a lot about that situation don’t realize or want to admit that they’re either a) not putting in much effort or b) not better than the worst alternative.  Not every project or person is worth taking up someone’s time, to be honest.  Some people are just undateable and some projects just don’t interest a tech person.  It’s a game of musical chairs and the person left standing will usually place the blame on the system before looking it the mirror.

Everyday, lots of people fall in love and get married—even in big, unfriendly cities like New York.  They hire hackers, too.  The “trick” is that it just takes some time, the right mindset, and, most of all, a lot of hard work.  You can’t get away without that last one.  It sure seems easier for other couples or other cities, but you’re not seeing a lot of what goes on behind closed doors—literally.

The first thing you need to realize is how much time it takes, for both.  If you want to get married right now, or in the immediate future, you can.  You just go to eHarmony, fork over your cash, and boom, out pops someone self-selected to be looking for marriage.  It’s the same in the tech world.  There are lots of development shops out there who would be more than happy to build the tech for your startup.  Some of them are pretty fantastic, too.  It’s a simple transaction.  You pay them, out comes code.  Simple as that.  Like any hire or any date, though, sometimes things don’t come out so well with dev shops—and a lot of people are looking for something more.

If you actually want a real partnership—for code, love, or both (I’ve dated a number of women who can write code… it’s ridiculously awesome), then you’re going to need to put in a little more effort. 

Here are a few tips I learned from being out there in the market to hire developers, struggling at first, but then eventually learning how to successfully acquire talent in the end. 

#1  Maintain a great professional reputation.  If you’re a developer, you undoubted pinged a dozen times a day for your services.  If you’re not spending all day reading blogs, Twitter, and Techcrunch, you might not know who these people or startups are—so you’re probably going to forward them on to a few folks that you think seem to know everyone.  What are they going to say about you?  The more people that either a) know nothing about you or b) think perhaps you might not be such a great person to work for the more trouble you’ll have hiring.  You might be a great person once someone takes the time to get to know you, but people just don’t have the time for that.  Also, most people just don’t have time for a company with any kind of black mark on it.  Building good relationships with the right people, playing nice in the sandbox, that’s just like minimum to be able to hire—because it reflects on the kind of partner you’ll be.

#2 Work on a technically interesting project.  People knock developers who work on big Wall St. projects, but what they fail to realize is that many of them, because of their size and scale, are actually technically pretty interesting.  (Actually, I think the bigger wasted talent suck is Madison Avenue—because, really, does Diet Coke really need another flashy microsite that no one will care about after this “viral” campaign?)  In fact, I’ve seen lots of devs—especially the best ones—bend over backwards to work on cool stuff, taking way less pay, salary, etc.  I mean, they spend all sorts of pro-bono hours contributing to open source projects, right?  If you can’t get any of them to work on your startup for free, maybe it’s not that you can’t pay enough.

#3 Build up relationships beforehand.  When I hired Hilary Mason, I had an unfair advantage.  No, it wasn’t how good my angel investors were or how much I could afford to pay her.  It was more simple than that.  I knew her.  We weren’t best buds, but we knew each other enough that we were following each other’s progress on different things and building up a little rapport.  That goes a long way—and makes a big difference when compared to starting from scratch.  Entrepreneurs really underestimate how much it takes to motivate someone to change jobs.  You may think it’s easier to get people to do that in the Valley but there are other things at work.  For example, because the community is smaller and more tight knit, there’s an increased chance that you know someone at the company you’re moving to—or that it already has a good community reputation.  When someone jumps in NYC, it isn’t always obvious whether or not your startup has any trajectory, and sometimes people don’t know you even if you’re successful—so it’s a bigger jump.  So, if you just drop into the tech community out of nowhere, with a new startup, don’t expect everyone to jump on board right away.

#4 Look under every rock.  There are so many more hackers in NYC than just the ones who go to the NY Tech Meetup or who hangout on community listservs, etc.  When I went hiring, I went through hundreds of contacts on LinkedIn one by one, and wrote side e-mails to over a hundred.  “Is this person good?  Would you hire them, etc?”  It’s largely a function of how many people you put into the top of the funnel.  Have you interviewed 50 developers yet?  If not, then I don’t see how you can say there aren’t enough good hackers here.  You certainly wouldn’t give up on finding love if you hadn’t met 50 single people of the opposite sex over the course of your lifetime, right?  So many entrepreneurs have a myopic perspective—they feel like they’ve met everyone and gone after everyone who is “out there” when they probably haven’t met even 5% of the people coming online for a job search over the next three months.  They’re often too quick to judge a book by their cover, too.  Just because someone hasn’t worked at a startup before, or doesn’t know much about equity options doesn’t mean they aren’t startup hacker material.

#5 Spread the search outside of your city, even if you want to hire here.  NYC is an awesome place that people want to live in.  If you restrict your target to the 5 boroughs, you’re bound to miss out on people just waiting for the chance to jump to the Big Apple.  Trust me, they’re out there.  Find the right people who believe in your idea and convince them to come here.  If you can’t do that… not sure how you’ll ever drive your company to $10 million in revs.  That doesn’t even mean pulling people out of the Valley.  Tried RPI, Cornell, Boston, or DC yet?  Regional is a minimum area for an important search.